Skip to main content

TV critic David Bianculli

TV critic David Bianculli previews the HBO docudrama Live from Baghdad. It's a behind-the-scenes story about how CNN scooped its rivals in covering the first night of the Persian Gulf War 12 years ago. The show premieres on Saturday.


Other segments from the episode on December 5, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 5, 2002: Interview with Ayesha Imam; Review of the docudrama "Live from Baghdad;" Interview with Buscemi; Commentary on the band “The Lovin’ Spoonful.”


DATE December 5, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Ayesha Imam discusses her role in promoting human
rights, women's rights and democratic development in Nigeria

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Ayesha Imam is a women's rights activist in Nigeria. To understand
what she's up against, consider the upheaval that forced out the Miss World
pageant, which had been scheduled to be held in Nigeria this weekend. Muslims
protested against the pageant, saying it was indecent and immoral. Rioting
broke out after a fashion journalist wrote that the prophet Muhammad probably
would have chosen a wife from among the contestants. Protesters burned down
her newspaper's office and the deputy governor of Zamfora state, where the
pageant was supposed to be held, issued a fatwa calling for the journalist's

Zamfora was the first state in Nigeria to adapt a conservative Islamic
criminal legal system, or Sharia, after the military government was replaced
by a civilian one in 1999. Ayesha Imam has campaigned against the adaptation
of this law. She's the executive director of the group Baobab for Women's
Human Rights. On Monday, she receives the John Humphrey Freedom Award from
the International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development in
Montreal. I asked her if she expected problems when the Miss World pageant
was initially planned for Nigeria.

Ms. AYESHA IMAM (Executive Director, Baobab for Women's Human Rights): I knew
there was likely to be trouble, because it's both conservative Muslims and
conservative Christians who are uncomfortable with the idea of beauty
pageants, in particular. But the likelihood that it was actually going to
escalate into the type of conflict and injuries and death that has happened,
that, I think, most people didn't foresee.

GROSS: I'd like your reaction to the sentence the journalist wrote in Nigeria
that was responded to with the fatwa and she wrote about the Miss World
pageant: `What would Muhammad think? In all honesty, he probably would have
chosen a wife from one of them,' from one of the contestants. What was your
reaction when you heard that line?

Ms. IMAM: I think it was fairly foolish and somewhat irresponsible to have
printed it in the climate of tenseness in Nigeria right now. It's not been
unusual for there to be a good deal of conflict, including violence.
Nonetheless, that does not excuse the burning down of the This Day office nor
the fights and conflicts, the burning of mosques or churches, and especially
not the death and injuries. And it certainly doesn't excuse the fatwa.

One thing I'd like to make clear, though, is that a fatwa is simply a legal
opinion. Nobody is obliged to follow it. And anybody can have a fatwa. It
depends on who you ask. Anybody can give you a fatwa depending on what their
particular opinion is. I don't think that the deputy governor of Zamfora
state is particularly religiously or morally qualified to be giving fatwas.
But secondly, I think that for any state government to endorse something that
is calling for people to kill somebody else without due process of law is
simply an incitement to murder and is worse than irresponsible.

GROSS: Now the state that has endorsed the fatwa, Zamfora state, is one of 12
states within Nigeria that has taken on this more conservative form of Islamic
law. It was actually the first state to adapt this form of law. What exactly
has it adapted?

Ms. IMAM: Well, actually, what has happened in Nigeria is that since
independence, what we've had is that Muslim laws have been largely confined to
personal law, so marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody and
guardianship, except as encapsulated in the penal code, which was adopted
around independence. Muslim laws was not reflected in criminal legislation.
And in the penal code, it was--it had an influence, but it was not directly
what is now being passed as Sharia. What has happened is that in the Sharia
acts that states have passed, beginning, as you said, with Zamfora, they've
picked up on particularly conservative variations and taken those even without
the safeguards that existed in 13th and 14th century legislation, so it's not
that they've reverted to a strict form of Muslim laws. What they've actually
done is taken up a truncated and twisted version of it that has actually not
been practiced even in the 13th century and certainly should not be the form
that we're adopting in the 21st century. For instance, a lot of the
punishments that they give, which they claim come from the Koran--stoning, for
example, is nowhere mentioned in the Koran. So the claim that they're picking
up laws that are divinely given is not at all true.

