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Student 'Subversives' And The FBI's 'Dirty Tricks'

Journalist Seth Rosenfeld spent three decades pursuing government documents about the FBI's undercover operation in Berkeley, Calif., during the student protest movements in the '60s. His book details how the FBI "used dirty tricks to stifle dissent on campus" and influenced Ronald Reagan's politics.

21:27

Other segments from the episode on August 16, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 16, 2013: Interview with Seth Rosenfeld; Interview with Bobby Cannavale.

Transcript

August 16, 2013

Guests: Seth Rosenfeld - Bobby Cannavale

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Back in the 1960s, a lot of student activists suspected that the FBI was spying on them and trying to undermine their efforts. After a series of Freedom of Information Act, our guest, Seth Rosenfeld, secured 300,000 pages of government records, which show that yes, indeed, the FBI was very active on campuses, especially the University of California at Berkley.

He writes that the documents show the FBI mounted a covert campaign to manipulate public opinion about events on the Berkeley, spied on and harassed students, helped force out the university's president and ran a secret program to fire professors because of their political views. The documents also reveal the mutually beneficial secret relationship between the FBI and Ronald Reagan covering the years when Reagan informed on fellow actors through his efforts to suppress the student movement when he was governor of California.

Rosenfeld's book "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power" is now out in paperback. Rosenfeld has been an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. Terry spoke to him last August.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Seth Rosenfeld, welcome to FRESH AIR. We should just start with an explanation of the what the Free Speech Movement was about at the University of California, Berkeley.

SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, the Free Speech Movement occurred in 1964. It was one of the first major campus protests of the 1960s. It was a nonviolent protest, and it was protest against a rule at UC Berkeley that prohibited students from engaging in political activity on campus. For example, if students wanted to hand out a flyer or collect quarters for the Republican campaign for president, they were prohibited from doing that. If they wanted to hand out flyers for the civil rights movement, they couldn't do that, either.

GROSS: So there was a big protest. The campus police got involved, the police-police got involved, and why did J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the FBI, care? What was his concern about this student movement?

ROSENFELD: Hoover had long been concerned about alleged subversion within the educational field, and he'd been particularly concerned about the University of California at Berkeley, which was the nation's largest public university at that time and had been involved in the production of nuclear weapons that brought an end to World War II.

So he was particularly concerned about dissent and alleged subversion at UC Berkeley. When the Free Speech Movement happened, he saw this as further evidence of the communist plot to disrupt the nation's campuses.

GROSS: And he eventually was told by his agents that it wasn't a communist plot, that there were in fact some communists and some socialists who were participating in the protest, but they were kind of, like, incidental. They weren't leaders; the protests would have happened with them or without them. They were just, like, people who showed up.

ROSENFELD: Hoover instantly ordered a major investigation of the Free Speech Movement and assigned a lot of agents to look into it and whether it was a subversive plot. And they determined that while there were a few communists and socialists involved in the protests, it would have happened anyway because it was really just a protest about this campus rule. His agents repeatedly told him that it would have happened anyway, and it wasn't a subversive plot, but Hoover ordered further investigation and beyond that dirty tricks to stifle dissent on the campus.

And as the federal courts ruled in my Freedom of Information Act suit, the FBI's investigation using Alex Sherriffs and using the security officer William Wadman to gather information had no legitimate law enforcement purpose because those investigations had turned into political spying.

GROSS: And what do you mean by political spying?

ROSENFELD: These were investigations that didn't focus on national security or violations of criminal law. They focused on what people were saying or what they were writing or who they were meeting with in regard to positions they took on matters of public policy. So essentially, it was spying on constitutionally protected activity, such as circulating petitions or holding a rally or going to a demonstration.

GROSS: One of the things you learned is that the FBI did spy on Mario Savio, one of the leaders of the student movement at the University of California Berkeley, and they tried to sabotage him. What did they do to try to sabotage him?

ROSENFELD: The FBI saw Savio as a potentially dangerous person because he was a very charismatic leader. He was very effective in rallying students and, even more broadly, members of the public to the cause of the Free Speech Movement. Hoover tried to counteract that by taking certain steps that would discredit Savio, portraying him in news stories as an associate of communists and socialists.

At one point, the FBI designated Savio as a key activist, putting him on a list of people whom the FBI would attempt to neutralize through intensive surveillance and harassment. At one point, an FBI agent contacted Savio's employer, and sometime later, Savio lost his job.

GROSS: One of the things you did while researching this book was present the Freedom of Information Act files that you found on people to those people. And you did that with Mario Savio before he died. He must have suspected that the FBI had investigated him because I think all student activists suspected that, whether it was true or not. What was his reaction when you told that you'd gotten his files and showed them to him?

