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Other segments from the episode on September 10, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 10, 2010: Interview with Timothy Egan; Interview with Hal Holbrook; Review of the film "I'm Still Here."

Transcript

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Teddy Roosevelt And The 'Burn' That Saved Forests

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for
Terry Gross.

Our first guest, Timothy Egan, has written a book about a forest fire in 1910,
a story that also concerns a major culture war of that time. Egan's book, "The
Big Burn," is now out in paperback. It tells the dramatic story of the largest
forest fire in American history. That first in the Northwestern United States
consumed three million acres in two days. It burned through eastern Washington,
northern Idaho and western Montana, creating panicked evacuations.

The fire started just five years after President Theodore Roosevelt had created
the National Forest Reserves and the National Forest Service. In 1910, with
Roosevelt out of office and with President Taft being indifferent to the public
lands, many members of Congress were hoping to eliminate the Forest Service
budget. Among those opposed to the conservationists were the railroad and
timber industries.

While telling the story of the fire, Egan's book tells the political story of
how the fire paradoxically saved the national forests and changed fire policy.

Timothy Egan also is the author of a National Book Award-winning book account
of the Dust Bowl called "The Worst Hard Time," and he's a columnist for the New
York Times. Terry spoke with him last fall. She asked him why he wanted to tell
the story of the big burn. At the time of their interview, (technical
difficulties), quite small compared to the first of 1910.

Mr. TIMOTHY EGAN (Columnist, New York Times; Author): This fire was three
million acres. So that's an area the size of Connecticut burning in a weekend.
Those fires burned for 10 days. This fire was 36 hours.

So a day and a half, three million acres, 2,000 degrees, one of these crown
fires where the thing goes from treetop to treetop and sucks all the oxygen out
of every cave, a sort of monster that takes on a life of its own. But then it -
you know, as a natural disaster, I think that's cool because, I mean, I guess
I'm sort of drawn to natural disasters. But it had such - it has such amazing
resonance. It's with us still in so many ways, both in the wrong lesson that
was learned from it and it becoming the creation myth that saved public land.

TERRY GROSS, host:

What do you know about how this massive fire got started?

Mr. EGAN: Well, it was a very dry summer, and it stopped raining and snowing
and sending anything down from the sky starting in April of 1910. So by the
time June came around - which is pretty early in the northern Rockies, it's
usually pretty cold there still - they already had some spot fires, their
little, lightning-caused fires.

And by August, it just had the feel of death on the land, and everyone knew
something was going to happen because there were all these little fires, these
little lightning-caused fires, and it just blew up.

A hurricane-force wind is 70 miles an hour or more. That's what caused this
thing to blow up. This freak weather system came out of eastern Washington,
it's called a palouser, and it just lifted up all these smaller fires, and it
took everything to the sky, and the thing just blew up.

So it was a freak convergence of a very dry summer and lightening, which caused
all these smaller fires, and then this wind just lifting the thing up.

GROSS: And there were little towns that had to be evacuated, and you tell some
pretty vivid stories. This fire broke out in the public lands just as Teddy
Roosevelt's National Forest Program was in jeopardy of getting zeroed-out by
Congress. So just give us a summary of, like, why Roosevelt created the
National Forest Program in the first place.

Mr. EGAN: Yes, absolutely. And the Forest Service was five years old when this
fire happened. It happened in 1910. Roosevelt left office in 1909. His chief
forester and top aide, Gifford Pinchot, was fired by Roosevelt's successor,
William Taft, in 1910.

So at the start of 1910, you have an orphan agency. It's lost its founder. It's
lost the person who - you know, he was named Gifford Pinchot, and they were
called Little Gifford Pinchots, or Little GPs. They came out of Yale, and they
were just infused of this idealistic image of the great crusade, this idea of
conservation which Roosevelt and Pinchot had bequeathed to the world.

So they leave this agency orphaned, and this Congress just starts picking and
plucking it to death. It's death by 1,000 blows. It was never popular to being
with. It was a radical idea, and then it was not popular in the West, either.

These young forest rangers would go out West, and they would find brothels and
saloons. And I don't know if you've seen the television series "Deadwood"...

GROSS: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's what it seemed like, reading your book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EGAN: That's what it was. You know, it was - the one town of Taft, Montana,
named for the aforementioned 350-pound president, had three prostitutes for
every man and a higher murder rate than New York City. And so one of these
rangers came out and he said - he was just horrified.

He gets out of Yale and he shows up in the Lolo National Forest in Montana. He
wires back to Missoula and he says: Two undesirable prostitutes setting up
business on national forest land. What should I do? And some smartass gets a
hold of it and wires back: Find two desirable ones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EGAN: And so, you know, that's what they were dealing with. So they're
hated by the people that are supposed to - you know, this Roosevelt idea of the
little guy owning land. They don't give a rip about it, and then the Congress
is killing them. They're just defunding this thing.

