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The Secret Life Of Baboons

Husband and wife team Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth spent a year in Botswana studying the behavior, vocalizations and social organization of baboons for their book Baboon Metaphysics.

21:14

Other segments from the episode on December 5, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 5, 2008: Interview with Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth; Review of James Moody's new Jazz album "Our delight;" Interview with Anthony Anderson; Review of the…

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The Secret Life Of Baboons

DAVE DAVIES, host.

This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News filling in for Terry Gross. Our guests on today's show want to know what baboons have to say each to other and what's going in their minds as they scream, grunt, and wahoo. They recorded vocalizations of wild baboons and analyzed what they communicate. That's the subject of their book "Baboon Metaphysics" which is now out in paperback. Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth are a husband and wife team who've studied baboons in Botswana since 1992. They both teach at the University of Pennsylvania where Cheney is a professor of biology and Seyfarth, a professor of psychology. They spoke with Terry Gross last year. By listening to baboons, they're learning about the rules of the game in baboon society.

Professor DOROTHY CHENEY (Biology, University of Pennsylvania; Author, "Baboon Metaphysics"): One of the things that's been intriguing to us about baboons is that they live in these very complex societies that are composed of multiple family lines, individuals of varying degrees of competitive ability, and dominance ranks, and so on. They seem to know a huge amount about each other's social relationships and each other's dominance ranks. So that social complexity, on the surface anyway, appears to be very similar to that of a very complex human society, and yet they're not humans. So the question is what differentiates us from them, and what sort of selective pressures might have gotten us from an organism that looks like a baboon to an organism that looks like us.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Well, let's listen to some of the vocalizations that you've recorded of baboons, because these are just amazing to listen to. And we're going to start with grunts. We're going to hear six different baboons back-to-back with the basic grunt sound. So what should we be listening for?

Professor ROBERT SEYFARTH (Psychology, University of Pennsylvania; Author, "Baboon Metaphysics"): Well, as you go through this tape you're going to hear the calls of six females. Each one of them gives two grunts. And you'll notice that the grunts of any one female - the two that she gives - sound alike, but they sound very different from the next animal who's different from the next animal and so on. So that you can easily imagine that if you were a baboon living all your life with these different individuals, you very quickly learn to recognize, oh, that's Helen. Oh, that's Sylvia, and so on.

GROSS: OK. So here it is - six female baboons back-to-back grunting.

(Soundbite of baboons grunting)

GROSS: Now, were they all recorded together at the same time? Is that a conversation we heard?

Prof. CHENEY: No, not in this particular case. But you could easily have a conversation like that because a typical social interaction might involve a female walking up to another who has an infant grunting, and that female with an infant grunting back. So you do get these kinds of vocal exchanges. And the vocal exchanges are actually most common when animals are embarking on a potentially dangerous move through deep water, for example. And they're given almost as a sort of exchange to a kind of negotiate. Are we really going here or not? Are you keeping an eye on me or not? I mean, that's an anthropomorphism. But there are sort of looks exchanged between animals as they give these grunts. It's as if they're checking to see what each other's intentions and motivations are.

GROSS: We have a scream we're going to hear, a baboon's scream. When do baboons scream?

Prof. CHENEY: Well they scream when they're involved in a fight, and typically the screams are given by a lower-ranking animal to a higher-ranking animal. I should have added earlier that when we're talking about rank in adult females, rank is not determined by size or age. It's determined entirely by who your mother is. And so when you're looking at a dominance hierarchy of females, there could be 26 females ranked in a hierarchy where female one can supplant or cause to move away female two and female two can cause three to move away and so on down the line. What you're really looking at is groups and clusters of families where females one through four could be mother, daughter, and sister. And then female five belongs to an entirely different family so that a lot of these fights and altercations and kind of negotiations that I was talking about involve not just individuals but entire families.

GROSS: Well, let's hear a baboon scream.

(Soundbite of baboons screaming)

GROSS: Now that really sounded like a bird to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you hear that a lot when you're out in the wild with the baboons? Do...

Prof. SEYFARTH: You do, and what you often hear is you hear a sequence of calls. Say from over somewhere behind a bush you hear one animal giving a threat grunt to another animal, and the other animal is screaming. And this is what baboons hear all the time. And this is what we wonder, what do they know? What sort of information do they get when they hear these calls? And the interesting thing is that you can use these sequences to show that the baboons know something about each other's ranks. So if we take - from our library of calls - the threat grunt of a high-ranking female and play it followed by the scream of a low-ranking female.