ROSENFELD: I should explain. I had some files that I was able to show Mario before he passed away in '96, but most of the files I got were after he passed away. But some of the first files I got showed that the FBI had investigated the Free Speech Movement and attempted to discredit it, and when I showed these to Mario Savio, he was - he said: Well, we always figured that the FBI was spying on us, but we never suspected that they would attempt to disrupt us.

I also obtained a lot of FBI files concerning the president of the university, Clark Kerr, and when I met with Clark Kerr and showed him some of his FBI files, he was quite astonished that the FBI had tried to get him fired from his job as university president.

The documents showed that J. Edgar Hoover had ordered agents to leak information to members of the board of regents in an effort to convince him that Clark Kerr was not being tough enough on student protesters and that he had to be fired.

GROSS: Clark Kerr is such an interesting character in your book because as the president of the university, he felt that he did a lot to open up the campus to more speech. He allowed communists to speak on campus. He refused to punish people for dissident speech. But to the student activists, he was the establishment, who was not allowing them, like, sufficient free speech on campus, but to the FBI and to Governor Reagan, he just wasn't tough enough.

So he lost on all sides, like, to the left and to the right, everyone was against him.

ROSENFELD: Clark Kerr was the man in the middle, and he had done so much for the university. He is one of the towering figures in American higher education. He expanded the university, and he also developed the master plan for higher education, the system of colleges that's now used not only around the country but all over the world.

He also opened the campus to free speech in many ways, but when the student movement in the early '60s began, he was taken by surprise. He didn't expect the students to be as aggressive as they were, and he was not quick enough to more fully open the campus.

The Free Speech Movement was ultimately successful. It reversed the rule against students engaging in political activity on campus. Kerr later said he regretted that he had not acted more swiftly to lift that rule.

GROSS: You write about what you learn from the Freedom of Information Act files, about how Ronald Reagan, who was then the governor of California, worked with the FBI to get the University of California at Berkeley President Clark Kerr removed from office. What did Reagan, with the FBI, do?

ROSENFELD: The FBI had been very frustrated with Clark Kerr for a long time. Hoover was very upset when Clark Kerr began to liberalize rules on political activities on campus. He saw Kerr as being too soft on protesters and maybe even a dangerous subversive himself. He tried to get Governor Pat Brown to fire Clark Kerr by secretly giving Pat Brown FBI reports about student protesters, and Pat Brown refused to that. He was a staunch ally of Clark Kerr's.

So when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1966, after a campaign in which he made the protests at Berkeley one of his top issues, Hoover welcomed Reagan as a breath of fresh air and worked with him to stifle student protesters and to remove Clark Kerr from the presidency of the university.

A few days after Ronald Reagan took office, he phoned the FBI, and he requested a secret briefing about student protesters, about liberal members of the board of regents and about Clark Kerr. A few weeks later, at the first board of regents meeting attended by Reagan, Reagan's board of regents fired Clark Kerr as one of its first acts.

GROSS: So this was not the first time that Ronald Reagan had worked with the FBI. Their relationship dated back to when Ronald Reagan was an actor. And you say that you learned from the Freedom of Information Act files that you got that Ronald Reagan informed on fellow actors far more than has been known, or at least more than has been known. I don't want to overstate it.

ROSENFELD: Yes, that's correct. Starting in Hollywood in the 1940s, Ronald Reagan developed a special relationship with the FBI. He became an FBI informer, reporting other actors whom he suspected of subversive activities, and later when he became president of the Screen Actors Guild, the FBI had wide access to the Guild's information. At one point, the Guild turned over information on 54 actors it was investigating as possible subversives.

The FBI viewed Reagan as an extremely cooperative source in Hollywood. As a result of this, Hoover repaid him with personal and political favors later.

GROSS: And what's an example of one of those favors?

ROSENFELD: The FBI did a personal and political favor for Ronald Reagan in 1965. FBI agents at the time were investigating the Bonanno crime organization. Joe Bananas, as he was known, was one of the most notorious mobsters in America and had recently moved to Arizona.

FBI agents in Phoenix were investigating him when they discovered that Joe Bananas' son, Joseph Jr., was hanging out with Michael Reagan, who was the adopted son of Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, and they reported this to headquarters.

The agents proposed that they should interview Ronald Reagan to see if he had learned anything about the Bonannos through his son. This investigation, after all, was a top priority. But Hoover interceded. He ordered them not to interview Ronald Reagan, and he instead told the agents to warn Ronald Reagan that his son was consorting with the son of Joe Bananas.

Ronald Reagan was very grateful for this.

GROSS: You write that, you know, when Ronald Reagan was rising politically, there were parts of his past that could have been considered questionable because as governor, this meant, you know, overseeing the University of California system, which included, you know, atomic research laboratories and atomic research data. And so that's an important security position.