These Gilded Age powers - it's last sort of clash of the Gilded Age powers, and
so they're - they want this land for themselves. They're used to getting it for
free. They're used to having their way with it.

GROSS: And wait, wait, and by the they, who do you mean here? It's like, what,
the railroads, the timber industry. Who else, like, wants the land?

Mr. EGAN: The railroads were given more than 35 million acres for free, an area
about the size of New England. You've also got the Rockefeller family, which is
building the biggest and most expensive transcontinental railroad in history,
right through the heart of the Bitterroot Mountains, right where the fire takes
place. That's why all those people were living in those brothel-ridden saloon
towns is because they've just put this railroad together.

And then you have the Guggenheims and E.H. Harriman and James J. Hill and the
Weyerhaeusers, families that are largely known to us today probably only for
their philanthropies, but then they were at the peak of their Gilded Age power,
and they wanted this land because they were used to getting it for free.

Roosevelt took it out of the general public domain and put it in the
protectorate of the Forest Service - not the parks. That's different, and much
smaller. The Forest Service was to be the people's land. The people were going
to use it.

So they leave office - just to get back to your question - 1910. It's a long,
dry summer. The forest rangers are reviled and hated. The agency itself is
nearly defunded. And then the fire happens, and it has this dramatic effect of
saving the agency and making heroes and martyrs of the people out there.

GROSS: It saved the agency how?

Mr. EGAN: Well, the forest rangers themselves were called sissies and Teddy's
Green Rangers, and the fire happens, and it's the first time the United States
has tried to fight a wildfire. They organized an army of 10,000 people, largely
immigrants, some African-American Buffalo Soldiers, convicts, jails are opened
up, people are let out of the jails. This huge army of people are sent to the
West to fight this - then it's an emerging fire. It hasn't blown up yet. It's
1,000 little, small fires.

And they're made heroes. The press portrays them as heroic, as noble men - not
the immigrants who died, but the rangers who fought this thing, who didn't have
a clue what they were doing, by the way.

The fire kicked their rears. They lost, but it made them heroic. And it was
covered all over the U.S. The New York Times had several page one stories. The
European press covered it.

So suddenly, public sentiment shifted, and you saw a dramatic effect in
Congress, where they refunded the agency, they doubled its budget, and they
created this bill that had been lingering since Roosevelt's day to create
national forests in the East. You would not have national forests in the
Adirondacks and Virginia and Pennsylvania and New England without this fire.

GROSS: And there were little towns that had to be evacuated, and you tell some
pretty vivid stories about what the evacuations were like and the panic that
ensued.

Mr. EGAN: You know, I kept thinking - I hate to say this, because it's kind of
a stereotype. But I kept thinking of the evacuation scenes from the movie
"Titanic," which we've all seen, because they had a, you know, a Victorian
gentleman's - like, women and children first, no men.

But the men shoved the women and children off the trains. And they had to have
these Buffalo Soldiers at gunpoint, with their fixed bayonets, order the men
off the train.

There was a last train out of Wallace, Idaho. You knew if you didn't get on
that train, you were going to die. You were going to burn to death. A fellow
came up to me not long ago. I was doing a reading on this book in Oregon, and
he said my grandmother got on that train, and she talked about it for the rest
of her life, how she got on that last train out of town. If you didn't get on
that train, you weren't going to live.

And then once they got on these trains, they would get to these trestles over
the valleys, and the trestles were burning. So they'd go hide in a cave. They'd
back the train into one of these caves that were bored through the Bitterroot
Mountains, and once in the cave, the fire would find them, because it was in
search of oxygen. It was a beast. It was a force of its own.

So, the - I'll tell you a back story real quickly, though. The Buffalo
Soldiers, who were African-American soldiers who had always sort of done the
dirty work of the United States Army and segregated only by - they had white
commanding officers. They had put down Indian uprisings. They had put down
labor wars in this place five years earlier.

They show up, and they're supposed to save this town, and they're greeted by
the kind of racism that was typical of the day. They called them - the papers
called them dusky doughboys. But the Buffalo Soldiers saved at least one town,
the town of Avery, Idaho, and were instrumental in saving another, the town of
Wallace.

GROSS: So once the fire spread, and it was covering millions of acres, how were
people recruited to fight the fires?

Mr. EGAN: Well, they'd done the recruiting in advance because there were all
these little fires, and they wanted to get - they knew, you know, the towns, or
big towns were going to start to be in danger, towns like Spokane and Missoula
and possibly even Denver.

So they were concerned. There were all these telegrams back to Taft, who was
vacationing on a, as they said, in his yachting costume, was another term they
used. Taft was a poor - he was so - I mean, he was so criticized because of his
weight and everything else. But Taft would get these telegrams saying, you
know, we're going to lose the town if you don't get people out here.

So he sent the Army, and he recruited. So they found all these immigrants,
people who were willing to fight fire for $.25 an hour, which is what they'd
pay them. So they had 10,000 people in place when the blow-up happened, and
they were scattered all over the woods with shovels, doing a little bit of, you
know, here-and-there work, trying to stop these tiny fires. And then the blow-
up happens, and it's just - all hell breaks loose.