So let's say Sylvia is a high-ranking female and Hannah is a middle-ranking female. We play Sylvia's threat grunt and Hannah's scream. Then that's the sort of thing that happens all the time. And animals don't usually respond, but if we dig into our library and get two different calls, Hannah's threat grunt and Sylvia's scream, and we put them together in a sequence, and we play that the animals will look toward the speaker and try to figure out what is going on. They have a very strong response, because that sequence suggests that Hannah is threatening Sylvia who we all know to be higher ranking, and this violates their existing knowledge. Baboons respond with surprise to anything that signals that the dominance order isn't exactly what we know it to be which suggests that they really understand the rank relations that exist among others.

GROSS: So, you have these hidden speakers in the wild, and you play back baboon sounds for the baboons to see how they respond?

Prof. CHENEY: Exactly.

GROSS: Pretty interesting. Well, let's get to another baboon sound, and this is what you describe as wahoos. Do you want to describe what wahoos are?

Prof. SEYHARTH: Well, in baboon society, as Dorothy said, the females are born and they live in the same group throughout their lives, and they live in this hierarchy of matrilineal families where the mothers and their sisters and daughters all retain really tight relationships with each other - lots of grooming, support, and alliance and so on. When males get to be fully adult size sometime around seven or eight years old, they leave the group where they were born, and they go often miles away and join another group where they have to fight their way to the top of the male dominance hierarchy.

But as in so many animals, there's a lot more displaying and posturing than there is actual fighting. And one of the real clear cut and obvious displays that male baboons give to each other is this wahoo call. It's one of the loudest calls that any terrestrial animal makes, and males make it in sort of contest where one male will start wahooing, and the other will respond, and then the males will run up into trees and leap from branch to branch while giving these wahoos.

GROSS: And they're just kind of showing off.

Prof. SEYFARTH: They're showing off and...

GROSS: For each other.

Prof. CHENEY: And they're showing off, but also these are not just displays of complete bravado because in order to sustain this very loud rapid calling rate as you're racing through the trees, you have to have pretty good stamina. And so males seem to use these sorts of displays to display and also to assess each other's stamina and competitive ability, so that they actually serve a function that allow males to assess whether or not they want to escalate the display into a real physical fight.

GROSS: Let's hear a sequence of three different baboons doing wahoos.

(Soundbite of baboons wahooing)

Prof. CHENEY: So these are very loud when you're actually in the wild with them.

Prof. SEYFARTH: Yeah, they're really loud. And you notice that there is that sort of wa-hoo, and it's a sort of two-part call. And if - as Dorothy says, the calls are kind of a contest to see who's the most powerful. Who can wahoo the loudest, the longest, the fastest, and still not be out of breath.

GROSS: Now, you refer to the importance of rank in baboon society. And there's also calls for low and high-ranking males that you've recorded. Would you explain what we're about to hear with these calls?

Mr. SEYFARTH: Well, what you're going to hear is a wahoo from a high-ranking male, and he's high ranking so right now, he's at the top of the hierarchy, and he's in great physical shape and everyone if deferring to him. And contrast that with wahoo of a low ranking make who's at the bottom of the hierarchy. He may be very old. He may be wounded. He's in not so good shape. And listen to the different wahoos, and you can really hear the difference between one, the high-ranking male that really is powerful and has a long hoo, and the other one that's pretty pathetic, really.

GROSS: Here we go.

(Soundbite of a high-ranking baboon wahooing)

(Soundbite of a low-ranking baboon wahooing)

Mr. SEYFARTH: So, when you hear the first one, wahoo, and then the second one, the hoo is completely gone, wa. And that's the best that that low-ranking male can do. And it sounds much less impressive than the high-ranking males.

DAVIES: Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney, authors of the book, "Baboon Metaphysics." More after a break, this is Fresh Air. Our guests are Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth. They've been studying wild baboons in Botswana since 1992. Their latest book is called "Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind." Terry spoke to them last year.

GROSS: In addition to studying baboon vocalization, baboon language, one of the things that you've been doing in the wild is collecting baboon feces. What can you learn by analyzing their feces?

Ms. CHENEY: One of things that's been really interesting about the developments in poop - I guess you would call it - is that it's now possible to extract hormones from fecal samples. And as a result, you can - in our particular case, what we're looking at is a stress hormones, glucocorticoids, and one of the beauties of a poop samples is, of course, you can gather a fecal sample without actually stressing the animal by capturing it or having to draw its blood.