And there were a couple of things in Reagan's past that the FBI might have been concerned about if it was somebody other than Ronald Reagan. Do you want to discuss that?

ROSENFELD: One of the interesting themes that emerged in reviewing all these FBI documents was how J. Edgar Hoover's FBI used information. In the case of Clark Kerr, at one point he was a candidate to be secretary of health, education and welfare.

So the FBI did a background report, and Hoover used this as a pretext to send President Lyndon Johnson a report loaded with allegations that Kerr had associated with various subversives, even though the FBI had already investigated these allegations and knew that they were untrue. And this all comes out in the documents.

In contrast, when Ronald Reagan became governor, he had to undergo a similar background check because as governor, he would be a member of the board of regents and have oversight of the university's nuclear laboratories. During this investigation, the FBI went out of its way to help Ronald Reagan.

When Ronald Reagan filled out his personnel security questionnaire as part of this investigation, he failed to list a number of organizations that he was involved in, in Hollywood in the '40s, organizations that had been designated by the federal government as being subversive.

Normally, this would send up red flags with the FBI. It would be seen as a serious omission. But in Ronald Reagan's case, the FBI did not report that he had failed to include these organizations.

DAVIES: Seth Rosenfeld's book "Subversives" is now out in paperback. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's interview recorded last year with journalist Seth Rosenfeld. His book "Subversives: How the - The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power" is now out in paperback.

GROSS: Did you learn anything about how the relationship between the FBI and Ronald Reagan developed after Ronald Reagan became president?

ROSENFELD: Ronald Reagan's connection to the FBI begins in Hollywood in the late '40s. This was a time in his life when he was having trouble with his film career, his marriage was falling apart and his faith in the Democratic politics of his father were beginning to falter.

It was about - right about this time - that he was first approached by the FBI and told that communists were trying to take over Hollywood. This greatly affected Reagan. As he wrote in his memoir, the FBI agents opened his eyes to a good many things. He made fighting communism his main cause. He became an FBI informer. He supported the FBI publicly in speeches he gave and in return the FBI did certain personal and political favors for him.

One of the arguments in my book is that Reagan's secret relationship with the FBI had a profound impact on his political development. And later as president he goes on to stare down the Soviet Union.

GROSS: So the information that's in your book "Subversives" and that you've been sharing with us today, this is a result of five Freedom of Information Act lawsuits and 30 years of research on your part. Why did it take five lawsuits to get the files released?

ROSENFELD: That's a good question.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSENFELD: I first got interested in the subject when I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley in the late '70s. I was a writer for the Daily Californian student newspaper. The Daily Cal had requested some FBI files on Berkeley under the Freedom of Information Act. So I looked at those files and I wrote a story about the FBI spying on the Free Speech Movement and on the Vietnam Day Committee.

They were published back in 1982. But I realized there was far more to the FBI's activities on campus. So I submitted a much larger Freedom of Information Act request. I figured I would get the files in maybe a year or so and write the story and go on to the next project. I had no idea that I was embarking on what would become a 31-year legal odyssey.

The FBI refused to release the files until I paid thousands of dollars in fees. So the first thing I had to do was file a lawsuit challenging their refusal to give me a fee waiver. The law provides that when releasing the records would primarily benefit the general public, government agencies are supposed to waive the fees.

So once I won the fee waiver, I went back to the FBI and asked them to release the records, but they were producing it so slowly we filed a second lawsuit. The court ordered the FBI to expedite its release of the files. When the FBI finally released a chunk of the files, they were heavily redacted.

So we filed a third lawsuit challenging the redactions in the FBI documents. The FBI refused to release a lot of the information on the ground that it concerned law enforcement operations or personal privacy. A federal judge looked at the records and concluded that they actually concerned, in many cases, unlawful political surveillance and efforts to get Clark Kerr fired from the presidency of the University of California. And the court ordered them released.

The FBI appealed the decision, and it went up to the federal appeals court. A federal appeals court affirmed the lower court's ruling and the FBI then filed a notice with the Supreme Court that it was challenging the appeals court decision. It was at that point that I reached a settlement with the FBI under which it would release the records and pay my attorney's fees of more than $600,000.

GROSS: Whoa.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's a lot of money.

ROSENFELD: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah. It wasn't pro bono, huh?

ROSENFELD: It was pro bono. I was very fortunate to have the pro bono assistance of a small army of attorneys. Under the law, the attorneys were allowed to request that the court order the FBI to pay their fees and the FBI did pay more than $600,000 in attorney's fees.