GROSS: You know, in the 21st century, it's hard enough to fight the wildfires.
What was the state of forest-fire fighting in 1910, when this fire broke out?

Mr. EGAN: They had no clue what they were up against. They had no formal
firefighting training, no manuals to consult. They're - all these men are in
place, and they're wearing, you know, khaki pants and wide-brimmed, floppy hats
and terrible shoes and no socks, and they're hungry.

Every one of them, you see the pictures of them, they look really skinny, like
war veterans. They're eating these giant pots of potatoes and beans which are
stirred up in the fire camps, and they're mostly the - I traced the, you know,
two Italian immigrants back to their home in Italy.

It was the peak of Italian immigration in the United States. So there's a lot
of Italian immigrants in there. And when they died, the papers didn't even call
them by name. They would say, you know, Joe Smith died and Hiram Johnson and
two Italians. So, you know, they weren't even given their proper name.

But so they're in place, and they just have a shovel. That's all it is. They're
just out there trying to dig a fire line, trying to scrape away a little bit of
dirt so that when the fire comes up upon them, it won't advance anymore.

And so there was just - you know, I hate to use this term, but they just became
fuel. And they just - and when they found their bodies later, most of them were
not even recognizable as human forms. They were just these black, encrusted,
you know, burnt carbon, basically.

BIANCULLI: Timothy Egan, speaking to Terry Gross last fall. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2009 interview with author and columnist
Timothy Egan. His latest book, "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that
Saved America," is now out in paperback.

GROSS: Some of the main characters in your story were really broken by this
fire, and one of them is Gifford Pinchot, who was the founding director of the
National Forest Service. And why was he a broken man after the fire?

Mr. EGAN: Well, Pinchot, by the way, is just a fascinating guy. I mean, he
lived form 1864, when the Civil War still raged, till 1946, when World War II
was over, was not only Roosevelt's top advisor - he was the Rahm Emanuel to
Roosevelt's Barack Obama - but later became a two-term governor of Pennsylvania
and an advisor to Franklin Roosevelt. It was his idea to come up with the
Civilian Conservation Corps. But he was a son of privilege, a strange guy. His
grandfather had clear-cut much of the state of Pennsylvania, was a deforester.

GROSS: By clear-cut, you mean he cut down the trees.

Mr. EGAN: Right, he cut down all the trees. That's how they got rich. So
Pinchot is this - comes from this hugely wealthy family. One of his homes was
called Grey Towers in - overlooking the Delaware, and there were 63 turrets and
23 fireplaces in this castle that was one of Pinchot's three homes.

He goes to Yale. He's a Skull and Bones. He's, you know, he's this child of
privilege. And he had this - this is Roosevelt's term - "peculiar intimacy,"
was the quote, with Teddy Roosevelt. They met at a young age. They used to
wrestle and box, strip down to their skivvies - well, kind of a D.H. Lawrence
sort of thing.

But Roosevelt had this wrestling mat installed in the governor's office - the
governor's mansion in Albany, and when Pinchot would come up to see him, he'd
unroll the mat, and they'd go at it. And Pinchot, in his memoir, described how
one of the highlights of his life was boxing with Roosevelt and knocking him on
his butt.

So Roosevelt becomes president, Pinchot's his top aide, and together they try
to do something audacious. They do create the idea of conservation. Now, John
Muir's the third character in this, but he's off stroking his beard and making
wonderful statements and living in his vineyard north of San Francisco.

You can see I'm tweaking Muir quite a bit here because he always gets nothing
but positive press. But Pinchot and Roosevelt are doing the heavy lifting of
creating the lasting conservation movement that we have: national parks,
national forests, wildlife refuges.

And so, you know, when the fire happens, Pinchot realized that like all people
who can see public policy moments, they need their creative myth setting. They
need their launch point. He could see that this would be the fire that would
save the agency.

So he immediately went on the attack, he and Roosevelt. Roosevelt was touring
the West, reviving his popularity. He would soon run as a Bull Moose third-
party candidate against his successor, Taft. And they used this fire as the
rallying cry to save conservation.

So Pinchot, though he was heartbroken by what had happened, quickly realized
that this thing could be the thing that launches - that saves conservation.

GROSS: So what did he do to use the fire to save conservation?

Mr. EGAN: He wrote a million op-ed pieces. There were page one stories
everywhere, saying - you know, Pinchot was as prominent as any public official
that you can think of today. One of the things I talk about was how they formed
conservation.

They used to go for these long walks in Rock Creek Park, or they would -
Roosevelt and Pinchot would skinny-dip in the Potomac. And I was thinking, you
know, what it would be like if, God forbid, you know, Karl Rove and Bush were
skinny-dipping together in the Potomac while thinking of ways to deregulate the
banks even more?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EGAN: You know, so - and the Secret Service would hold their clothes while
they would swim naked in the Potomac on a cold November day. And, you know, it
was a like a triathlon whenever you went out with Roosevelt.