And so, one of the things these fecal samples do is they allow us to measure stress, and it gives us - in a sense, we can interview the animal almost by asking her what's causing you stress? How do you alleviate stress? And so, it's a wonderful tool that allows us to, actually, delve more deeply into the baboon social structure and look at how animals deal with the many challenges that they face in their environment, including predation, infanticide, rank upheavals, and so on.

GROSS: And so, what does stress out baboons?

Mr. SEYFARTH: Well, there are three things that are really important for both females and males. And the first is predation. There are months in which lions attack baboon or leopards attack, and the collection of these thousands of poop samples from 22 females over several years has shown us that in months when there are predator attacks, everyone's glucocorticoid levels are higher. So, they're under a little bit more stress. It would appear. If a female is taken by a predator of course, everyone's glucocorticoid levels go up. But the individuals whose glucocorticoid levels go up the greatest are the victim's relatives, the members of her matrilineal family or her closest grooming partners.

GROSS: Well, that's interesting because it shows that family matters, that there's a special connection between family members in a baboon world?

Mr. SEYFARTH: It is and collecting these fecal samples tells us something that we wouldn't otherwise know. I mean everybody looks like they're under stress after a lion attack, but the fecal samples, the glucocorticoid tell us that really under stress are the relatives of the victim. But then, of course, in the next few weeks and months, animals' glucocorticoid levels go back to baseline, and we were interested to see how these is achieved, and the females who a lose a close relative or close grooming partner who have their sort of network of friendships disrupted, they show an interesting pattern.

They increase the number of other females that they groom with. As if they're seeking out new friends to reestablish a nice tight grooming network. And that's interesting because the same sort of thing happens when the females are faced with the potential of infanticide. When a new male comes in he often tries to kill the small infants of females in the group at a time. And the females respond by forming a tight bond with another one of the males in the group kind of friendship. And the females who are able to do that, their glucocorticoid levels don't go up as much as everyone else does who doesn't form a friendship.

GROSS: You use the word, infanticide, why do new males in a group try to kill the infants?

Ms CHENEY: Well, from a male's perspective, an immigrant male's perspective, it makes a lot of sense. In baboon society, all females breed regardless of their relative ranks, but that's not true of males. The males who achieve the most matings are the - is a dominant male, the alpha male, and the other males really don't do so well. The problem is, there's such a high turnover in the alpha male position that a male can only expect to be alpha male for about six or seven months - maybe up to a year at most. So, a male coming in to a group faces a dilemma. There are all these infants in the group.

Mothers are not going to start cycling again or become sexually receptive until those infants are weaned. Typically an infant is nursing for over a year, and pregnancy lasts for 6 months. So the chances that a male will be able to retain his alpha position for long enough before these females become sexually receptive again is very small. So from a male's perspective, coming in and trying to kill the infants of lactating females makes sense. After all, these are not his infants. And if these infants are killed then the female resumes sexual cycling soon. From the female's perspective, this represents a significant loss in her reproductive success, so of course they resist it.

GROSS: So, does the new alpha baboon want access to like every female baboon? I mean, it's not enough that some of them are already accessible. He has to kill the babies of the mothers who are lactating?

Ms. CHENEY: In the sense, yes. If a male comes into a group, there may not be that many cycling females present in the group. The odd thing when you look at a group of baboons like this is you can see this new male come in, and he becomes - he's infanticideal - you know, you can't help but as an observer respond negatively to this because - horrible thing to observe. For a while you go through this period where you absolutely hate the male even though you're supposed to remain objective.

But what's interesting is that once the female he's mated with become pregnant, and they produce offspring of their own, he becomes a doting dad. He protects these infants. He carries them. He lets them jump on his head and so on. And so in some cases, these males who are alpha almost cede their position after they've produced some offspring of their own. They don't necessarily willingly give up the alpha position. But they are now - their efforts are devoted more to protecting their current infants than to fathering additional ones.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth, and they're the authors of the book, "Baboon Metaphysics." They've studied baboons in the wild for years, and they've been married for about 30 years. They're also both professors are the University of Pennsylvania. The baboons can climb up into trees and take shelter there. Have there been situations in which you've had to hide from lions or tigers or any other animals of prey?

Mr. SEYFARTH: Everyone has at least one close-call story, and my close call story was not watching the baboons, but when I was driving through the National Park to the nearest town for supplies, and I got stuck in enormously deep rut that I couldn't jack my car out of. So I had to walk back to the nearest ranger post, and I walked in to a group of seven lions. And you're always told do not run. If you run, a lion is like a sort of cat with the ball of yarn. It'll go for you, and you won't win. And so, I moved as quickly at a walk as I could, about 15 meters to the nearest tree. And I climbed up the tree, and I was very glad that the tree at that time had knobs and little, you know, things that supported my feet.