GROSS: Twelve out of the 19 states of northern Nigeria, and most of this area
is Muslim, now practice Sharia, the Islamic law. This shift to Islamic law
happened in 1999 after the end of military rule with the start of civilian
government. Were you surprised by that? Did you think that at the end of
military rule that things would loosen up a little bit as opposed to getting
more conservative and more anti-woman?

Ms. IMAM: The thing that's clear to those of us who work with women's rights
issues is that it's not easy to make an automatic assumption that civilian
rule means more women's rights and military rule doesn't. But what I do want
to comment on is the reason why the adoption of Sharia law has proved to be
surprisingly popular at much of the grass-roots level. And it's not for the
reasons, I think, that most people outside of Nigeria think. It's less about
religious identity and more about aspirations for personal security, law and
order, anti-corruption and social justice.

One of the things that's very often said is that where there are strict
punishments--and I understand that there are many states in the US
who--who--where this is believed also--but where there are strict punishments,
there will be an increase in law and order. And in Nigeria, many people have
suffered from a breakdown in law and order, the inability to rely on the
police to be able to carry out policing duties. The increase in armed robbery
that used to be more or less confined to the relatively wealthy but is now
happening also in very poor neighborhoods.

And so that was one hope that out of Sharia or strict criminal legislation and
harsh punishment would come law and order and an increase in personal security
for ordinary people. But increasingly, the implementation of it is seeing
that rather than focusing on security and such issues as embezzlement at the
top end of theft, that it's issues of morality and only poor people who are
being picked up and punished for it. And there is increasing, I think,
dissatisfaction and disillusionment with it. And I think people are beginning
to see past the facade to the fact that it was simply a political ploy.

GROSS: Are the new Islamic laws that have been instituted in states through
northern Nigeria particularly harsh for women?

Ms. IMAM: In principle, they're not particularly harsh for women. In
principle, they're actually absolutely gender-neutral. They're exactly the
same for punishments for women as for men. But clearly in the implementation,
there has been a great deal of discrimination. For instance, more women are
being charged with (foreign language spoken) or immorality offenses than are
men. And obviously it takes two to engage in any immoral act, if it is
immoral. Secondly, when men are charged, they have often been offered a
chance to retract confessions, and technically, if you retract a confession,
and there isn't the evidence of four witnesses, then you cannot be charged
with it. So men are being offered the chance to retract confessions. Women
are not. They're not even informed of the provision that it's possible.

Thirdly, often for crimes like rape, men are being charged under the previous
penal code, as opposed to the new Sharia legislation, which has a lesser
punishment. Whereas allegedly for consensual sex outside of marriage, women
are being charged with offenses for which the ultimate punishment is supposed
to be stoning or whipping. And men, for rape, are being charged under an act
which gives lesser offenses. So that's very, very clear gender discrimination
in the way it's being implemented.

GROSS: Tell us about one of the cases that you took on working on behalf of a
woman who was going to be subjected to a very harsh punishment.

Ms. IMAM: Well, there are a number. The first case was that of Baryiya
Magazu, who's--she was then 13 years old, who was--who got pregnant and was
convicted--sentenced to whipping. Whipping is--in the law, as it stands,
whipping is for people who are not married, women who are not married, and
stoning is for people who are or who ever have been married. And so she was
13 and she was convicted and sentenced to whipping. When we intervened, the
judges in the case said that she would not be whipped until after she had
finished breast-feeding, which is also a standard provision in
(unintelligible) laws, which gave us time to start filing an appeal. But what
happened was two things.

One, the governor, the executive arm of Zamfora state, started intervening in
the judicial process, which is itself illegal. And the court officials were
directed not to accept the appeal. I mean, physically they were refusing the
pieces of paper for the application to appeal. But secondly, in the face of
both national and international protests, the governor of Zamfora state
in--was probably boasting about resisting these Westerners and these infidels
and apostates, which is what he calls those of us who are Muslim and who
oppose what he's doing and had the sentence brought forward, without notice.
She was informed the night before. And then had her whipped. So that one of
the things that is very clear to us is that international protest does need to
be very carefully managed if it's not to be counterproductive.