But even then it was clear that FBI was still withholding records, so I filed a fourth lawsuit seeking records on Ronald Reagan. The FBI initially refused to release the records but ultimately released more than 10,000 pages. This is the most complete record of FBI documents concerning Ronald Reagan in his pre-presidential years that's been released.

These documents show that during the Cold War the FBI sought to change the course of history by secretly interceding in events, by manipulating public opinion and taking sides in partisan politics. The FBI's efforts decades later to be improperly withhold these records from the public about its activities is in effect another attempt to shape history, this time by obscuring the past.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

ROSENFELD: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure.

DAVIES: Seth Rosenfeld's book "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power" is now out in paperback. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. If you watched the last season of the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," you probably remember the intimidating and twisted gangster Gyp Rosetti, played by my guest Bobby Cannavale. He won't be returning to the series - for reasons made clear in last year's final episode, but he leaves with an Emmy nomination for his performance. The last season of "Boardwalk Empire" comes out next week on DVD.

You can also see Cannavale in the latest Woody Allen film "Blue Jasmine" and in "Lovelace," the new film about porn star Linda Lovelace. In the 2003 film "The Station Agent," Cannavale played the chatty guy running a coffee stand. You've likely seen him in some other television roles too. He played to tough hospital administrator in the Showtime series "Nurse Jackie," a role which earned him another Emmy nomination this year. And he won an Emmy as Will's boyfriend on the NBC series "Will and Grace." Cannavale has done plenty of theater too - recently appearing opposite Al Pacino in the Broadway revival of "Glengarry Glen Ross." I spoke with him in January.

Bobby Cannavale, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you.

BOBBY CANNAVALE: Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: Well, wanted to talk about the recent season of "Boardwalk Empire," where you played a New York gangster named Gyp Rosetti, right, short for Giuseppe.

CANNAVALE: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: Quite a character. I mean, he had a very prominent role in the season. It will just be this season, those who've watched it will know. And I thought we would hear a clip.

This is a moment where you're meeting with the series' central character, Nucky Thompson, the Atlantic City boss. He's played by Steve Buscemi. And he is - well, your character Gyp Rosetti, is angry because Nucky Thompson has decided to sell his booze strictly to Arnold Rothstein, the New York gangster, as opposed to directly to your guy. So you, as Gyp Rosetti, responded by interrupting his shipments by taking over this little town in New Jersey, Taber Heights, so that Nucky can't get his booze through to New York. He's pretty annoyed and has come to Taber Heights, and you're sitting down at a restaurant to try and straighten things out. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "BOARDWALK EMPIRE")

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) Nucky, welcome to Tabor Heights. Police escort and everything.

STEVE BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) What do you want, Gyp?

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) I was thinking maybe the pot roast. How about you?

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) I didn't come up here for your vaudeville routine.

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) Well, Bible campaign ain't till summer. So why did you come?

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Obviously, I offended you in some way. But since you're a man who can find an insult in a bouquet of roses, I'm not sure quite how.

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) Maybe it's got something to do with you jeopardizing my livelihood.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) It's a free market. I sell to whom I choose.

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) To whom? Listen to you.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) I wish you'd start.

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) I got customers, 20 blocks stretch of the lower West Side. They can't buy from me, they buy some place else.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) I'm not selling to Yale or Remus, either. And you don't see them acting like petulant children, right.

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) Right. You only sell to the Jew.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) I told you, I need to keep things simple.

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) Like this place, simple. Only one road in, one road out, Atlantic City to New York.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) I'll use the back roads through the Pine Barrens, Gyp.

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) I don't know where the (bleep) that is, but I bet it's one hell of a slog. And if I was you, every inch of that road would stick in my craw.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) But I'm not you, Gyp. I learned a long time ago not to take things personally.

(as Gyp Rosetti) Everyone's a person, though, right? So how else could they take it?

(as Nucky Thompson) In the interest of honoring what was once a fruitful business relationship, let's set the table over again. You'll be my guest in Atlantic City tonight. I'll send you home tomorrow with a full month's supply. You'll keep your head above water in New York and leave these nice people alone.

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) Stay a lot healthier that way. What happens after a month?

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) I don't consider that my problem.

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) Square enough deal.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Then this is where you shake my hand.

DAVIES: And that's our guest Bobby Cannavale with actor Steve Buscemi in the recent season of "Boardwalk Empire" on HBO. This is such a great character you have, here.

CANNAVALE: Thanks. A very logical thinker Gyp, right? There's some logic in there. It made sense. He's right.

DAVIES: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

CANNAVALE: What else is it going to be, if it's not personal?

DAVIES: Right. Up to a point. But he is also, like, kind of - well, I don't know if I would say psychotic. But he opens the series - I mean, and I think the first time we see him; he beats a man to death with a tire iron because of some casual insult.