And I thought, as I was going up, and I had these lions growling behind me, gee, this is just like climbing a ladder. It's great. And I made it up to the first branch which is about 11 feet off the ground, and then I knew I was OK. And hours later, the lions finally went away, and I got help and about a week later we all went out and decided we would visit this tree and take some photographs and have a picnic. And it turns out that these little knobs and branches that provided me with foot holes were only about a 32nd of an inch above the surface. They provided no support, whatsoever. No one could climb the tree. Everyone all fell down. So, I guess, that's the beauty of adrenaline.

GROSS: I know you try to keep like emotional distance from the baboons and not influence their behavior or become too emotionally attached to them. Nevertheless, have you become very emotionally attached to them, and you do see them as beautiful animals?

Mr. SEYFARTH: Yes. And as animals with - each one of them with a unique personality.

Ms. CHENEY: Recently, the oldest female in the group, Sylvia, died. And she was over 25 years old, and she was a real curmudgeon. And when we used to do these experiments that we did on looking at reconciliation, Sylvia never reconciled. She was the second-ranking animal in the group, and her attitude seemed to be, you know, I should be first ranking, and I'm not just not happy about my life in general and neither will you be as long as I'm around. And so she would cut the swath throughout the group and sort of beat up animals and so on.

As she aged, she became a little bit more mellow. And she had a very close relationship with her only surviving daughter. And in a sense, that was the animal that she groomed with the most. And most of the other animals in the group, anthropomorphizing for a moment, really didn't want to be near Silvia, because she was such a nasty individual. And then this daughter was killed by a lion. And Sylvia's stress levels, of course, or glucocorticoid levels went very, very high and she went - she embarked on a kind of grooming campaign to try to identify a new grooming partner. Nobody would have her. Every time anybody - she approach anybody, animals would run away from her. And so she spent the last few years of her life pretty lonely. And then this past May, at the age of 25, she was seriously injured by a leopard. And she spent weeks off on her own, trying to recuperate and finally did.

During this time, some of the low-ranking animals began to try to challenge her and try, you know, oust her from a relatively high-ranking position at which point, her sister - who otherwise hadn't been paying attention to her for years - supported her and reestablished her bond and refused to let her be fallen rank and so on. So, we all have a great attachment to Sylvia, and when she recently died, I was emailing all of our, former post docs and everybody wrote back saying, oh, Sylvia. One of the interesting things about these animals is that, you don't try to anthropomorphize, but everybody kind of agrees on different individual's personality. So, what's interesting at these personalities has really emerged consistently.

GROSS: I want to thank both of you so much for talking with us about your work. Thank you.

Mr. SEYFARTH: You're welcome.

Ms: CHENEY: Thank you.

DAVIES: Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth are the authors of "Baboon Metaphysics." They're both professors at the University of Pennsylvania. Terry spoke to them last year. I’m Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.
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Moody And Jones' Jazz Reunion Is A "Delight"

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. The pianist on the first recording that saxophonist, James Moody ever played on in 1947 was Hank Jones. That was on a date with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Moody and Jones have crossed paths a few times since working with Dizzy or Lionel Hampton, or playing Tad Dameron's music with vibest Milt Jackson. Now Moody and Jones have a new record together. But jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says, the saxophonist steals the show.

(Soundbite of music)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Tenor saxophonist James Moody sounding suave as stand gets song, "Con Alma." Moody is a terrific saxophonist a distinct a flutist and sometimes a whimsical singer. But for some reason, his considerable charms don't always translate to records. Happily, a new album is an exception. His warmth and grace come through in improvised lines that unfold like a logical argument. Except, they swing more.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Tad Dameron's tune, "Our Delight." That's also the name of the album James Moody co-leads with Hank Jones though, it's obviously Moody's show. Bassist Todd Coolman and Drummer Adam Nussbaum are Moody regulars. The repertoire is familiar but strong. Half the tunes are by bebop composers Tad Dameron and Dizzy Gillespie, Moody's boss off and on for decades. The album was recorded a couple of years ago when James Moody was 81, and Hank Jones was 87. You can hear them skip a couple of notes in a fast phrase once in awhile, but they're not coasting. Hank Jones on piano.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: When people go on about the golden virtues of jazz, elegances of expression, a burnished and beautiful tone and improvisers accumulated wisdom applied the blues and ballads and bop, this is the sort of music they're talking about. The only misstep on the album is comical. Jimmy Heath's salute to James Moody is gamely song by Italy's Roberta Gambarini.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ROBERTA GAMBARINI (Italian Singer): (Singing) Brings much joy and beauty, that's Moody. The style in his art make you smile from the start then brightens up your day when he sings, and when he plays.