And so, you know, they - the way they used this fire was to use their
connections. They gave speeches, they wrote op-eds. Roosevelt had huge crowds
because he'd been away for a year.

He was the most popular American in the world. The Vatican greeted him. Huge
crowds greeted him all over Europe and Africa, everywhere he went. So he comes
home after being away for a year, and he's mobbed. He's mobbed. And Pinchot
wrote most of his speeches. Pinchot was his voice.

GROSS: So, you know, in talking about how Pinchot tried to use the fire to save
the endangered National Forest Service, you write a little bit about what he
was up against. For example, one senator, a senator from Idaho - from one of
the towns that burned, Wallace, Idaho - Weldon Heyburn. He called this fire
God's will. He said it was the will of an angry God enraged by the Forest
Service. Was that a widely held view?

Mr. EGAN: I think it was. I actually think there were a lot of people, when he
said that - if you read the newspaper reaction to that, at least in the West, a
lot of people said the man speaks truth.

They thought that God was sweeping away these trees, which had been - were
being protected by this Forest Service, sweeping away to make room for
settlers. And so, I mean, but this Senator Heyburn was always after Roosevelt,
as were most of Western senators. They just couldn't stand the Forest Service.
They were against, you know, Progressive Era thoughts like clean meat
inspection and minimum wage and child labor laws. But more than anything else,
more than anything else, they were against the idea of national forests.

So when the fire came along, they saw it as something that would work to their
advantage, you know, the final nail in the coffin. But, in fact, public
sentiment was with the Forest Service, made heroes of them.

GROSS: I'm wondering if there was something of a little culture war going on
back in 1910, at the time of this fire.

Mr. EGAN: There wasn't a little cultural war, Terry. There was a big cultural
war. These people could not have been more out of place there, these Yale-
trained foresters in the "Deadwood" United States of the West.

And also, you know, they thought these two plutocrats, these two men of
privilege, Roosevelt and Pinchot, were trying to foist something radical on
them, even though they said they were doing it for the little guy.

And that's what - you know, so you had this - the idea that the national
forests were for the little guy, a populous, progressive thing versus everyone
else, meaning a lot of people trying to make a buck off the place and then
bigger people trying to say, you know, how dare you try to do this. We'd always
gotten the land for free. I mean, the railroads got their 35 million acres.

The speaker of the House, Joe Cannon, said not one cent for scenery. So there
was a huge culture war going on. And one more thing on this, and I'll be quiet,
is that there - the cleave in the Republican Party that happened largely at the
time of this fire, with Roosevelt then running as a Bull Moose progressive, set
the stage for the Republican Party for the next hundred years.

It then was the so-called - and this is not my term, it's their term -
progressive party, the party that was progressive on race, on conservation. The
Democrats were considered the racists, and they fought conservation.

When Roosevelt left and took this wing with him, it set the stage for the party
that would be Herbert Hoover, Barry Goldwater, George Bush. All of that was set
by Roosevelt breaking, taking that progressive side with him.

BIANCULLI: Author Timothy Egan, speaking to Terry Gross last fall. His book,
now out in paperback, is called "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire
that Saved America." We'll continue their conversation in the second half of
the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back
with more of Terry's interview with author and columnist Timothy Egan. His
book, "The Big Burn," is now out in paperback. It's about the biggest forest
fire in American history, which burned through parts of three Western states in
1910. Paradoxically, that fire saved the National Forest Reserves, which had
been created by Roosevelt just five years earlier. Before that fire, many
members of Congress were targeting the Forest Service budget for elimination.

GROSS: There were lessons learned from this huge fire, but the question is
people - different people learn different and contradictory lessons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So...

Mr. EGAN: Yes. Exactly.

GROSS: Let's talk about some of the contradictory lessons that came out of
this.

Mr. EGAN: Well, yes. That's why this fire is with us still. It's not just a
great tale. It's a story that's embedded into all these agencies. Now, the
Forest Service was set up, as I mentioned, as this progressive era, you know,
Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt-trained, idealistic young men that were - they
were mostly all men. But after the fire, the Forest Service became the fire
service. And to this day, more than half of their budget is spent fighting
wildfires.

And that wasn't the original intent. They weren't set up to put out what is
essentially part of nature. And so, after the fire - about 10 years afterward -
they started something called the 10 o'clock rule, which was that if a fire
happened on your watch, on a given day, it must be put out by 10 o'clock the
next day, or you had to suffer reprimand and severe consequences.

So Norman Maclean, the great Montana writer who wrote "A River Runs through It"
and also a meditation on fire called "Young Men and Fire," talked about how
this had horrible consequences. He said every young ranger had 1910 on the
brain for most of 20th century. So they dedicated themselves - the fire did
save America in saving the Forest Service, but thereafter, their mission
changed.