CANNAVALE: Right. Right.

DAVIES: And you also make this guy funny and likable. How did you approach building this character?

CANNAVALE: Thanks. Well, you know, first of all, I appreciated and understood where it's set, what the milieu is. We're set in the underworld, here. And this guy works for the mob, the mafia at a time when it was a very powerful thing in New York. He's got to do what he's got to do to stay on top. He wants to be remembered and he wants to be feared.

And that's a pretty good business to go into if what you want out of life is to be respected and feared. You know, I thought of him as somebody who attacks that part of it with relish. Where it comes from psychologically he's really well-built in the portrayal of him as a person who's far away from home, as a person who always had ambition, as a person who is not respected in his own home and has always felt like he doesn't get the credit he deserves.

And so, you know, the killing aside, that kind of a character I - is attractive to me because it's somebody who, again, desperately wants something. Then you add the physicality that they've written of him committing murder as much as he does. You know, given the milieu, again, of what the series is about and where it's set, it's very exciting to play a role like that. I've never gotten a chance to play a part like that.

DAVIES: Right. And as the series develops, we learned that your guy has some very kinky sexual preferences.

CANNAVALE: Right.

DAVIES: How does that - was there a backstory in your head for this guy, I mean, that accounts for something like that?

CANNAVALE: You know, yeah, you know, I mean, I'm always hesitant to talk about exactly what it is, because it's not anything that you can really - you know, all we have really is the words and the end product, the film itself. And I will just tell you that, you know, I did a lot of research about what that particular sexual peccadillo is and what psychologists think it's about, and then I sort of go from there and make up my own thing.

DAVIES: Right. Well, just so we're not coy about it for the audience, I mean, what we're talking about is the fact that he likes to be choked when he's in an intimate relationship with a woman.

CANNAVALE: Right.

DAVIES: And did that inform your performance in scenes which had nothing to do with sex in, you know, in his confrontations with other people and his expressions of violence?

CANNAVALE: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. Yeah. I mean, look. I think Gyp's the kind of guy who needs to feel physically stimulated all the time, and so he does that by making a joke that scares somebody that doesn't know it's a joke. He does it by exerting, being the loudest person in the room when he wants to be. He does it by cracking jokes in the brothel. He does it by talking seductively to Gillian and - in one breath, and then putting - laying the hammer down on her in the next.

I think for him, it's a power issue and a control issue, and I think he gets physical sensation out of that. So that would - it's sort of an indirect lead-in to why he enjoys sex that way. I think he gets physical stimulation from murdering people. He does it himself, you know. He's usually the guy doing it. And so, you know, whatever the psychosis behind that is is, you know, what I think it is.

DAVIES: Well, whatever it is, it's convincing. I wouldn't want to run into your guy. This is a real period piece. You know, we broadcast out of Philadelphia, which is not far from Atlantic City, so I've been there. And one of the things I like about the show is the careful reconstruction of Atlantic City in the 1920s and...

CANNAVALE: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...everything from the clothes to the boardwalk. Is that something that you connect with...

CANNAVALE: Man, with this show in particular, the production values in this show are unbelievable, and every day felt like I was coming to work in a theme park because everything around you, every stitch of clothing I wore was handmade with vintage fabric from the time and all - you know, every prop is from its time, the lighters that are very difficult to work and the cars. And, you know, they spare no expense, so it's not like you see the same car driving back and forth in the background. There's 30 cars, Packards and Model-Ts, and everybody's dressed in the period. And so it definitely makes it a very immersive experience, easier to work when you're surrounded by it all like that. And I think that pops really, really nicely in the final product.

DAVIES: Bobby Cannavale played gangster Gyp Rosetti in the last season of "Boardwalk Empire," which comes out next week on DVD.

Let's hear a clip. In this scene, he's assembled residents of the small New Jersey town his crew toke over to run a bootlegging operation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOARDWALK EMPIRE")

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. First things out the way, thank you for coming, those of you who were curious and those who were maybe escorted here. My name is Mr. Rosetti. My associates and me have taken an interest in your town and are going to be here for a while. So we thought it only neighborly to introduce ourselves.

(as Gyp Rosetti) In return for your hospitality and any inconvenience this may cause, we're offering a monthly giveback. Tell them how much we're offering.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) A double-C a piece.

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) In English.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Two hundred dollars a month.

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) Which is a pretty square deal for keeping your mouth shut, wouldn't you say, Sheriff Ramsey? He's a good man, your sheriff, and he's going to keep on sheriff-ing, same as you all are going to keep doing whatever it is you do. Barbers cut hair, cooks cook, librarians keep checking out books, because it's very important to read.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) What happens when Bible camp opens?