WHITEHEAD: The better changes up are two numbers where Moody trades in saxophone for flute, an instrument he helped to established in jazz. His sound is unabashedly wispy. But he makes that breathiness very expressive, and he can really move. His tone is oddly like a speaking voice too.

(Soundbite of song "Old Folks")

WHITEHEAD: The tune is 1938's "Old Folks," whose lyric describes a veteran campaigner casting his mind back on a long-gone glory days. James Moody's playing makes a mockery of that subtext. Lately, jazz has been favored with the number of musicians in their 80's and even 90's who can still play the game. But then, improvising for a living, solving musical problems every day, is a good way to keep the mind and the fingers sharp.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead reviewed "Our Delight" by James Moody and Hank Jones on the IPO label.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Coming up, actor Anthony Anderson from "Law & Order" tells us about learning to play gang bangers and tough cops. This is Fresh Air.
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For Anderson, The Art Of The Good — And The Bad

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Our guest actor, Anthony Anderson, plays detective Kevin Bernard on the NBC series "Law & Order," where he lays down the law for perps and callers.

(Soundbite of TV Show "Law and Order")

Mr. ANTHONY ANDERSON: (as Detective Kevin Bernard) Sit down. Sit down. Let me tell you how this is going to go down. We gonna lean on your crew until somebody give somebody up - anybody. We don't care. Just as long as we got a body to stand before the judge. You dig?

DAVIES: If he sounds tough as a cop, that won't surprise anyone who remembers Anderson from the FX series "The Shield," where he played Antwon Mitchell, a brutal gang banger and heroine dealer. He made the transition from criminal to cop when he joined the Fox series "K-Ville," where he played a police officer in New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina.

Anderson has played dramatic roles in the films "Hustle and Flow", "Transformers", and "The Departed." And he's appeared in the comedies "Me, Myself & Irene", "Barbershop" and "Malibu's Most Wanted." Terry Gross spoke to Anderson last year, and he described preparing for his role in K-Ville by tagging along with the New Orleans' SWAT team on a drug raid.

Mr. ANDERSON (Actor): It was one a.m. We got a call that, you know, this was a narcotics house. And so, the SWAT rolls there. They secure the perimeter, and they moved in. And it actually just happened to be a crack den. So, they pull out 11 addicts. Handcuff them to one another round the Suburban. You know, they're all tweaking. And one guy looks over, and I know he's really tweaking now because he's looking at me. He's like, oh, oh, damn, that's Kangaroo Jack. That's Kangaroo Jack! Oh man! You done made my night. You made my night!!

And I was like brother, you are handcuffed to 10 other crackheads surrounded by SWAT with assault rifles about to go down. And you're telling me, you want my autograph, and I've made your night? He was like, oh yeah man, yeah. And I was like OK, OK. So that was, that was one of the lighter moments of rolling around with SWAT.

TERRY GROSS, host:

What was it like for you going from like a really cold, mean character on "The Shield"? You know, you're not only a heroine dealer - big heroine dealer, but you're the head of this really violent gang in LA.

Mr. ANDERSON: Uh huh.

GROSS: You were on "The Shield." So what was it like going from being a character like that who's always at odds with the police to being a cop on "K-Ville"?

Mr. ANDERSON: You know, I loved it. I love the dichotomy of it. Being on one extreme and taking it to the other. Both characters are similar in my opinion. I mean, you know, Antwon Mitchell felt this is the hand that he was dealt, and he played it as best he could. Yeah, he was a heroine dealer, and you know, the head of this gang, this cartel or whatever you want to call it, but he was also doing great things in the community. You know, building community centers and bringing computers into these community centers as for inter-city youth for them to, you know, better themselves. And not - he didn't really preach not necessarily follow him in his footsteps, but you know, this is was his way of giving back. This was his atonement for - I believe for what you know he was doing in the neighborhood.

GROSS: And your description of Antwon, I don't think you sufficiently gave a credit for how like, violent and just really cold he is when he feels that somebody is this enemy and to demonstrate that. I want to play a scene from "The Shield."

Mr. ANDERSON: OK.

GROSS: So, here is Antwon Mitchell. You had a gang called the, One Niners. And you been dealing tar heroine. You've made a deal with the cop named Shane and his partner.