GROSS: When you said that she was whipped, this was a particularly harsh
whipping, too. I think it was like a hundred strokes of the cane; do I have
that right?

Ms. IMAM: It is a hundred strokes of the cane, but there are also regulations
about having to hold a book, usually the Koran, between your forearm and the
side of your chest so that, in fact, only the lower part of your arm--the
whipper's arm--can be moved. So each blow in itself is not very hard, but a
hundred blows is a lot. And not only that, it's the public humiliation as
well that I think that people really object to.

GROSS: It sounds like the law has not only become more restrictive and the
penalties more severe; it sounds like there are men in Nigeria who now feel
justified in attacking women on the streets when the men think that the women
are displaying a loose morality.

Ms. IMAM: That's true. And I think that there is a general feeling that men
now have the right to stop women wherever they see them if they think they're
not dressing properly or they're behaving in an immoral way. I think to be
accurate, one thing that we shouldn't forget is that actually a number of men
have also been charged under these acts and have also been
whipped--OK?--although none of them have been sentenced to stoning.

But what is clear is that, except in some states like again, Kano, where the
state government has discussed with members of Shia Ulama--or, if you like,
the Muslim clergy--and made public announcements on the radio and the
television and in newspapers that people taking the law into their own hands
will not be allowed to do so. In Zamfora, for example, they have very clearly
given not just tacit but formal approval to vigilante groups of young men
going around and imposing their version of what life should be like on
everybody else. So I think clearly there is a severe problem there.

GROSS: My guest is Nigerian women's rights activist Ayesha Imam. More after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ayesha Imam. She's just won a
human rights award, the John Humphrey Freedom Award, for her human rights work
on behalf of women. She's the founding director of Baobab for Women's Human
Rights, which is a group in Nigeria, where she lives.

Now you're a Muslim, yes?

Ms. IMAM: Yes.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about how you were taught growing up to
think about adultery or, you know, pregnancy out of wedlock and what the
consequences might be? I mean, and also what the sense of morality was in
your house. I'm assuming that there wasn't the sense of ultraharsh penalties.

Ms. IMAM: Well, it would be true to say of all of Nigeria, I think, that
these--while it's never been approved, it has never been thought that any
group had the right to make a direct punishment. You know, so there might be
some social ostracism, but certainly it was not a legal offense. Until 1999,
it was not a legal offense.

GROSS: Pregnancy out of wedlock wasn't a legal problem; adultery wasn't a
legal offense, either?

Ms. IMAM: No. No, it wasn't. It might be, you know, a social solecism, but
it was not a criminal offense.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. IMAM: There was nothing that the courts would do about that. It was
just, you know, not thought of...

GROSS: How did...

Ms. IMAM: ...certainly during the years that I was growing up.

GROSS: Did you grow up with the knowledge of women's rights, or is that
something that you learned later on in life?

Ms. IMAM: I always grew up with it. It was a knowledge, I think, generally
of rights as a whole. I think many children are born with a sense of `this
is fair' or `this isn't fair.' And the pity of it is that somehow along the
line, their socialization chained that innate sense of fairness for everybody
out of them, and I suppose I was lucky in that my parents and my upbringing
encouraged that sense of justice. The fact that I work in women's human
rights is because there is a particular need there, but I do see women's human
rights as a part of a panoply of human rights for everybody. And, yes, always
I can remember since--in secondary school, I was 12 or 13, we started a club
for--I have to say it--good eating and good works.

GROSS: What was that about?

Ms. IMAM: Well, I was in boarding school, and we were not enamored of the
food, so the good eating was about, you know, having treats. But the good
works were about doing things that would help other people. So...

GROSS: So you got an early start there. Now because of the, like,
ultraconservative strain within the Islamic world now, many people think that
Islam must be incompatible with women's rights and with certain larger human
rights and with democracy. And I'm wondering from your Islamic upbringing and
your knowledge now of what's happening in certain Islamic states within
Nigeria, do you think that Islam is incompatible with women's rights?

