DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Astrid Kirchherr, who took the first publicity photos of a then-struggling rock group called The Beatles, died last week.
She was 81 years old. In 1960, young Astrid had just completed a photography course at the College of Fashion and Design in Hamburg when her boyfriend, Klaus Voormann, took her to the seedy Kaiserkeller in Hamburg's red-light district. He wanted to show her a new rock group from Liverpool he had discovered the night before. No recordings exist of that October night in 1960 or of any other night The Beatles played that year. But the group's earliest-known live recording, from 1962 at a different Hamburg club, gives a hint of what was awaiting Astrid Kirchherr as she descended those stairs.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SAW HER STANDING THERE")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Well, she was just 17, if you know what I mean. And the way she looked was way beyond compare. How could I dance with another when I saw her standing there? Well, she looked at me...
BIANCULLI: When Astrid met the group in 1960, The Beatles consisted of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and two others. Pete Best, not Ringo Starr, was the drummer then. And Stu Sutcliffe, an art student friend of Lennon's, played bass, but not well. Before long, he quit the group to pursue his art career and live with Astrid, who quickly became his girlfriend. She gave him, then the other Beatles, what's now known as the moptop Beatles haircut and also photographed the group in many now-iconic formative photographs. Stu Sutcliffe died in 1962 at age 21 of a brain hemorrhage. Astrid became a professional photographer.
The 2008 book of photographs by Kirchherr and fellow photographer Max Scheler called "Yesterday: The Beatles Once Upon A Time" captured The Beatles in 1964, during the first flush of Beatlemania. When the book came out, Astrid Kirchherr visited FRESH AIR and told Terry Gross about the first time she saw The Beatles perform in that small cellar club in Hamburg.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
ASTRID KIRCHHERR: When I went down the stairs and looked at the stage, I was just amazed how beautiful these boys looked. And being a photographer then, it was a photographer's dream. In fact, it was my dream because I always thought to - I would like to take pictures of young boys who looked like them. And then when I heard the music, it was even more fantastic for me. So ever that first night, I went nearly every night to see them. And that's how it started.
TERRY GROSS: You described the way they looked as being a photographer's dream, your dream. Would you describe how they looked, the first time you saw The Beatles?
KIRCHHERR: Well, they all had these - I don't know what you call the hairstyle - you know, like the rockers did in the '50s, like Marlon Brando with a lot of grease. And they had - they were...
GROSS: With their hair slicked back, like a little pompadour?
KIRCHHERR: Yes. Yes, yes, you're right. So - and they wore really mad clothes, sort of - not very clean but unusual. Like, John had a leather jacket on, and Stuart had a real proper suit jacket on. But they were so individual, every one of them, and tried to be stylish in their own little way because then, as you have read before, they didn't had any money at all. So they made the best of - out what they had. So John had a pair of jeans on, which he rolled up, which was very trendy then. Stuart had very, very pointed shoes. So I've never seen anything like it before.
GROSS: Did you need their permission to start taking pictures of them?
KIRCHHERR: Well, I - through my boyfriend, Klaus, I asked them if they were willing, that I can take their pictures, and they were just jumping up and down with joy. So one morning, because I only take pictures in daylight, we met on the corner of the Reeperbahn. And there they were, all dressed up nicely and washed, and their hair was all shiny, with the grease and everything. So it took a whole morning from afternoon, and I took quite a lot of pictures.
So that's where it started. And then I did the prints. And one night, I went down to them to offer the prints to them, and they were absolutely delighted. So after that, they began to trust me as a human being, not just as a pretty girl, which was very nice of them. In fact, I - then we started talking to one another, and they accepted me as being an intelligent individual, which they could talk to, not only look and make funny jokes.
GROSS: A fellow artist.
KIRCHHERR: Yeah. Yeah. Right. Yeah.
GROSS: Now, you describe when you first met The Beatles that their hair was greased back.
GROSS: How did you change their hair? And why did you change it?
KIRCHHERR: Well, my boyfriend, Klaus, had a big problem because his ears used to stick out. But in any other way, he was the most beautiful boy that the world has seen. So I thought, how can you get this to go, these big sticking-out ears? And then I had the idea to just grow the hair over them, which he then did, and it looked absolutely beautiful.
So when the boys saw Klaus - Stuart was the first one who said, oh, I would like to have that hairstyle. And because their hair was very long, I could do it in one night, so - which I did. And Stuart was the first one who performed on stage with the so-called Beatles or Klaus haircut.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, I never heard it before referred to as the Klaus haircut.
GROSS: What other changes did you make or suggest to The Beatles about their look or their clothes, whatever?