Their mission was to put out fires. And to this day, when you see these, you
know, the fire-industrial complex, giant planes dropping retardants on
mountains east of Los Angeles and in the - around Colorado and huge armies of
yellow-shirted firefighters going up there with bulldozers and all of that,
that's still a direct consequence of this fire - of the Forest Service design
to put it out. Why?

GROSS: Wait. Wait. Wait. What's wrong with that?

Mr. EGAN: I don't think anything's wrong or right with it, but I'll tell you
what causes trouble, is that by resisting nature - fire is a force of nature -
you allow all this fuel to build up, and the public land agency is finally...

GROSS: Fuel being dry wood, dead trees.

Mr. EGAN: Right. Dead trees, standing timber that nature needs to burn. There
are many species of trees in the West that won't regenerate without fire.
Lodgepole pine - the cones won't open. They can't have sex. They can't carry on
without fire. They need fire to reproduce. So - and Pinchot knew this, but he
sort of hid that from a lot people.

So by trying to put out every fire, they put nature - they put it in a little
box, and then some of the bigger fires we had - starting in 1988 with the
Yellowstone fire, continuing to this day in some of the fires that happened in
Arizona a few years ago, which were catastrophic - are a result of trying to
put out every fire and then having all this standing timber lying around that
once a fire comes along, boom, it just takes - it just becomes catastrophic.

And this is not even my contention. My contention is on other things, but this
is universally recognized. So now you have something called the let-burn
policy, where they are letting fire - this dates to the Yellowstone fire of
1988 - where they're letting fire back into the woods, but only here and there.

The problem is that so many people have moved. Something like 20 million people
now live within a few miles a national forest, and they want - when they see
fire, they're terrified. And they call their congressmen, and their congressmen
calls the regional forest supervisor and they say how come you're not putting
this fire out? And he says, well, it's in an area we have to let it burn. They
say, well, it's also in an area where, you know, 20 of my constituents live and
they not only vote but they contribute.

So there's a political - there's political pressure there, and that's what -
when you see some of these big firefighting campaigns, a lot of it is because
of politics. It's somebody saying, you know, any honest firefighter will tell
you, somewhat ruefully, that they end up fighting to save people's summer
homes.

GROSS: Since your new book has so much to do with the National Forest Service,
I'm wondering if you've thought about, and I'm sure you have, what America
would look like had there not been a National Forest Service created by Teddy
Roosevelt in the early part of the 20th century.

Mr. EGAN: Consider this: Roosevelt basically bequeathed us with an area about
the size France that every American owns. That's out birthright as an American
citizen to own a piece of that. The parks were less than 10 percent of that.
They get all the attention because of so-called - I hate to use this term, but
people keep using it - eco-porn. You know, those glorious shots in HD of
Yosemite or Grand Tetons. But the true nature of public land is something
different. It's a more rumpled area. It's a river that seldom gets visited.
It's a ridgeline, you know, up in the clouds in far northeast Montana. It's a
prairie grass in Nebraska. It's not the stuff that gets, you know, all the
nature photographs, and that's what we own.

Now, had Roosevelt not set aside this - and he did it by executive order. There
were - you know, Congress changed the laws later, but he largely did it by
executive order. I mean, he famously said, when he created the first wildlife
refuge, he asked his attorney general: He said is there any law that will
prevent me from declaring Pelican Island - this is in Florida - a federal bird
reserve? And his attorney general told him there was no such law. And Roosevelt
said, very well. Then I do so declare it. And that's how the National Wildlife
Refuge System was started.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EGAN: And when they created the National Forest, I mean, they brought in
these maps and put them on the floor of the White House, and Roosevelt was
just, you know, glorying in this, all this land and drawing banners. He said,
oh, have you put the Flathead Valley in there yet? I was up there once and I
saw a beautiful stand of timber and these elk up in the valley. Have you put
that valley in this national forest? So imagine had we not had him. That's one
of these great what-ifs of history.

I mean, I grew up in eastern Washington State with a large family. We didn't
have any money. We didn't a summer home. We didn't summer anywhere. I never
even heard that term as verb until later. But we had public land, and we would
go camping in the Bitterroot Mountains, where this fire happened. I saw this
stuff as a little kid. I saw some of the standing dead timber. We would camp on
the St. Joe River with glorious place full of cutthroat - and wildlife. And my
mother always told me: We are rich because we have this. And I was - it was
ingrained into me as a little kid that I was wealthy because I owned a piece of
this land. So what if had not been set aside?

I mean you'd have this - I lived in Italy for a while and, you know, they have
a couple of national parks, but largely, the nice land is owned by somebody.
It's fenced off. England is the same situation. If you want to go hunt, or
fish, or hike, you usually have to ask the lord of the manor or get permission
to hike through his place. So, you know, it's extraordinary to think how
different we would've been without this endowment.

GROSS: Timothy Egan, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. EGAN: Terry, thanks for having me.