Ms. IMAM: No. The issue is not what Islam is or isn't. It's the use that
some Muslims make of Islam. Within Muslim discourses--and I make a
distinction between Islam religion and Muslim--what people who believe in the
religion do or don't do while ascribing it to the religion, and it's very
clear that there are some obviously very conservative ideas about women's
rights that are held by some Muslims. But there are also some very, very
progressive ideas about women's rights that are held by other Muslims. A
family friend and uncle of mine in the 1950s wrote a series of articles on
women's rights in Islam in which he argued that women had the right to vote,
the right to go to school, the right to work outside of the house, the right
not to be secluded. That was the 1950s in Nigeria. So what we're doing is
not new.

In fact, if you look at Muslim history, a lot of the incidences that are
referred to even as sunna--that is to say, the traditions of the life of the
prophet--are women going to the prophet and saying, `So-and-so says I can't do
this. Is that so?' and the prophet saying, `Of course not. Of course you can
do it.' For example, in one case, a young woman came to the prophet and said,
`My father wants to marry me to my cousin. Does he have the right to do
this?' And the prophet said, `No, he doesn't.' And so the young woman says,
`OK. I don't mind being married to him, but I just wanted to be clear that I
had the choice.' You know, that was the prophet directly. Now how that gets
transmuted into saying that in Maliki Sharia law, fathers have the right
of ijbar, which is the right to compel their young daughters in marriage,
is not a total mystery, but it's clearly inconsistent with both what's
actually in the Koran and with what the traditions of the prophet are

GROSS: Well, we've been talking about Islam in Nigeria. Nigeria has a large
Christian population. Is there the same kind of ultraconservative strain or
extremist strain now in Christianity in Nigeria as there is in Islam?

Ms. IMAM: Yes, to some extent. The one thing that you might know or may not
know is that, in fact, Kaduna, which is where most of this fighting is going
on, is about 50 percent Muslim and 50 percent Christian. So it's not a Muslim
state. However (technical difficulties) which is dominantly Muslim and not
(technical difficulties) the issue's not just that they're conservatives; it's
that they're what I call essentialist identity politics or what other people
have referred to as fundamentalists who are not just saying, `We have these
views,' but who are saying that, `We are willing to impose these views by
force on other people.' So, yes, there are both Muslims and Christians who do
that. The problem is that in the Muslim communities there are people who are
manipulating that for political reasons and who are in positions of state

GROSS: You went to college in England, and I w...

Ms. IMAM: Also in Nigeria.

GROSS: And in Nigeria, OK. I'm wondering how the years you spent in England
affected your politics, your sense of religion or your sense of women's

Ms. IMAM: When I was an undergraduate in England, I remember feeling that I
was expected to be two separate people in my politics. I could join women's
groups that were largely white and middle-class, and I could join groups
around black people's rights, which were largely working-class but very
male-dominated. Or I could join groups for social justice, which were mostly
white, male and middle-class. But there was nowhere that I could be all
facets of me together, if you like.

And so what I found when I came to Nigeria was that when I went back to
Nigeria after I finished my first degree, that that was a place where, in
fact, I could insist on being interested in social justice issues, interested
in poverty issues and interested in women's rights issues. And that was the
point at which we formed this group that's called Women in Nigeria, which
still exists--this was the early '80s--which argued that women's rights issues
and social justice issues in general had to be tackled simultaneously rather
than what we were hearing usually, which is `Let's deal with the general
problems first and then we'll get to the women.'

GROSS: Right. Now what did your mother think when you started this group?

Ms. IMAM: I think she was proud, and so was my father.

GROSS: Ayesha Imam is the executive director of the Nigerian group Baobab for
Women's Human Rights. On Monday she received the John Humphrey Freedom Award
from the International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development in

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, actor Steve Buscemi. He's starring in the new movie "Love
in the Time of Money." Ed Ward remembers the band The Lovin' Spoonful, and
David Bianculli previews the HBO docudrama "Live from Baghdad," which
premieres Saturday.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New HBO docudrama "Live From Baghdad"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This Saturday, HBO presents a docudrama called "Live From Baghdad," a
behind-the-scenes story about how CNN managed to scoop its rivals in covering
the first night of the Persian Gulf War 12 years ago. TV critic David
Bianculli has this review.