KIRCHHERR: Well, the fact is that Stuart was the same height as I am, and he could wear my clothes. So, immediately, when he moved in with me and my mother, he got hold of all my clothes, like leather pants, leather jackets, collarless jackets and wide shirts with big, big colors like in the old days and waistcoats and big scarves and things like that.
But when he first appeared to play with them in Hamburg again, he used to wear my - a suit of mine made out of corduroy, in black, and it had no collar; it was collarless. And John just couldn't stop laughing and said, oh, have you got your mom's jacket on? So that was the start of the collarless jacket, which later on, it was copied all over the place. But, in fact, I copied it from Pierre Cardin, a Paris designer, who - I saw a magazine or something, and I thought that was a fantastic idea.
GROSS: Well, if John was making fun of Stu's jacket that didn't have lapels, how come he ended up wearing one himself? Like, what changed the attitude from mockery to I want one, too?
KIRCHHERR: Well, John was always a little bit sarcastic. So at first, even with the hairstyle, he couldn't stop laughing. But in the end, he just joined in. That was John. That was typical.
GROSS: It's interesting that Stu Sutcliffe would wear your clothes because most men wouldn't dream - back then, particularly - of wearing their girlfriend's clothes. It would be more OK for a girlfriend to wear her boyfriend's clothes, but not vice versa.
KIRCHHERR: Well, you know, Stuart was a very special person. And he was miles ahead of everybody. You know, as far as intelligent and artistic feelings are concerned, he was miles ahead. I learned a lot from him, because in the '60s, as you may know or read about, we had a very strange attitude towards being young, towards sex, towards everything because it was still so short after the war. And we had this big burden to carry, as far as our parents and as far as our country went through, you know, after the war.
GROSS: Well, tell us a little bit about what it was like to be a teenager growing up in post-World War Germany.
KIRCHHERR: Well, it was very hard because it is hard to imagine now that there weren't any magazines. You couldn't buy any English authors or anything that came from America, like jeans. It was impossible. So we had to do our own clothes if we had weird ideas like wearing long scarves like the French people did. You had to knit them yourself.
Or long sweaters you used to nick from your father because you wanted to look like the Sartre people in France or in Paris, like Juliette Greco or other people. And I was very, very much influenced by the films of Jean Cocteau and by Sartre and everything that came out of France because it was closer than America or England. And anyway, England was then, told by the older generation of Germans, were still our enemies.
GROSS: Did that come between you and the Beatles at all, a sense that your country had recent - your countries had recently been enemies? Did that interfere at all in the relationships, relationship between you as people?
KIRCHHERR: No, not in our relationship. But John used to make funny remarks of it from the stage because most of the youngsters couldn't speak English because we didn't had English in school, you know, in the beginning when, after the war, we went to school. So he used to shout from the stage, we won the war and you krauts and all of that, you know, which most of the people didn't understand. But the English people, they just were furious with laughter.
GROSS: So that's why he said it, because he knew the German people wouldn't understand. (Laughter) He could say anything.
KIRCHHERR: Yeah, sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
BIANCULLI: Astrid Kirchherr speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. Kirchherr died last week at the age of 81. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINGS WE SAID TODAY")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) You say you will love me if I have to go. You'll be thinking of me. Somehow, I will know. Someday, when I'm lonely, wishing you weren't so far away, then I will remember things we said today.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 2008 interview with Astrid Kirchherr, who was famous for photographing the Beatles and for inspiring their famous haircuts. She died last week at the age of 81.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: You became engaged to Stu Sutcliffe, who, at the time when you met him in 1960, was the bass player in the band. Seems to me you both lived in a very visual world. I mean, he was an artist who learned to play bass so he could be in the Beatles. And you, of course, you know, were a photographer, a very visual person. So even though you didn't speak each other's languages at first - he's English, you're German - it seems like you must have had this visual connection.
KIRCHHERR: Yes. There was a sort of bond between us because - maybe I correct you there. Stuart just played in the band because John persuaded him to be in the band. And the first painting Stuart sold, John persuaded him again to buy a bass for that to be in his group. So actually, all Stuart wanted was to become a good painter and not a musician.
GROSS: Why did John want him in the band?
GROSS: Why did John want him in the band so much knowing that he didn't know how to play?
KIRCHHERR: Well, because John always said when - Paul was moaning about, you know, how Stuart didn't practice and all that. But John always said, it doesn't matter. He looks good. He is rock 'n' roll.
GROSS: So you were engaged. What kind of life had you envisioned for yourselves together?