Mr. ANDERSON: Uh huh.

GROSS: These cops are getting a take of your money in return for protecting you. But a big stash that you were hiding in a church was busted and you think that Shane informed on you. And now you intend on letting him know, that you're the one who has the power. So, Shane speaks first he's played by Walton Goggins.

(Soundbite of TV Show "The Shield")

Mr. WALTON GOGGINS: (As Shane Vendrell) Look, they may have grab your (beep) but the investigation is sealed off. No roads lead back to you. Just say thank you, Antwon.

Mr. ANDERSON: (As Antwon Mitchell) Do you know how much you cost me today huh? In product and in manpower, do you?

Mr. GOGGINS: (As Shane Vendrell) If you have you kept me in the loop on your tar castle then maybe I could have kept an eye out for you homie?

(Soundbite of people fighting)

Mr. ANDERSON: (As Antwon Mitchell) Grab his piece! Grab his piece. Give me both their guns. I don't get played , and I ain't your homie.

Mr. GOGGINS: (As Shane Vendrell) Oh, man. You're going to get...

Mr. ANDERSON: (As Antwon Mitchell) Shut up (beep). You knew they were taking down my (beep). So how you try to tell me now there was nothing that you could do, huh? You think you was ever making rules around here?

Mr. GOGGINS: You're not stupid enough to bring that kind of heat down on your ass.

GROSS: That's my guest Anthony Anderson and Walton Goggins in a scene from "The Shield." And I should mention to our listeners that you're not actually meeting out the blows in this. You're not the one beating up the two cops, your boys are doing that. But you're watching and directing them as they do it. What did you do to play somebody like this? What did you get in touch in yourself, or what did you remember from people who you might have known in the past?

Mr. ANDERSON: That's exactly what I did. You know, I'm from Compton, California, grew up in the intercity and knew characters like Antwon Mitchell who basically did what he did. They were running the streets, but yet they saw it in themselves to mentor to kids like me. And it was like, you know what, Anthony you shouldn't be out here doing this. And because I'm telling you that this is what I'm going to help the neighborhood do. You know, they setup programs in the city parks. They setup community centers. I knew Antwon Mitchells, you know.

So I pulled on that, you know, an actor who I've met, never had a chance to work with Idris Elba. I liked what he did with his character Stringer Bell on "The Wire," and I just looked at how he worked and how he maneuvered as that character and took bits and pieces from that and just married it with, you know, my own ideas. And you know, I tried to you know humanize him as much as I could, you know, given the situations and who he is and what he did. But you know, what he did it was just par for the course. But he was - he was a bad man. Antwon Mitchell was a bad man.

GROSS: So you said that you knew people like him, and who try to like mentor some of the young people in the community. So what was your relationship with one of the people who you would compare to Antwon?

Mr. ANDERSON: You know, these were - you know, these were just you know, older kids and older men in our neighborhood you know, that we grew up who may have been five 10 years our senior. And you know, you can decide to go left or decide to go right at an early age you know, for good or bad. You know, my mother and father instilled to me what right and wrong was, and I know what path I didn't want to go down, because ultimately I knew it could only end me up behind bars or six feet under. And that's not that route I wanted to take, because all of that would happen at a very early age.

And you know, guys like Antwon Mitchell knew who the weak or the strong in the neighborhood were. And they were like, OK, look you're not built for this. You know, this isn't the life for you. You know, they admired and respected me because I've always wanted to be an actor since I was nine years old. This was my dream. So around the neighborhood, I was the actor to them. So you know, they did everything that they possibly could to help pursue my dream.

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. ANDERSON: You know, donating to the theaters that I was a part of. You know, making sure that I got to rehearsals or had a way to get home late night, you know, when I was rehearsing plays and things like that, coming out and supporting me at events. I went to the high school for the performing arts. They would come out to my performances. You know, because they wanted to be a part of something that was good and pure from where they came from. That's what I believed.

So you know, they would see that and when they'd go back to the hood doing what they did and had smile on their face. And they were like man, you should have seen the actor this weekend. You should have seen him in this scene. You should have seen him in that commercial. So now, when they see me on television or in films, you know, they feel a part of that regardless of where they are right now.

GROSS: So you're still in touch with them, and regardless of where there are sounds like of them are in prison.

Mr. ANDERSON: Oh, yeah they are. They are.

GROSS: But you're still in touch.

Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. That's where I am from. It's who I am. I can't disconnect myself from my life - from where I was born and raise and bred as a young man. It's part of my make-up. It's what makes me who I am. So, I can't just cut off my left arm, because you know, I don't use it as often as I use to.