There's no question that "Live From Baghdad," this weekend's new telemovie
from HBO, is timely, not with another President Bush squaring off at this very
moment against Saddam Hussein. There's also no question that in the media
world of corporate synergy, this docudrama is self-serving. HBO is making a
movie about CNN, one that presents it as the little news operation that could,
clearly and cleverly outmaneuvering the bigger stars and deeper budgets of its
broadcast news rivals. Both HBO and CNN are owned by the same company now,
AOL Time Warner, so there's reason to be suspicious of the motives in
producing it.

But what really counts is the final product. After all, CBS recently made a
TV movie about Jackie Gleason, one of the biggest stars in its history, and
that movie was terrible. "Live From Baghdad" is excellent. It tells a
fascinating story, and it does it by coming at the subject from a surprising
but absolutely proper direction.

The focus of "Live From Baghdad" is on how Cable News Network and its
reporting team based in Baghdad managed to keep broadcasting on January 16th,
1990, when all around them was exploding with bombs and all other networks had
lost communications and gone silent. That first night, before the pictures
arrived, it was CNN as radio, and was the most historic and riveting live
eyewitness account of a war strike since Edward R. Murrow intoned, `This is
London.' Peter Arnett, John Holloman and Bernard Shaw providing all-night
play-by-play from the Al-Rasheed Hotel, reported freely and bravely. They put
CNN on the map that night and relayed a type of uncensored, front-line war
reporting that hasn't been equaled or approached since.

By the way, don't expect it to happen again next time. The competition is
stiffer now, and the military machineries on both sides have gotten savvier
about how to restrict news coverage. But "Live From Baghdad" tells about how
CNN got in position to get away with it that fateful night. It's a story that
begins long before Peter Arnett arrived on the scene, so the tale is told from
the point of view of CNN producer Robert Weiner. The telemovie is based on
his memoirs, and Weiner is one of four authors of the teleplay. "Moonstruck"
playwright John Patrick Shanley is another.

But it's not especially self-serving. What it is is convincing. "Live From
Baghdad" is full of the telling little details, the small and often
unflattering things that illuminate character and pull you into that world.
Michael Keaton plays Weiner, and his performance in the movie is stripped away
of any grand moments of overacting. Like David Suchet, who plays the Iraqi
minister of information who turns out to be Weiner's most valuable contact,
Keaton plays his part close to the vest.

Helena Bonham Carter and Lily Taylor play two of Weiner's colleagues, but
there's no wartime romance forced into the story. And when Peter Arnett
arrives late in the narrative, played perfectly by a gregarious Bruce McGill,
the behind-the-scenes battles for news access already have been fought and
won. "Live From Baghdad" is a lot like a Persian Gulf "All the President's
Men." It's the legwork that matters, and retraced intelligently, it's the
legwork that's fascinating.

It takes a long time and a lot of patience for Weiner to finally work his way
into the office of the Iraqi minister of information. When he does, he
instantly asks for the moon, beginning with several pieces of equipment to
make CNN's job easier. Here's Keaton and Suchet playing out the scene where
they first discuss the dedicated phone line that turns out to be CNN's secret
weapon in staying on the air.

(Soundbite of "Live From Baghdad")

Mr. DAVID SUSHAY: How can I help you?

Mr. MICHAEL KEATON ("Robert Weiner"): Well, a few things, actually. There's
a request there for a couple of pieces of equipment. I need a four wire and a
fly way.

Mr. SUSHAY: What is this?

Mr. KEATON: Well, a four wire is kind of an elaborate phone system that will
allow me to get through to my bureau in Amman, and a fly way's a little more

Mr. SUSHAY: Now this has already been requested by your Atlanta office. What

Mr. KEATON: I want an interview with President Saddam Hussein.

Mr. SUSHAY: You've made me a written request?

Mr. KEATON: It's in there as well, yeah.

Mr. SUSHAY: I'll see what I can do.

Mr. KEATON: How soon?

Mr. SUSHAY: You take liberties.

Mr. KEATON: I'm an American. We're the liberty people.