KIRCHHERR: Well, when you're young, you just in love. And every day is so new and so fresh and so beautiful. You just don't think of the future. But Stuart was very mature. And he thought he could become a teacher in art school in London. So that was what he was planning and then that we, maybe, go back to England. Or maybe he could teach in Germany.
GROSS: He died. Stu Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage after a series of excruciating headaches.
GROSS: When he was getting those headaches, did you think and did he think that they were a symptom of something very serious?
KIRCHHERR: No, not at all. When you're so young, you don't - death doesn't occur to you at all. It is not - it's so far away. I mean, a 21-year-old boy, you never think that there's something very drastically happening to him.
GROSS: So I think what happened is, one day, he collapsed.
KIRCHHERR: Yeah. He collapsed a couple of times in school. And they brought him home. And the doctor came and got X-rays. And so - and then it went better for a short while. And then, one day, my mother phoned me at work and said, you've got to come home. And Stuart is not feeling well. They brought him home from school again. And that's the day he died.
GROSS: You were with him in the ambulance when he died?
KIRCHHERR: Yes, yes.
GROSS: You know, you said that death doesn't occur to you when you're young. But you had to deal with it. You must have been quite shocked.
KIRCHHERR: Of course I was. But, you know, all my friends helped me an awful lot. And first of all, John did, you know, and George, the two of them.
GROSS: How did they help you?
KIRCHHERR: Well, John - you know, John had a very funny way of telling the people he loved what was going on. And one day, he just said, you have got to decide if you want to live or die. There is no other question. And you think about that. And then we talk about it again. And George was just sweet, you know, the - not like John in a harsh way. But the things that helped me was John.
GROSS: So you made the decision to go on...
GROSS: ...And continued with your work as a photographer?
KIRCHHERR: Yes, yes.
GROSS: The photos in your new book, "Yesterday: The Beatles Once Upon A Time," are from 1964, when they were shooting "A Hard Day's Night." How did you end up with them when they were shooting that?
KIRCHHERR: Well, the magazine stand in Hamburg - maybe you know the magazine - the chief photographer there was a friend of a friend of mine. And so he knew that I was very close to the Beatles. And he asked me if I could sort of act as a door-opener for him to take pictures of the Beatles, and because, at that time when they did "A Hard Day's Night," Brian Epstein stopped all the press activities. And no photos were allowed to be shot then. So I'd phoned George - and, you know, George was always my sort of guardian angel - and told him about it.
And he said, OK. You can come over if they pay you for it. Otherwise, you can stay at home. So I went to this done and told them. And they gave me quite - for the '60s, quite a good amount of money. And then we went over. And George sent a chauffeur. And they picked us up from the airport. And I stayed with George and Ringo then at the time they were making the film. So and then when we went to the movie and did all the shots of them acting and relaxing and having fun, after that, we went to Liverpool to meet Ringo's father and mommy and Georgie's mum and dad.
GROSS: Are you still taking photographs?
GROSS: Why not?
KIRCHHERR: No, because, you know, when all these Beatle thing was going on, nobody was interested in my other work, no one at all. They just said, yeah. Great, great. Where are the Beatles pictures? And so I wasn't sure if I'm really good. Or is it just the Beatles that made me sort of, in a way, famous. And I wasn't sure anymore if I'm good or not. So I just gave it up. That's it.
GROSS: What did you do instead?
KIRCHHERR: Well, I was always an assistant to a photographer for another 20 or 30 years. And then I started interior design. And I just did things which I liked to do, you know, which had at least fun.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
KIRCHHERR: Oh, it was lovely talking to you. Thank you very much.
BIANCULLI: Astrid Kirchherr spoke to Terry Gross in 2008. Her many books of photographs include "Astrid Kirchherr With The Beatles" published in 2018. She died last week at the age of 81. After a break, we'll remember Fred Willard, the comic actor who died last Friday at age 86. Also, Justin Chang reviews "The Trip To Greece," the new film starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. And John Powers reviews the newly restored Japanese animated film from 2003 "Tokyo Godfathers." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I FELL")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) If I fell in love with you, would you promise to be true and help me understand? - because I've been in love before. And I found that love was more than just holding hands. If I give my heart to you, I must be sure from the very start that you would love me more than her. If I trust in you, oh, please, don't run and hide. If I love you too, oh, please, don't hurt my pride like her, because I couldn't stand the pain. And I would be sad if our new love was in vain. So I hope you see...