BIANCULLI: Timothy Egan, speaking with Terry Gross last fall. His latest book
"The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America," is now out in
paperback.

Coming up, actor Hal Holbrook. This is FRESH AIR.
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..DATE:
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Hal Holbrook: A Lifetime Of Diverse Roles

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Our next guest, actor Hal Holbrook, would be worth listening to even if there
weren't two timely reasons to replay a conversation with him from last fall.
After all, the 85-year-old actor is most famous for playing Mark Twain on stage
in a one-man show that he's been performing and constantly reshaping for more
than 50 years. But he's still acting, and not only as Samuel Clemens. Last
year, he starred in "That Evening Sun," a movie that was released this week on
DVD.

And also this week, he began a recurring role on the FX drama series "Sons of
Anarchy." Katey Sagal stars in that series, playing the widow of a biker gang
leader. And Holbrook plays her estranged father, whom she visits after a long
absence to drop in unannounced. She finds him watching TV and his state of
dementia so progressed that though he recognizes her as his daughter, he has no
idea that his wife had long since passed away.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Sons of Anarchy")

Ms. KATEY SAGAL (Actress): (as Gemma Teller Morrow) Hi, daddy. Hello. It's
Gemma.

Mr. HAL HOLBROOK (Actor): (as Nate Madock) Oh, my, my God. My baby girl. My
baby girl.

Ms. SAGAL: (as Gemma Teller Morrow) It's me. It's me.

(Soundbite of crying)

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Nate Madock) Oh. Oh. Your mother is going to be so glad to
see you. Rose? Rose? Rosie? Where are you, sweetie? You'll never guess who is
here. Rosie? Oh, she's probably - she probably down at Pretenders getting her
hair done.

Ms. SAGAL: (as Gemma Teller Morrow) Yeah.

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Nate Madock) Sit with me.

Ms. SAGAL: (as Gemma Teller Morrow) Okay, daddy. Come on, daddy. Here.

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Nate Madock) Yeah. She'll be back soon.

BIANCULLI: A sad footnote: In real life, Hal Holbrook lost his wife, Dixie
Carter, to complications from cancer this spring after 26 years of marriage.

Among Holbrook's most famous film roles was Deep Throat in the film "All the
President's Men," and in 2007, he was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting
role as a lonely old man in "Into the Wild." Holbrook stars as a lonely old man
in "That Evening Sun," which came out this week on DVD.

He plays Abner Meechum, a crusty old farmer who slips away from his nursing
home and returns to the farm he used to run with his late wife. Abner's son has
rented the farm to his father's old enemy, and Abner wants it back. In this
scene, Abner's son - played by Walton Goggins from "The Shield" - is basically
telling Abner that his life is over and he should just give up the farm.

(Soundbite of movie, "That Evening Sun")

Mr. WALTON GOGGINS (Actor): (as Paul Meecham) There's nothing out there for
anymore dad. Things change, life goes on, and you got to go on with it. There
ain't anymore to it than that.

Mr. HAL HOLBROOK (Actor): (as Abner Meecham) Life goes on, huh?

Mr. GOGGINS: (as Paul Meecham) For those who let it.

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Abner Meecham) I'm a 80-year-old man with a bum hip and a
weak heart. How much life do you think I got left to go on with? I'm no fool,
Paul. The road ahead ain't long and it ain't winding. It's short and straight
as a goddamned poisoned arrow. But it's all I got, and I deserve to do with it
as I please. And what makes me so angry is that I cut and scraped and did
without so that you could go to an expensive school and learn a trade, which
you now seem intent on using to do me out of what has taken me a lifetime to
accumulate. This must be God's finest joke.

Mr. GOGGINS: (as Paul Meecham) So, you're angry at me for getting an education?

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Abner Meecham) I'm angry at you for not caring about the only
thing left that matters to me.

BIANCULLI: That's Hal Holbrook and Walton Goggins in "That Evening Sun."

Hal Holbrook, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Thank you. Thank you. Good to be with you, David.

BIANCULLI: I have to ask you about one sequence in "That Evening Sun." It's
flashbacks of you with your late wife in the movie, who's played by your real
life wife, Dixie Carter. And it's just scenes of you two, you know, embracing
each other, caressing each other, looking at each other.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Dancing.

BIANCULLI: And dancing.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Dancing.

BIANCULLI: And it just seems so tender and so intimate. What was the camera
actually capturing there?

Mr. HOLBROOK: They were just capturing me and Dixie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLBROOK: We weren't acting. We weren't acting at all. We were just
enjoying - we were just loving each other's presence and face and eyes and
everything. That's all. You know, I told Dixie, I mean, she said, well, it's a
tiny little role, Hal. I don't know whether - and I said, believe me, darling,
this moment in the film is going to be important because it's the only time
you're going to see this, you know, grouchy old guy who is trying to stay alive
and keep his farm and fight this character and - it's the only time you're
going to see him sweet, vulnerable. You see a whole other side of his life that
we never see at any other time, and it gives a kind of dimension to the
character and the situation, I think.