CANNAVALE: (as Gyp Rosetti) Bible camp's cancelled. And I'm not really doing questions and answers right now, dear.

DAVIES: That's a clip from last season's "Boardwalk Empire." We'll hear more of my conversation with Bobby Cannavale after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with actor Bobby Cannavale. He's co-starring in the new Woody Allen film "Blue Jasmine" and he played the gangster Gyp Rosetti in the last season of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." When I spoke with him last year, he was also appearing in the Broadway revival of "Glengarry Glen Ross," which also starred Al Pacino.

"Glengarry Glen Ross," of course, is the David Mamet play about real estate salesmen in Chicago, you know, desperately competing for sales. Tell us a little about building the Ricky Roma character that you played.

CANNAVALE: Well, you know, it's one of those plays that actors talk about and say it's a perfect play. And it's a perfect play because it's about, you know, seven guys who desperately want something and need something in a time when people desperately want and need things.

It was written, you know, in 1982. I think it's a prescient play to do today. But let's face it, I mean, it's - I think great plays are about people wanting things and desperate for things. I think it's what makes great drama, and I think that's one of those things that's just always resonant. It's just what we are as a culture, and in America in particular.

So he sets it in a very specific place, as you said, this small real estate office, a little shabby real estate office in Chicago, in the world of sales and in the world before the Internet, by the way, where something like cold-calling - which Al's character Shelley describes as, you know, walking up to the door, I don't even know their name. I'm selling them something they don't even want.

So it was a skill to sell something and put on a front and acting, in a sense. And so it makes the play very active. For Ricky, you know, he's on top, and desperate to stay on top.

DAVIES: And there are a lot of really intense exchanges here, some profane, you know, angry arguments that occur. And I wondered, since you do this, you know, night after night with the same crew, if the energy is sometimes different. You get something different from an actor, and it feels different, and you respond differently.

CANNAVALE: Sure. Oh, sure. You know, I think that is what makes it the living, breathing thing it is. And, you know, we joke about it sometimes, you know, like we'll get together at the curtain call. We all come out, the curtain's down, and there's the quick, four-word review from everybody, you know: not bad.

Last night, Johnny said - Johnny C. actually said: Solid B. Solid B, guys. And, you know, it happens. Maybe somebody's not as desperate, let's say. It throws off the - it throws it off. It throws it off, but not necessarily in negative ways.

You know, it just means that maybe one guy gets eaten a little easier than he did the night before. But we're definitely there to devour each other. It's just - sure, it's different levels. I guess, you know, people bring different things in with them. I know yesterday, I was late because the train took forever, and so I was rushing the whole time and went out not quite prepared, and something else happened.

But it's ethereal. I can't really describe it. We talk about it, you know, actors talk about in theater in terms of degrees, you know, when you have a bad show. Really, if you're been working the show and you've rehearsed the show, we're talking about degrees that the audience won't notice, but you sure feel it. Those are the nights, you know, you opt to walk home rather than get in the car...

DAVIES: Right.

CANNAVALE: ...to think about it for a couple hours.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: You have an interesting background. You grew up North Jersey, right?

CANNAVALE: I grew up right across the river here in Union City, New Jersey, which is next to Hoboken, as a reference - so right across the Lincoln Tunnel.

DAVIES: And your dad was Italian-American, your mom Cuban-American, right? And they split when you were pretty young, and...

CANNAVALE: My mom's Cuban, born in Cuba. Yeah.

DAVIES: And then you lived in Puerto Rico for a time, and then Florida. Is that right?

CANNAVALE: Yeah. I grew up in New Jersey, and then lived for two years in Puerto Rico when my mom remarried. And we lived in Puerto Rico for two years when I was about seven - six, seven. And then came back to New Jersey, and then moved for Florida my freshman year of high school. And then I came back to New Jersey my senior year of high school and moved into the city a couple years later.

DAVIES: Were you always a performer as a kid, a cutup?

CANNAVALE: A hundred percent. Yeah, I was that kid that everybody, like, always said he's so creative, because I was always playacting and I had a very vivid imagination. And I started reading at a very young age. I was obsessed with reading. And I started reading plays at a really young age. I just was drawn to them.

There was a great library in my neighborhood on 15th Street in Union City. That's how I remember reading "A Streetcar Named Desire" and reading all those plays, "Death of a Salesman," and not really understanding them, but reading them. And I was just drawn to them, because in my head, I heard the voices. I would do - I would act out the parts in my head.

DAVIES: You said you read a lot of plays at the library as a kid. Did you see theater?

CANNAVALE: Oh, sure, yeah. And I was in plays. You know, I went to Catholic school, and so I was - I wasn't allowed to do much outside of school and church. Luckily, they intertwined all the things that I kind of enjoyed. There was a theater company. There was a chorus, and I was an altar boy in an incredible monastery.