(SOUNDBITE OF KEN PEPLOWSKI'S "FOR NO ONE")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. "Tokyo Godfathers" is an animated Japanese film about three homeless people who look after an abandoned baby. Originally released in 2003, the film has been restored and can now be seen on most major video-on-demand services. Our critic at large John Powers says the movie seems even better and more relevant today than it did when he first saw it.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: We never seem to get enough of stories about cool people who live on the margins of society, high-rolling gangsters, high-end strippers, high school chem teachers who sell crystal meth. We have less time for those whose life on the margins isn't cool - day laborers, residents of nursing homes, people who live on the streets. We've heard that stories about them will be depressing or preachy or both. The ideal antidote to this fear is "Tokyo Godfathers," a marvelous Japanese animated film by Satoshi Kon, whose death at age 46 cheated the world of its most interesting animator. Almost nobody in the U.S. saw the initial release in 2004. But happily, a restored new version has become available on VOD, to be followed by a Blu-ray in June.
Funny, touching and exceedingly entertaining, "Tokyo Godfathers" is an upbeat fable about three social outcasts that never sinks into moralizing or treacle. It begins on Christmas Eve with children singing "Silent Night" in a nativity scene. Their audience includes our three heroes, who share a cardboard shack in the shadows of prosperous Tokyo high-rises. There's the bearded alcoholic Gin, a gruff middle-aged man who lives from drink to drink, the runaway teenager Miyuki, who's got a real mouth on her, and the gigantic cross-dressing Hana, a onetime drag performer whose gap-toothed smile is as striking as her turban. They're digging through a trash heap when they come across an abandoned baby. This discovery launches them into a wild jaunt through the snowy streets of Tokyo, from gaudy neon boulevards and palatial hotels to sardine can subway trains and dark, dangerous alleyways.
Along the way, our tattered, smelly trio meets up with doctors and Yakuza dons, nightclub owners and hooligans who enjoy beating up the homeless. Their journey also leads them into the past, letting us see the unhappy family lives that led them to be on the street. Here in the dubbed version - you can get subtitles if you prefer - Gin and Miyuki try to convince the maternal Hana that they can't keep the baby but must take her to the police.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOKYO GODFATHERS")
JON AVNER: (As Gin) How in the hell are you going to raise a child? You're homeless, for Christ's sake.
SHAKINA NAYFACK: (As Hana) I know. I know. It's just I don't want her to go from one foster home to another without ever feeling truly loved. The thought of sending her to that kind of life...
VICTORIA GRACE: (As Miyuki) Lots of kids know what that's like. You don't have to be abandoned.
AVNER: (As Gin) I get it. But the parents must have had their reasons.
NAYFACK: (As Hana) What reason could anyone have for abandoning their child? There's no excuse. Her parents threw her away like she was trash.
AVNER: (As Gin) I'm not saying you're wrong. But what can we do about it?
POWERS: If "Tokyo Godfathers" sounds familiar, that's because its premise, a riff on the tale of the Three Wise Men, has been used over and over since the silent movie days. I've seen at least five versions, ranging from a John Wayne Western to a French farce that inspired the Hollywood comedy "Three Men And A Baby." Of the bunch, this is my favorite. That's because Satoshi Kon's work always aims high. If Hayao Miyazaki is Japanese animation's great mythmaker, Kon, one might say, is its radical psychotherapist. His movies explore Japan's cultural unconscious by revealing things that society usually ignores - the misogyny that shapes its J-pop girl groups, the dark crazy dreams that lurk within innocent figures like Hello Kitty or the homeless people who folks literally step over on the Tokyo sidewalks. And he does all this in images that pop with vivid beauty worthy of Japanese woodcuts and are as tightly edited as a Hitchcock thriller. By his standards, "Tokyo Godfathers" is unabashedly straightforward and warmhearted.
We come to see Gin, Miyuki and Hana not as generic losers - to use a familiar term these days - but as individuals who possess both self-destructive flaws and big-souled virtues. Much like the wonderful 2018 film "Shoplifters," Kon takes outsiders who strike us as alien and annoying and then shows them to be every bit as decent and generous as the respectable citizens who look down on them; maybe more so. Coming from fractured traditional families, they find support in the alternative family that they've created together in their cardboard home. It's only natural that these improbable Magi would look after a foundling.
Now, few things are harder than capturing goodness on screen, and I must confess that there are a couple of moments in "Tokyo Godfathers" that fall into cuteness or sentimentality. But I forgave that when I first saw it back in 2004, and I forgive it even more now. In these days when tens of millions are out of work and don't know what the future holds, I can't fault a film for showing too much compassion and love for characters who must struggle just to get by.