BIANCULLI: When the war starts, that phone line becomes CNN's life line to
the world. And when the war arrives in "Live From Baghdad," it arrives with a
fury that is amazingly well dramatized. That first night, watching CNN in
real life, all we had was the audio. This telemovie re-creates what we didn't
see, both inside and outside the hotel room, where the CNN reporters and crew
worked and talked through the night. It was remarkable television then, and
in this HBO TV movie, it's pretty remarkable television now.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Steve Buscemi discusses his film career

My guest Steve Buscemi has starred in such films as "Ghost World," "The Real
Blonde," "Miller's Crossing," "Reservoir Dogs," "Armageddon" and "Escape From
LA." He directed "Animal Factory" and "Trees Lounge," and has directed
episodes of "The Sopranos" and "Oz." He's one of the stars of "The Grey
Zone," which is still playing in some cities. In the new film "Love in the
Time of Money," which is opening slowly around the country, he plays an
artist. An influential figure in the art world, played by Malcolm Gets,
thinks Buscemi is flirting with him. When Gets responds with a kiss, Buscemi
rebuffs him. Here's Gets.

(Excerpt from "Love in the Time of Money")

Mr. MALCOLM GETS: I'm sorry.

Mr. STEVE BUSCEMI: All right. You need a drink?

Mr. GETS: Yeah. Well, so was it just me then? I mean, did I just, you know,
make this whole thing up in my mind?

Mr. BUSCEMI: Make what up?

Mr. GETS: Between us, this thing, this...

Mr. BUSCEMI: I'm sorry if you misinterpreted something, but, you know, I
didn't mean to...

Mr. GETS: Well, no, no, no, no, no. You did. You definitely flirted with
me. I'm not that out of my mind.

Mr. BUSCEMI: I don't think so.

Mr. GETS: Come on, please, just tell the truth, OK?

Mr. BUSCEMI: I thought you were married.

Mr. GETS: I am, happily.

Mr. BUSCEMI: But you're gay.

Mr. GETS: I want to kiss you. That doesn't make me gay.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Well, I'd say maybe that points in the general direction.

Mr. GETS: Oh, God. Oh.

GROSS: In the new "Biographical Dictionary of Film," David Thomson writes,
`Steve Buscemi is one of the best-known faces in modern movies. He's easily
cast as hood, lowlife, baby-faced thug or as a kind of Brooklynite Peter
Lorre. He is our best sickly psychopath.'

I wanted to know if when Buscemi started acting, he was confident he could use
his face for good effect or if there were things he wanted to change when he
looked in the mirror.

Mr. BUSCEMI: I don't remember thinking that I, you know, wanted to change my
looks. I mean, I was really skinny. I mean, I was sort of self-conscious
about that. It wasn't until years later, when I was in my--I guess I was
about 20 or 21 and I was taking a course, this class in making commercials,
and for the first time I saw myself on videotape and, you know, saw myself on
a TV, and I was amazed at how crooked my teeth looked, because for some
reason, in the mirror, they didn't seem weird at all, but when I first saw it
on a TV, I thought, `Oh, my God. Is that what I look like?' I've had
dentists over the years really wanting to have a go at my mouth, but, you
know, I mean, why change now?

GROSS: Oh, good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Good. Some critics have compared you to Peter Lorre...

Mr. BUSCEMI: Uh-huh.

GROSS: ...and I'm wondering if you ever particularly liked Peter Lorre.

Mr. BUSCEMI: I love Peter Lorre.

GROSS: Yeah. Me, too.

Mr. BUSCEMI: I remember seeing him, you know, I mean, in lots of films, but
one of the films that I love him in is "Arsenic and Old Lace." I used to
watch that as a kid a lot. I think he's a wonderful actor and--yeah. I mean,
it's flattering that I should be compared to him.

GROSS: Well, I completely agree. I'm always interested in actors' voices,
and I think--boy, you have a great voice.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Thanks.