BIANCULLI: Your most famous film role, I think, is a very small one, but so
indelible and so iconic. I'm talking about your playing Deep Throat in the 1976
movie version of "All the President's Men." You're only in a few scenes but,
boy, you know, what scenes. I'm going to play one. Here you are meeting
Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, in an
underground parking garage.

(Soundbite of movie, "All the President's Men")

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Deep Throat) Forget the myths that the media's created about
the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got
out of hand.

Mr. ROBERT REDFORD (Actor): (as Bob Woodward) Hunt's come in from the cold.
Supposedly, he's got a lawyer with $25,000 in a brown paper bag.

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Deep Throat) Follow the money.

Mr. REDFORD: (as Bob Woodward) What do you mean? Where?

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Deep Throat) Oh, I can't tell you that.

Mr. REDFORD: (as Bob Woodward) But you could tell me that.

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Deep Throat) No, I have to do this my way. You tell me what
you know, and I'll confirm. I'll keep you in the right direction if I can, but
that's all. Just follow the money.

BIANCULLI: That's Hal Holbrook and Robert Redford in "All the President's Men."
Now, what are your memories, first of all, of filming that?

Mr. HOLBROOK: Well, I'll tell you a story that, before the filming started, I
was offered this role and I turned it down. Because it was so small, I
thought...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLBROOK: ...aw, this is nothing, it's nothing, and the guy's in the dark.
I mean, what the heck? So, I turned it down. And I knew Bob Redford very well,
we were good friends long in those years, we had spent time together at various
times. And so Bob come over to the house and he said, Hal, I'm going to promise
you that this role will be remembered more than anything in the film. And I
said, come on, you got to be - are you kidding?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLBROOK: Oh, there's nothing to it. He said, Hal, believe me, believe me.
So, I said well, okay, Bob, fine, if you feel that way, okay, okay, I'll do it.
So, he was right.

BIANCULLI: My favorite thing that I think you have done in your career is
playing Mark Twain for more than 50 years on stage, and once quite memorably on
television. Two thousand ten is the 100th anniversary of Twain's death. What
does that say to you, that you can still find so much about Mark Twain, to say
about today's times? I mean, that you can have Mark Twain's saying about
today's times.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Oh, he never has ceased to astound me. And astound is the only
word I can come up with. He had a bead on the corruption that went on late in
his lifetime, in his country. I mean, the corruption is so similar to what's
going on today. You know, I give - see if I can remember, it's been - I'm just
trying to learn it. But, it's from "What Is Man? And Other Essays," and he
says, it's a strange panic we're in. It's like a blight is falling upon us, as
if a mighty machine had slipped its belt and was still running and
accomplishing nothing. An atmosphere of fear has spread around the land. The
phrase, laying off has become common. The laying off of a thousand, two or
three thousand men, has become familiar. But there is a more disastrous laying
off going on all over America: The discharging of one out of every three
employee in every humble small shop and industry, from one end of the United
States to the other.

BIANCULLI: Hal, there's two things that stun me about that. One is that, just
it's so fresh after so many years that it's so vital to today. The other one, I
imagine how much work it takes for you, as the shaper and the actor in "Mark
Twain Tonight," to constantly go back to his material, constantly revise what
you're presenting on stage, and to memorize it. How do you do all that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLBROOK: I stay up late. I am driven to do it. I enjoy it. It's hard work.
I have to lose a lot of sleep. I cannot give up, I cannot stop worrying about
what's going on with our country and the world, because I think that this
country we live in is now at a far more crucial and critical moment in its
history, than it has ever been in.

BIANCULLI: Hal Holbrook, I just want to thank you so much on being on FRESH AIR
today. Thank you.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Thank you, David, I really enjoyed talking with you.

BIANCULLI: Hal Halbrook in a conversation taped last fall. His wife, Dixie
Carter, died in April. "That Evening Sun," featuring their final screen
appearance together, just came out on DVD.
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In 'Still Here,' A Fully Committed Joaquin Phoenix

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Our film critic, David Edelstein, has been trying to figure out how to classify
"I'm Still Here," Casey Affleck's new film about Joaquin Phoenix, his brother-
in-law actor. Is it a documentary or a mockumentary?

Back in the fall of 2008, Phoenix announced he was giving up acting to become a
hip-hop artist. "I'm Still Here" presents the next few months of his
transformation and his first public performances as rapper JP.

Here's the review by critic DE.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: You probably recall Joaquin Phoenix's flabbergasting turn on
"The Late Show with David Letterman" in 2009. He came in looking like a Hasidic
rabbi on Quaaludes; you could barely hear his mumbled one-word replies over the
audience's titters. Letterman ended the interview with, Joaquin, I'm sorry you
couldn't be here tonight.

But some people suspected Joaquin was very much there, and that his stated
intention to abandon acting to become a rapper was a hoax — especially after
they learned his change of life was the subject of a documentary by his
brother-in-law, Casey Affleck.