BIANCULLI: Critic at large John Powers reviewed the newly restored animated version of "Tokyo Godfathers." Coming up, we remember Fred Willard, the comic actor and improviser who died last Friday at age 86. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTEFIORI COCKTAIL'S "GNE GNE")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Fred Willard, the comedy actor and improv comic, appeared in hundreds of TV shows and movies over his lengthy career and in hundreds more talk shows playing even more characters and also being himself. He died last Friday. He was 86 years old. Earlier this week, Jimmy Kimmel devoted an entire show to Fred Willard, a favorite guest and sketch player on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," and noted how he had first been introduced to Fred Willard, as I had, by watching and loving "Fernwood 2 Night," the 1977 spinoff of Norman Lear's soap opera spoof, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." In "Fernwood 2 Night," Martin Mull played smarmy small-town Ohio TV talk show host Barth Gimble, and Fred Willard played his clueless sidekick Jerry Hubbard. In this clip, he surprises the host by reciting some poetry.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FERNWOOD 2 NIGHT")
FRED WILLARD: (As Jerry Hubbard) Kids, you should listen to this, too, because you'll grow old. Remember me, remember me when I have passed away. Remember that I lived and died, as you will too one day. If I can write these few short lines, it will not be in vain if, after I am dead and gone, you still recall my name. Remember me.
MARTIN MULL: (As Barth Gimble) To follow up, Jerry, that's actually very pretty. Who wrote that?
WILLARD: (As Jerry) Who wrote it? Oh, I don't know. Who knows? It's an old poem. Probably some old guy dead and gone.
BIANCULLI: Fred Willard and Martin Mull would reteam two decades later playing a gay couple on "Roseanne." On television, Willard's other credits over the years included Emmy-nominated recurring roles on "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Modern Family" and hosting "Saturday Night Live."
And we haven't even mentioned Fred Willard's movie appearances. From "Austin Powers" to "Anchorman," he seemed to pop up everywhere good movie comedy was being made. That was true most of all of the largely improvised movies directed by Christopher Guest, which took full advantage of Willard's improv days at Chicago's Second City. He played an Air Force lieutenant in "This Is Spinal Tap," a dog show announcer in "Best In Show," a folk group manager in "A Mighty Wind" and a TV entertainment reporter in "For Your Consideration" - very funny movies, very funny performances.
Terry Gross spoke with Fred Willard in 1997. They began with a clip from "Waiting For Guffman," in which Willard played a travel agent who, with his wife, is auditioning for a role in a new community theater musical. It commemorates the 150th anniversary of Blaine, Mo. The director running the audition is played by Christopher Guest, and Willard's wife and audition partner is played by Catherine O'Hara.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAITING FOR GUFFMAN")
WILLARD: (As Ron Albertson) Ding dong.
CATHERINE O'HARA: (As Sheila Albertson) Oh. I wonder who knows I'm vacationing here at the Oasis.
WILLARD: (As Ron) Am I late?
O'HARA: (As Sheila) You.
WILLARD: (As Ron) Surprised?
O'HARA: (As Sheila) How did you find me?
WILLARD: (As Ron) I have my ways.
O'HARA: (As Sheila) Would you like to come in for coffee?
(Singing) You don't need to answer. There's no need to speak. I'll be your belly dancer, prancer.
WILLARD: (As Ron, singing) And I will be your sheikh. I don't need a harem, honey, when you're by my side. And you won't need a camel, no, no, when I take you for a ride.
O'HARA: (As Sheila) We'll need some coffee to with that ride, won't we?
WILLARD: (As Ron) You're always full of surprises.
O'HARA: (As Sheila, laughter).
WILLARD: (As Ron) But, say, I wonder, do we have time for that coffee?
O'HARA: (As Sheila) What time is it?
WILLARD: (As Ron) What time is it? Haven't you been paying attention? It's...
FRED WILLARD AND CATHERINE O'HARA: (As Ron and Sheila, singing) ...Midnight at the Oasis.
CHRISTOPHER GUEST: (As Corky St. Clair, clapping) Oh.
WILLARD: (As Ron) Thank you.
GUEST: (As Corky) Good.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Would you describe your character in "Waiting For Guffman?"
WILLARD: Well, I think I'm a guy who has no self-realization. He doesn't realize how overbearing he is. I'm married to Catherine O'Hara. We are travel agents in the small town of Blaine. We're very good travel agents, even though we've never been outside of Blaine, Mo. And we've also been in some of the earlier amateur productions here in this town - for instance, the musical version of "Backdraft."
WILLARD: We are called into audition for it. And we go in sort of bemused by the whole thing because we know it's really just a formality that he's making us go through the tryout there because we know that we are going to be the stars of the show, as we have been with the other shows. And so we try to put on that false humility.