GROSS: You did a lot of comedies before you played the heavy in The Shield and one of those comedies that you co-starred was called "Malibu's Most Wanted." And, I want to play a scene from that. Jamie Kennedy plays a white and very privileged son of a politician in Malibu whose running for the governor of California. And the son really wants to be like a black rapper. And he wants to help his father by doing raps to take the father's message to the streets, but he has become a real embarrassment to the campaign.

So just to discourage him from continuing to do this hip-hop stuff, the campaign decides to hire a couple of young black actors to pose as gangsters and then carjack and kidnapped the son until the son gets, as they put it," scared white", and kind of gets scared into realizing that he's this white-privileged kid from Malibu. So you and Taye Diggs are the two young actors who take the job. And in this scene, you are sitting in your living room chair directing Taye Diggs in how to sound gangsta' as he rehearses.

(Soundbite of movie "Malibu's Most Wanted")

Mr. TAYE DIGGS: (As Sean) Give me a ride, punk, or I will dust your ass.

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) Nope. Not convincing.

Mr. DIGGS: (As Sean) Damn it!

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) Find your core character, Sean. You are an oppressed black man from the ghetto.

Mr. DIGGS: (As Sean): Yeah. I am having trouble finding this one, man.

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) Hey. Think Tupac.

Mr .DIGGS: (As Sean) All right. Let me try it again. This is going to be...

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) I see it. Action!

Mr. DIGGS: (As Sean) Give me your ride punk, or I will dust you ass!

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) Add a bi-atch, and I think you got it.

Mr. DIGGS: (As Sean) Give me a ride punk, or I will dust your ass, bi-atch!

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) Bi-atch!

Mr. DIGGS: (As Sean) Bi-atch!

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) Click it. Turn around and do it again.

Mr. DIGGS: (As Sean) Bi-atch!

Mr. ANDERSON: (As PJ) Yes!

GROSS: That's my guest Anthony Anderson with Taye Diggs in a scene from "Malibu's Most Wanted." You had a short-lived sitcom called "All About The Andersons" that was loosely based on your own life. What parts of your life did you draw on for that show?

Mr. ANDERSON: Every aspect of it. You know, I created that with my partner Adam Glass, and it was just, you know, a show about, you know, three generations of men living under one roof. You know, my father, myself, and my son. But you know, the character on the show was my character pre-Howard University and post-Howard University. And that's what it was, you know, just having a dream and having a father who, you know, worked with his hands in the steel mills, you know, his entire life and not really understanding the visionary of his child, of his son, you know who had a dream, is like, OK, yeah, it's good to have a dream, but what are you going to with that? How does your dream pay a mortgage? How does your dream put food on the table?

You know, my father was a man's man, and so he really couldn't grasp that concept of me wanting this. You know, to the point where we got into an argument when he ask me what I did, and I was like, I'm an actor. He grabbed the remote control and turned on the television and flipped through the channels and pointed out people who were really acting. He said, now, where are you? And I was like, wow. OK, pops. OK, you got me. But you know, so that's what it was about and you know, - and before he passed on he was able to see my career and to see my successes and enjoy that with me and you know, we sat and we'd talk about it, and he understood.

GROSS: In your sitcom "All About The Andersons," you're father was so tired of you free loading in his home that he took the phone out and put a pay phone in the living room that allowed you make local calls only but for a fee. He padlocked the refrigerator so you couldn't eat his food. Did things like that really happen to you?

Mr. ANDERSON: No, that's true. That's true. You can ask anybody who grew up with me. My father put padlocks on the refrigerators and took all the phone jacks out of the house and put one jack in the family room and put a pay phone in there that you can only dial local numbers on. So I couldn't even dial outside of the area code. If I try to dial more than seven numbers the phone would automatically take my money because it thought I was trying to do something illegal mind you. And literally, I had to put a quarter in the phone every three minutes.

GROSS: Well, Anthony Anderson, I really appreciate your talking with us. Thank you so much.

Mr. ANDERSON: Oh, thank you very much. The pleasure was all mine.