The theater of the church is the most incredible theater, and in this church, it was beyond. It was this huge monastery. It's landmarked. It's a beautiful building. And I kind of had the run of it. And they did, like, three shows a year, and I was in all of them.

My first one, I was, like, 10 or 11. It didn't matter if there weren't any kids in the show, I was in them. Like, I was in "Guys and Dolls," playing a gangster when I was, like, 12. Then, you know, I was in "The Music Man" and "Flowers for Algernon" and "Man of La Mancha."

DAVIES: Looking back at those early days, I mean, you must have thought you were pretty good at this, or you wouldn't have sought it. Looking back on it, do you think you were?

CANNAVALE: I don't know. I guess, like, you know, when you're young, you know, there's a certain amount of naïveté you have, which, you know, I don't knock naïveté, to be honest, because I'm 42 years old and I still have - I mean, I've really had some great experiences. But I think I've always been optimistic about making a living in this business.

You know, I worked in nightclubs for years, and I would go and do plays for nothing. You know, I'd go on a call for a showcase off-off-Broadway and get it. So I was getting a lot of parts. So, sure, I had confidence that I could do this, but, you know, I wasn't starving.

Because I was - I'd do the play, and I'd go to work at 11:30 and work till 5 a.m. at a nightclub, and then sleep all day in grandma's house, and then come back in and do the play, you know. So I would do whatever I had to do, and it just seemed natural and normal. I never thought I have to think about doing something else.

DAVIES: And you got a TV role, and that led to a role on a TV show called "Third Watch." I confess, I'm not familiar with this. But I know you played a paramedic. You were being paid well. I mean, you were now a successful, working actor in New York.

CANNAVALE: Yep. Yep.

DAVIES: And I don't know if this is true, but I read that...

CANNAVALE: With a baby.

DAVIES: Oh, yeah.

CANNAVALE: With a baby. So it was important.

DAVIES: By then you'd had your son, right.

CANNAVALE: Yeah. Yeah.

DAVIES: Right. Jake, right?

CANNAVALE: Yeah.

DAVIES: And I'd read that you felt confined, and you asked them to write you out of the role, to have your character killed off. Is this true?

CANNAVALE: Yeah. Well, it's kind of true. I mean, yes it's true, but what I went in for was to ask them if my character was going to have anything interesting to do. It is true that I literally went from, you know, having a great night behind the bar, $200, to making television money, and I had never even been on television.

I was so happy to get that job that I really wanted to keep the job. And then I just realized that I'd kind of acted myself into a corner. You know, it's a big ensemble. There was, like, nine of us. And so everybody has to be a certain thing, you know, on a show like that.

And so I really couldn't really grow much, and, you know, a lot of that was my fault. And so when it seemed like it wasn't doing much but smiling a lot and hitting on the same girl for two years in a row, I asked them if there would be anything changing. And John Wells was great and kind and he said I don't think so. Do you want to be written out?

And I said sure, I would. And he said I will send you out big, which he did, and it was a really great story arc to act. And then he took care of me very, very well in many other ways and was just a gentleman about it. And to this day, I appreciate what he did for me, because after that, I really did try to do as many different things as I could.

I did "Oz" right after that. I did "Ally McBeal." And then I went and did "The Station Agent." I did "Kingpin," and I got - it really opened me up to be able to do many other things.

DAVIES: My guest is actor Bobby Cannavale. We'll be back to conclude our conversation in just a minute. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to my conversation with actor Bobby Cannavale. Well, let's talk about "The Station Agent." This was the film in 2003, directed by Tom McCarthy, got a lot of critical acclaim and a lot of critics awards. It's about a - I mean, I guess the central character is this man, a solitary train buff who is a dwarf.

He's played by Peter Dinklage. He inherits an abandoned train station in a kind of a quiet corner of New Jersey, and he decides to just move into the place. Patricia Clarkson is an artist who's depressed about the loss of her son. And then you're a guy, Joe Oramas, I think is the name, who has this little vending truck nearby.

CANNAVALE: A hot dog truck, a coffee truck, yeah.

DAVIES: Right, that your dad runs, and he's sick, so you're running it. You love people. You're dying for company. And I want to play a scene here where you're trying to make friends with Fin, played by Peter Dinklage. And he's walking by, and you try to engage him. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE STATION AGENT")

CANNAVALE: (as Joe Oramas) Hey, Fin, bro, you live here?

PETER DINKLAGE: (as Finbar McBride) Yes.

CANNAVALE: (as Joe Oramas) Wow. We're neighbors. Nice. Hey, what happened to you?