WILLARD: And I say that in a nutshell is our - my character, and I don't realize how overbearing I am. And I enjoy doing it because I guess there's also a little bit of that in me. I think if I were to just drop that little - you know, open that little door in your brain that says, don't do that or don't say that, all this might come out.
GROSS: It strikes me, you've really made a career out of playing really square people.
WILLARD: (Laughter) I guess I have. I - you know, I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. I went to a military prep school. I also went to - attended and graduated from Virginia Military Institute. So I can kind of relate to that mentality, that very conservative, square mentality, which always amused me. And what you do when something amuses you like that, you try to mimic it and dress yourself in that and do it on - in a performance. And it's always interested me. So I tend to - I grab on to those characters very easily.
I was in "Spinal Tap." I have one scene that a lot of people seem to remember. I played the sergeant who welcomes the hard rock group Spinal Tap to the Air Force base. And people said, boy, you just grabbed that character - because I can relate to it. I understand it. I've lived with those people. I understand their mentality. And I've always enjoyed doing it. As a result, a lot of people think I am very square.
I was in a comedy group called the Ace Trucking Company, and we had some very colorful characters in it, and I usually played the anchor guy. I was always the boss. I was always the guy who was trying to keep discipline. And we were in the dressing room one night, about a Friday night, and one of the guys in the other group started talking to me. He says, you know, it's taken all week for me to talk to you; I didn't think I would like you because of what I see on stage (laughter). And it upset me very much, and I thought, gee, that's what people are thinking of me.
GROSS: Why don't we actually hear the scene from "Spinal Tap?"
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THIS IS SPINAL TAP")
WILLARD: (As Air Force Lieutenant Bob Hookstratten) Ah. The - Hookstratten. You are Spinal Tarp?
JUNE CHADWICK: (As Jeanine Pettibone) I am Jeanine Pettibone.
WILLARD: (As Hookstratten) Jeanine.
CHADWICK: (As Jeanine) And this is Spinal Tap.
WILLARD: (As Hookstratten) Spinal Tap.
CHADWICK: (As Jeanine) Yes.
WILLARD: (As Hookstratten) My mistake. I'm Lieutenant Bob Hookstratten. Welcome to Lindberg Air Force Base. Is this your gentlemen's first visit to a military facility?
HARRY SHEARER: (As Derek Smalls) Yeah.
WILLARD: (As Hookstratten) Fine. May I start by saying how thrilled we are to have you here? We are such fans of your music and all of your records.
SHEARER: (As Derek) That's great.
WILLARD: (As Hookstratten) I'm not speaking of yours, personally, but the whole genre of the rock 'n' roll...
MICHAEL MCKEAN: (As David St. Hubbins) I can understand that, yeah.
WILLARD: (As Hookstratten) ...And so many of the exciting things that are happening in music today.
SHEARER: (As Derek) It's a great genre.
WILLARD: (As Hookstratten) And let me explain a bit about what's going on. This is our monthly at-ease weekend. Gives us a chance to kind of let down our hair, although I see you all have a head start on that (laughter). These haircuts wouldn't pass military muster, believe me. Although I shouldn't talk; my hair's getting a little shaggy, too. Better not get too close to you; they'll think I'm part of the band. I'm joking, of course. Shall we go in and I'll show you around? Walk this way, please.
GROSS: I think one of the places where you perfected this persona of the square guy who really thinks he's happening and talented was on "Fernwood 2 Night," when you were...
GROSS: ...The sidekick for Martin Mull. And "Fernwood 2 Night" was this, you know, parody of late-night talk entertainment shows.
WILLARD: Absolutely. It was an improviser's dream because they gave me this character. I was supposed to have been the host, the star of this small town, Fernwood.
You know, the - I played Cowboy Bill, and I probably hosted the late-night movie in the matinee, and I had a - probably had a game show. And here's this new sharpie, comes in from Miami, who is Martin Mull, and I'm deflated. So it was a perfect character to play. You could be egotistical. You could pull out all the stops of censoring yourself. I was a bit stupid. So anything I said, nothing could go wrong with what I said because it fit right into the character.
GROSS: Since you have made such a career on playing square...
GROSS: ...Can you give us some tips on how to be convincingly square?
WILLARD: I think you have to keep your eye on one object - that is, let's get down to business. You can be amused at what's going about you in a very offhand - that could be one of the tangents, yes. And if you're amused at something, you let it be known that you're amused. You say, yes, I am amused at what you have said, and I enjoy a good laugh as well as the next man, but let's get back to the point in hand. You see the point?
WILLARD: You can't ever - you actually have no sense of humor, but the people who have the least sense of humor are usually the ones who are the first to say, I enjoy a good laugh as much as the next man. And, you know, what follows that is, but...