That documentary is out now. It's called "I'm Still Here," it's very
entertaining, and let's say off the bat, that in it neither Phoenix nor Affleck
admit a thing, although they do call it "A They Are Going to Kill Us
Production."

The odds that Phoenix's persona is an act, I'd put at about 99.99 percent. But
notice I said act, not hoax. Hoaxes have no basis in reality, whereas what
Phoenix is doing feels more to me like performance art. I think under all the
outlandish antics, there's an emotional truth.

Affleck begins with a montage of Phoenix's showbiz past, from street
performances as a kid with his siblings to earlier talk-show appearances, to
his Golden Globe for playing Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line." Then we meet
Phoenix in the flesh, lurching around his house in the Hollywood Hills. Acting,
he says, is like being a puppet. And when he's not before the camera, he tells
Affleck, he's playing this character named Joaquin Phoenix.

What follows, in the ensuing weeks, is a combination rebirth and degeneration.
He sucks on joints and snorts cocaine — and no, I don't know if the drugs are
real. He grows more and more pudgy. He humiliates members of his entourage.
It's awful — but it didn't make me squirm the way, say, Borat's antics do, or
Larry David on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," when he endlessly reshuffles his small
deck of neuroses. There's a glimmer of real madness in Phoenix's method acting.

He's always come off in interviews as unstable, alternately under and over
defended. He abandoned showbiz once before. His brother, River, was a casualty
of celebrity excess. And a few years ago, Joaquin checked into rehab. Phoenix
would be a natural for one of those actorish existential breakdowns - the ones
that turn on the old conundrum, where does my mask end and my true self begin?

Having said all that, I don't believe that "I'm Still Here" is a straight
documentary. Bits with Ben Stiller courting Phoenix for a role, and Edward
James Olmos giving New Age fatherly advice are like hilarious improvs. Even
better are scenes with hip-hop mogul, Sean P. Diddy Combs, whom Phoenix wants
to produce his raps.

At the recent Venice Film Festival, Affleck half admitted that Combs was aware
of his role in the story to crush Phoenix's dreams of rap stardom - but how he
does that is inspired.

(Soundbite of movie, "I'm Still Here")

Mr. SEAN P. DIDDY COMBS (Record producer, rapper, actor, and men's fashion
designer): (as Himself) Do you have money to do this?

Mr. JOAQUIN PHOENIX (Actor): Like how much? I mean I have a little studio, do
you know? Like in my, I have a garage, got Pro Tools set up.

Mr. COMBS: See, that's a (bleep) problem. When people try to do things, they
don’t do it the way they do it for their own industries. When you go make a
movie you don’t go - you got money to make a movie, right?

Mr. PHOENIX: What I want it to be is like a place with true aspiration.

Mr. COMBS: Can you do that in acting?

Mr. PHOENIX: Well, I do. That's the thing that as an actor you’re shielded.
It's a different, you know, I mean you know this, Christ...

Mr. COMBS: No, that's not a different thing.

Mr. PHOENIX: Well, maybe not but you can't see (unintelligible).

Mr. COMBS: Lights, right? Lights...

Mr. PHOENIX: Yes, how much?

Mr. COMBS: Craft services.

Mr. PHOENIX: Yes, tell me some more.

Mr. COMBS: Trailers.

Mr. PHOENIX: Yeah.

Mr. COMBS: Makeup, hair, DP.

Mr. PHOENIX: Good point.

Mr. COMBS: Gaffers.

Mr. PHOENIX: I get it.

Mr. COMBS: Same thing. Studio, engineer...

Mr. PHOENIX: I got it.

Mr. COMBS: Me.

Mr. PHOENIX: Well...

Mr. COMBS: Me.

Mr. PHOENIX: Yeah, you.

Mr. COMBS: The speakers.

Mr. PHOENIX: I get it.

Mr. COMBS: Do you have any money?

Mr. PHOENIX: Well, how much you need?

Mr. COMBS: How much you got?

(Soundbite of laughter)

EDELSTEIN: Regardless of how much money Phoenix has, his raps are appalling.
Although, kudos to him for rhyming Joaquin and tear out my spleen.

"I'm Still Here" builds to that notorious Letterman appearance, which we watch
and then watch Phoenix watch. He looks stricken. I'm guessing part of him is
stricken, wondering - as exhibitionists often do, after the fact - if he has
permanently wrecked his career. Small wonder. What will be the consequences of
his self-immolation?

It's best to think of "I'm Still Here," not as a mockumentary in the style of
Christopher Guest but an experiment — something Phoenix and Affleck's friend,
filmmaker Gus Van Sant might do. The film closes with a long, entrancing, Van
Sant-like shot of Phoenix in Panama, walking upriver, in search of - what?
Affleck clearly didn't know how to end the story. And it still hasn't ended.
Let's see what happens after the movie opens.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(Soundbite of music)
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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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