DINKLAGE: (as Finbar McBride) Nothing.

CANNAVALE: (as Joe Oramas) Listen, you want to go down to the mill and grab a beer later?

DINKLAGE: (as Finbar McBride) No, thanks.

CANNAVALE: (as Joe Oramas) What, you don't drink?

DINKLAGE: (as Finbar McBride) I do.

CANNAVALE: (as Joe Oramas) Oh, you just don't want to have a drink with me?

DINKLAGE: (as Finbar McBride) I don't like bars very much.

CANNAVALE: (as Joe Oramas) Oh. Hey, well, how about I go get a six, and we can have it right here?

DINKLAGE: (as Finbar McBride) No, thanks.

CANNAVALE: (as Joe Oramas) Well, what are you going to do?

DINKLAGE: (as Finbar McBride) I'm, uh, I'm going for a walk.

CANNAVALE: (as Joe Oramas) Oh, cool. Well, you mind if I come along, man? I mean, I need the exercise. I'm turning into a fat (beep) out here.

DINKLAGE: (as Finbar McBride) I usually go alone.

CANNAVALE: (as Joe Oramas) I'm a good walker, bro.

DINKLAGE: (as Finbar McBride) I prefer to go alone.

CANNAVALE: (as Joe Oramas) OK. All right. Hey, maybe next time, all right? You know where to find me.

DAVIES: And that's our guest Bobby Cannavale with Peter Dinklage in the film "The Station Agent." You know, one critic said that your character lacked the ability to be rejected.

CANNAVALE: Wow, it was really nice to hear that. You know, that's a really special, special, special experience, that movie, because it was - you know, it was so long in the making, like four years, for this four or five years of...

DAVIES: Now, you and Tom McCarthy, the director and writer, were old friends, right?

CANNAVALE: Tom McCarthy and I met acting in a play of Lanford Wilson's, a new play of his. We met acting in it about five years before we made that movie. And then Tommy wrote a play called "The Killing Act," in which Peter Dinklage was in, and then he just started writing this thing for us. And Patty we knew, and so it was like readings, doing readings. It was always us. It was always Patty and Pete and myself.

DAVIES: Patricia Clarkson, yeah. So you would just get together, and he would say, hey, I've written this scene, let's try it?

CANNAVALE: Yeah, and I've got some pages, and, you know - you know, it wasn't like scene-by-scene. Like, he'd written a draft, and then there was another draft, and, you know, things changed along the way. And then we'd do, like, a little public reading just for a few friends that he trusted. And it just was, you know, a classic tale of a script going through many options that it could have had.

Tommy could have made that movie with other people in it, let's say, but he just didn't want to. He wanted to make it the way he wanted to make it, with us. And we made it in 17 days over the summer in New Jersey. Just to give you perspective, the last episode of "Boardwalk Empire" took 18 days to shoot.

So we shot that movie for nothing. So are there are elements of that movie that are very true - have a very true spirit about them.

DAVIES: You've kind of made your own path in the business, and I've read that you still don't have a publicist. This is true?

CANNAVALE: Yeah.

DAVIES: So how do you - you just function on your own. Or, I mean, you have an agent, of course, but...

CANNAVALE: What do you mean function, though? I mean, I function fine.

DAVIES: I don't know what I mean.

CANNAVALE: See, I walked here. I walked to the studio. I didn't need people - you know, they sent a car and I just canceled it and walked. You know, like, you can run your own life. Look, I'm not George Clooney. I'm not like - I don't have - I would think that, like, a publicist for me wouldn't be to get my name put in places. It would be to, like, stop, get people to stop, you know, bothering me.

You know, that would be a good reason to have a publicist and, you know, do the things that I want to do, like I wanted to come on FRESH AIR. I listen to FRESH AIR. I love it. I went on Joe Franklin yesterday because it's Joe Franklin, for God sakes. He's 92 years old, you know, he wants to have me on the show, I'm going to go. But I know what I want to do and what I don't want to do.

And I feel like that about the material that I choose. Now, I know I'm lucky, too. I get to choose things. Not as much as some people and maybe not as much as somebody who wants to be a movie star would think. But in my world, the theater, the little projects that I do, workshops, it makes me happy to do the things that I really want to do.

And so for me - that's just for me. For my taste. I don't know what a publicist would - where I would put them in my life.

DAVIES: And you don't want to move to Hollywood and become a movie star?

CANNAVALE: I don't want to move to Hollywood. No. I want to stay in New York.

DAVIES: Well, Bobby Cannavale, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CANNAVALE: Thanks, Dave. Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Bobby Cannavale earned an Emmy nomination for his performance on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" last season. Those episodes are now coming out on DVD. You can also see him in Woody Allen's new film "Blue Jasmine."

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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