GROSS: (Laughter) Right.
WILLARD: ...This is very serious. So that's it. You've got to strip away any sense of humor you have and just know that there's some bottom line there, which I have never deciphered what the bottom line is - getting some job accomplished, I guess. And I've always dreaded that - to be in that atmosphere. I've found myself in it.
When I went to New York, I worked in an office, a credit office. It was a subsidiary of Dun & Bradstreet. And I, for a couple of years, had a boss who I kind of emulated when I have to play a boss or someone who is very strict - I kind remember him. He was just a big blowhard, and you could see right through him. And I was on the brink of being fired for two years, and every time I was ready to be fired, someone else in my department would quit or leave, and I'd be back in his good graces.
And I remember, near the end, I would come in - I remember one morning oversleeping and coming in, like, at 10:30 and walking into the office, and my friends were walking out of the office. They were going to coffee break. I said, where are you going? They said, we're going to get coffee. So I turned around (laughter) and got coffee with them. So I said, if I'm coming in at 10:30, I might as well walk in at 11.
Here's a hint for people who are working in an office and have one foot in the office and one foot out - when you leave at night, leave your sport - your jacket there, so when you walk in the door late, you're in your shirtsleeves, so the boss assumes that maybe you were there even earlier than him, and he feels a little guilty that he - he'll come in a little earlier the next day to see what time you actually did get in. That's just a little trick I'm giving away for free.
GROSS: Oh, that's good. Thank you very much.
GROSS: So how do you wear your hair when you're not on camera?
WILLARD: (Laughter) I think that is the strangest question I've ever been asked. I'll have to remember that.
GROSS: Oh, I ask that to all my guests (laughter).
WILLARD: I comb it straight over my forehand, like the famed Ish Kabibble from the Kay Kyser show. No, I wear it pretty much the same. I've...
WILLARD: I did like my hairdo in "Waiting For Guffman," where I was playing what I thought would be Curly from "Oklahoma," in curls over my forehand. And I looked at that, and I said, my gosh, I was trying to be funny, but I look darn good there.
WILLARD: That's a style I ought to adopt.
GROSS: So I've got one this question for you. How come I don't see you in more things?
WILLARD: You know (laughter) - I'll give you the phone number of my agent, who calls me after every job and says, how'd you get that? You know, I don't know.
WILLARD: I have - last year and this year, I hit, really, a streak of gold. I was on "Murphy Brown." I went to "Family Matters." I went to "Friends." I went to "Roseanne." I mean, I went, like, eight weeks in a row without missing a week of work.
GROSS: Is Willard your real last name?
WILLARD: No, my real name is Johnny Fortune. But the...
WILLARD: No. Yes, it is. Fred Willard. Yes, that's it. I'm stuck with that. It's not the most glamorous name, but it's mine, yes.
GROSS: (Laughter) Well, Fred Willard, thank you so much for talking with us.
WILLARD: Thank you for having me on.
BIANCULLI: Fred Willard speaking to Terry Gross in 1997. The familiar comic actor from so many TV and movie comedies died last Friday. He was 86 years old.
Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "The Trip To Greece," the latest talk and travel movie from Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRANFORD MARSALIS' "CAROLINA SHOUT")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "The Trip To Greece" is the fourth and final comedy - after "The Trip," "The Trip To Italy" and "The Trip To Spain" - to follow the actor-comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on a conversation-filled food and wine tour through a European country. It begins streaming today on most major video-on-demand services. Our film critic Justin Chang says the movie will either satisfy or inflame your wanderlust, and he recommends it either way.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: At a time when many of us are staying home, with no plans to travel farther than the nearest grocery store, watching "The Trip To Greece" might seem like either a lovely escape or an exquisite form of torture. The movie, or rather the original six-episode TV series it was edited down from, was shot before the COVID-19 pandemic. And so much of what we see - tourists climbing aboard ferry boats and sharing meals in Michelin-starred restaurants - plays like a time capsule from a world that has temporarily ceased to exist. Viewer envy is par for the course with any good cinematic travelogue. But "The Trip To Greece" didn't just make me jealous. It left me feeling weirdly bereft. I enjoyed the ride anyway. And you probably will, too. If you've seen any of the earlier trip movies, you'll know what to expect.