DAVIES: Anthony Anderson plays detective Kevin Bernard on "Law & Order." Coming up, David Edelstein on the new film "Frost/Nixon." This is Fresh Air.
COST:
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..PGRM:
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..TIME:
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"Frost/Nixon": The Camera Never Lies?
..TEXT
DAVE DAVIES, host:

Richard Nixon had been out of office for three years in 1977, when he did a series of TV interviews with British broadcaster David Frost. Peter Morgan wrote a play based on those interviews that first opened in London in 2006. Now Morgan has turned his play into a movie directed by Ron Howard. Film critic David Edelstein says the movie goes too far in elevating a TV show into a historic confrontation.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: As the film opens, Nixon, played by Frank Langella, and Frost, played by Michael Sheen, have one huge thing in common. They each need a showbiz comeback, and they each need money, too. Nixon is paid an unprecedented $600,000. But Nixon's object is to redeem himself, or failing that, run out the clock without admitting anything. Frost's is to get Nixon to say in essence that he was what he'd assured the American people he wasn't and would never, thanks to Gerald Ford, be convicted of being: a crook. Morgan frames the whole spectacle as a championship boxing match with coaches in each man's corner. And there's a "Rocky" redemption element too.

Will the lightweight playboy Frost finally get serious and cram for the interview on Watergate and score a knockout, or will he let Nixon talk circles around him and win on points? In the theater, "Frost/Nixon" had the trappings of a big deal. Langella's reverberant presence - a sardonic narrator in the journalist James Reston, Jr., who did research for Frost, and a bank of monitors that created a tension between the live performance and its video translation. At the time, there was a burning subtext. The George W. Bush administration was still at the height of its powers and facing accusations of abuse of authority, accusations that didn't seem to ruffle the president. Here was Nixon standing in and being called on the carpet.

The film of "Frost/Nixon" is brisk and enjoyable, but it doesn't have the same kind of punch. It's impersonally directed by Ron Howard, who seems more taken with celebrity worship than politics. And even as Howard overinflates the outcome, it doesn't feel especially consequential. Here is how the excitable Reston fervently played by Sam Rockwell pitches the stakes to Frost.

(Soundbite of movie "Frost/Nixon")

Mr. SAM ROCKWELL: (As James Reston Jr.) I'd like to give Richard Nixon the trial he never had.

Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN: (As David Frost) Of course, we'll be asking difficult questions.

Mr. SAM ROCKWELL: (As James Reston Jr.) Difficult questions? The man lost 21,000 Americans and a million Indo-Chinese during his administration. He only escaped jail because of Ford's pardon.

Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN: (As David Frost) Yes. But equally going after him in some knee-jerk way, assuming his a terrible guy, wouldn't that only create more sympathy for him than anything else?

Mr. SAM ROCKWELL: (As James Reston Jr.) Right now I submit it's impossible to feel anything close to sympathy for Richard Nixon. He devalued the presidency, and he left the country that elected him in trauma. The American people need a conviction. Pure and simple. The integrity of our political system, of democracy as an idea, entirely depends on it. And if in years to come, people look back and say it was in this interview that Richard Nixon exonerated himself that would be the worst crime of all.

EDELSTEIN: Now, how could Nixon possibly exonerate himself with all the Watergate tapes evidence against him? He was already dead in the water. And why should we care, at this late date that Frost salvaged a minor TV career by getting Nixon to acknowledge, after hours of prodding, that he "let the country down?" As then TV critic Clive James wrote, Nixon implied that he let Americans down chiefly by quote, "allowing a silly little mistake to deprive them of his services." Morgan, with selective editing of the transcript, makes it seem as if Frost got Nixon to own up to more than he actually did.

The original Frost-Nixon Watergate interview is now on DVD from Liberation Entertainment, and there are self-exculpatory escape clauses in Nixon's every interminable, roundabout utterance. As in Morgan's terrific screenplays for "The Queen" and the HBO movie "Longford," there is a larger theme. The collision between venerable authority figures and a modern media that, in their view, cheapens and distorts everything they stand for. Does the camera trivialize? Or does it pick up truths the human eye rarely sees as starkly? Did it caricature Nixon, who loathed it, or penetrate to his soul? It's hard to say in "Frost/Nixon," since Frank Langella's Nixon is overscaled.

Langella gave a haunted, moving performance last year in the neglected film "Starting Out in the Evening," and on Broadway, it made sense that his booming, stoop-shouldered Nixon had an almost Shakespearean presence. Here, though, the gestures seem too worked out, the delivery too theatrical. When in the actual interview Frost read aloud from the Nixon White House tapes, Nixon's eyes darted around as he searched his brain for linguistic loopholes. In "Frost/Nixon," Langella plays it as tragedy. His heavy features move slowly. He seems to be plumbing the depths of his soul and glimpsing, for an instant, the abyss. It's too bad that what comes out of his mouth are Nixon's puny dodges. It's hard to turn a political footnote into "Richard III."

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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