GROSS: And in some of your films, you almost do these, like, speed raps, you
know, because in some of the films you're just this, like, great riffer,
verbal riffer, and I'm wondering if you have a favorite of those scenes.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Of a talky scene?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Of one of your, like, verbal riffs.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Well, the one that was the most challenging was in "Miller's
Crossing," the character I played in that, this character, Mink, who
just--when I read the script, it was, like, you know, three or four pages of
straight dialogue coming from this one character. And so that's something
that I, you know, felt like this guy must be a fast talker and it's something
that I worked on, and it's something, you know, from doing plays with John
Jezarin(ph), whose work is always performed at a, you know, pretty fast clip,
that I--you know, it came pretty naturally to me, and it was really fun to do.

GROSS: Why don't we hear that scene.


(Soundbite of "Miller's Crossing")

Mr. BUSCEMI: (As Mink) ...Tom. Look, if it ain't my business, I got nothing
to say. Listen, Bernie wants to see you. It's important.

Mr. GABRIEL BYRNE: Yeah, well, I'm right here. I'm not made of glass.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yeah, but he's nervous walking around in public, Tom. He's the
right guy, but he's very nervous. I mean, who wouldn't be?

Mr. BYRNE: Look, Mink...

Mr. BUSCEMI: I mean, the spot he's in, who wouldn't be? He asked me to ask
you to ask Leo to take care of him, you know, put in a good word with Leo.
Leo listens to you. Not that Leo wouldn't help the schemata anyway. A guy
like Bernie, a square G like the schemata, straight shooter like him?

Mr. BYRNE: I don't get it, Mink.

Mr. BUSCEMI: What's to get? It's as plain as the nose on your face.

Mr. BYRNE: I thought you were Eddie Dane's sycophant.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yeah, Tom, that's right, but a guy could have more than one
friend, can't he? I mean, not that I don't want The Dane to know about it,
but a square G like the schemata? He's the right guy, Tom. He's a square
shooter. I know he's got a mixed reputation, but for a shini(ph) he's got a
lot of good qualities.

Mr. BYRNE: What's going on between you and Bernie?

Mr. BUSCEMI: Nothing, Tom. We're just friends, you know, amigos.

Mr. BYRNE: You're a fickle boy, Mink. If Eddie Dane finds out that you got
another amigo, well, I don't peg him for the understanding type.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Find out? How's he going to find out? Damn it, Tom, you and me
ain't even been talking. Jesus, Tom. Damn it. Jesus.

GROSS: That's Steve Buscemi in "Miller's Crossing." One of the movies that I
think a lot of people really discovered you in was "Reservoir Dogs," Quentin
Tarantino's first film.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Right.

GROSS: And this is a heist film in which each of the guys in the heist are
named for a color. You're Mr. Pink. How did you get to be Mr. Pink?

Mr. BUSCEMI: I mean, I read the script, like a lot of other actors, and then
talked with Quentin on the phone, and he--you know, I mean, at that time, I
mean, I had done a few films before and, you know, some of them were pretty
obscure. Quentin knew all of them, so I was pretty impressed that he even
knew who I was. I auditioned for the role. I think I auditioned twice. I
can't remember. And later on, Quentin told me that it wasn't my audition that
actually convinced them. He saw a casting tape of me from a film that I
auditioned for--it was a Neil Simon film--and it was on the basis of that
audition tape that he decided to hire me because he said that for some reason
the shirt I was wearing and the way my hair was--I had it, I guess, slicked
back--he thought that I looked like a criminal. But this is how I showed up,
you know, for a Neil Simon--which I didn't get the role, but I'm glad that I

GROSS: I think that's a scream, that a failed audition for a Neil Simon movie
would lead to your part in "Reservoir Dogs."

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Let me play a scene from the opening of "Reservoir Dogs," when all of
the guys involved in the heist are sitting around in a diner, and you're
talking about how you don't tip. No matter how good the service is...

Mr. BUSCEMI: Right.

GROSS: don't believe in tipping.

Mr. BUSCEMI: By the way, that tipping speech, I think, was--you know, it's
pretty much Quentin's real philosophy. I don't think he...

GROSS: Oh, really?

Mr. BUSCEMI: ...still feels that way, but I took the rap for it, I mean, you
know, for years when I would be in a diner or a restaurant, that the waiters
would steer clear of me.

(Soundbite of "Reservoir Dogs")

Mr. CHRIS PENN: Come on, throw in a buck.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Huh-uh. I don't tip.

Mr. PENN: You don't tip?