The actor-comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing coyly fictionalized versions of themselves, have already wined and dined their way through England's Lake District, Italy and Spain. This time, they're starting in Turkey and making their way through Greece, spending six days retracing Odysseus' famous voyage home. As usual, one of them is filing freelance dining reviews for a newspaper, which explains the many stops at high-end eateries, where every amuse-bouche is as lovingly photographed as the scenery. But if you come for the gorgeous food and landscapes, you stay for the quick-witted banter and the virtuoso celebrity impersonations. As usual, Coogan and Brydon live to perform. And their never-ending one-upsmanship is what makes them such enjoyable, if also exhausting, company. Coogan, the BAFTA-winning actor from movies like "Philomena" and "Stan & Ollie," is the bigger star of the two, and therefore the bigger target. Brydon, a saucy sidekick, clearly enjoys puncturing his friend's thin skin. At one point, he flatters Coogan by telling him he's starting to look like Richard Gere, then turns around and dings him for lapping up the compliment.
Still, 10 years have passed since the first trip. And both men, now in their 50s, are starting to mellow with age. They seem a bit more willing to enjoy each other's company and even laugh at each other's jokes, as Coogan does when Brydon goes off on a bizarre, extended riff over a Mediterranean lunch.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRIP TO GREECE")
ROB BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) It doesn't help that we're under a tree. Insects love to be under trees. You know why?
STEVE COOGAN: (As Steve Coogan) Yeah. You know, I went out on my land recently...
BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) Yeah.
COOGAN: (As Steve Coogan) ...To sit under a tree.
BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) Thirty-six acres, isn't it?
COOGAN: (As Steve Coogan) Thirty-eight. And I went to sit under a tree just to...
BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) To think?
COOGAN: (As Steve Coogan) Well, no, no...
BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) Just to think?
COOGAN: (As Steve Coogan) No, no. To read a book actually. I put a blanket down just because, you know, this tree. And I sat under it and started to read. And there was a fly started hovering over my head. So...
BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) That'll happen. Yeah.
COOGAN: (As Steve Coogan) So I just got up and just went back in the house. I had this idea that it would be...
BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) Steve Coogan, ladies and gentlemen. Wonderful stories from Steve.
COOGAN: (As Steve Coogan, laughter).
BRYDON: (As Rob Brydon) And there'll be more from him at the same time next week. He must do that one about the flies under the tree. I mean, it's wonderful stuff. A friend said he saw you at a large tavern doing that and had the room in the palm of his hand. That's what he said. Wonderful story.
CHANG: I wasn't crazy about Coogan and Brydon's previous outing, "The Trip To Spain." The comedy sometimes curdled into sourness. And the actors' back-and-forth seemed to reach a dead end. But "The Trip To Greece" is an altogether pleasant return to form. The jokes are sharper and tighter. And those impersonations are especially first-rate. Sadly, neither man trots out Michael Caine this time around. Though, we do get Sean Connery, Mick Jagger and an especially inspired Dustin Hoffman. Early on, Brydon fittingly quotes from Aristotle's "Poetics" - "imitation comes naturally to human beings, and so does the universal pleasure in imitation." It isn't the only classic text that gets referenced here. After all, Coogan and Brydon are basically living their own version of "The Odyssey," establishing a resonant metaphor about the journeys we take out into the world and the journeys that lead us back home.
There's always been a glimmer of melancholy beneath the idyllic surface of these movies. We've seen these characters deal with setbacks in their careers and relationships, usually on the sidelines, in between sips of wine and bites of haute cuisine. Futility and disappointment are nothing new for them. But "The Trip To Greece" gets at something even more painful and direct, a sense of encroaching mortality. Coogan's dad is in poor health, which may be why he's been having strange, troubling nightmares. Other real-world concerns undercut the blissful mood. On the island of Lesbos, Coogan runs into an actor he appeared with years ago and gives him a ride to the nearby refugee camp where he now works, a moment that throws their privileged existence into stark relief. Given the present state of the world, it's easy enough to sneer at that privilege.
But "The Trip To Greece" doesn't scold our heroes for their extravagances. And it doesn't scold us for enjoying them vicariously. This is a movie that knows that pleasure can be a vital consolation in times of suffering. But it also knows that pleasure is often all too fleeting. Coogan and Brydon have said this will be their last trip. And if so, they found a perfect, poignant note on which to end. But personally, I hope we haven't seen the last of this squabbling, endearing duo - or heard the last of their Michael Caine.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. On Monday's show - as we celebrate Memorial Day amid the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, we look at a renowned 20th-century statesman who led his nation at a time of peril, Winston Churchill. We talk with historian Erik Larson, whose new book focuses on Churchill's first year in office, when Britain endured a ferocious bombing campaign by the Nazis. Larson says Churchill told his citizens the truth and inspired them to resist. The book is called "The Splendid And The Vile." Hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "LA VIE EN ROSE")
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