Mr. BUSCEMI: No, I don't believe in it.

Mr. PENN: You don't believe in tipping.

Unidentified Actor: Do you know what these chicks make? They make

Mr. BUSCEMI: Don't give me that. She don't make enough money, she can quit.

Mr. PENN: Now let me just get this straight. You don't ever tip, huh?

Mr. BUSCEMI: I don't tip because society says I have to. All right, I mean,
I'll tip if somebody really deserves a tip. If they really put forth the
effort, I'll give them something extra, but, I mean, this tipping
automatically is for the birds.

Mr. PENN: (Laughs)

Mr. BUSCEMI: I mean, as far as I'm concerned, they're just doing their job.

Unidentified Actor: Hey, this girl was nice.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Look, I ordered coffee, all right? Now we've been here a long
(censored) time, she's only filled my cup three times. I mean, when I order
coffee, I want it filled six times.

Mr. MICHAEL MADSEN: Six times? Well, you know, what if she's too (censored)

Mr. BUSCEMI: The words `too (censored) busy' shouldn't be in a waitress's

GROSS: A slightly edited version of a scene from "Reservoir Dogs." We'll be
back with Steve Buscemi after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is actor Steve Buscemi. He's starring in the new movie "Love
in the Time of Money."

You grew up in Valley Stream, Long Island. Your father was a sanitation
worker. Did he collect trash?

Mr. BUSCEMI: He--yeah, it sounds like that was his hobby of collecting trash.

GROSS: Coll--right.

Mr. BUSCEMI: But he worked behind the truck for years, and then he eventually
became a foreman.

GROSS: Knowing what your father did, you know, professionally, how did it
make you feel about work when you were growing up? You know, what did you
think work was?

Mr. BUSCEMI: Well...

GROSS: And I ask that because I think it's a really hard job to work behind a
sanitation truck all day. I mean, you're doing really important work, and
it's heavy lifting all the time and it's being surrounded by, you know, pretty
terrible odors.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Well, I mean, I never got to see him at work. For him, having a
civil service job was important because it provided, you know, a steady
paycheck and also security. You know, when you retire, you know, you have the
pension. So that was something that he sort of instilled in myself and my
brothers. And when we were 18, whatever test came up, be it the sanitation or
the police or the fire department, we were required to take that test. For
me, it was the fire department and...

GROSS: You actually worked in the fire department.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yeah.

GROSS: For how long?

Mr. BUSCEMI: For four years, 1980 to '84.

GROSS: So that was your father's influence?

Mr. BUSCEMI: Absolutely, yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And had you acted already before then, either in school or...

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yeah. I mean, a little bit in high school, but I had already
started taking classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute and studied a lot with
John Strasberg and Saber Jones. And then when they finally got to my
name--because I had taken the test when I was 18 and was put on a list, and it
took, you know, about four years for them to get to my name on the list. By
that time, I was working as a furniture mover, I was trying to do stand-up
comedy and, you know, wasn't really enjoying either of them. So when my name
came up for the fire department, I stopped doing all of that and took the job
and didn't do any acting for about a year. And then slowly I just started
taking classes again and then meeting people like Mark Boone Jr. in "Rockets
Red Glare" and started doing these performances downtown in the East Village
and started doing a lot of theater while I was on the job. And it was kind of
great because I, you know, had a well-paying job for a single guy, and even
though it was a full-time job, it afforded me a lot of time to pursue the
acting as well.

GROSS: And do you plan on making another movie yourself, like "Animal Factory
or "Trees Lounge"?

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yeah. We have the rights to a William Burroughs book, "Queer,"
one of his early books, and Oren Moverman has written a screenplay based on
the book and it's something that we're actively trying to get financed.

GROSS: Are you a big fan of Burroughs?

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yeah. I mean, I've always been fascinated by him, and this
book, it concentrates on his time that he spent in Mexico City before he
really did any writing and, you know, just about his life there, when he was
married and he had kids, but he was obsessed with this young student and, you
know, it caused great havoc in his life and, you know, ended tragically for
his wife.

GROSS: Would you play Burroughs?

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yeah, I would play a character named Will Lee, which is the
character that's based on Burroughs.

GROSS: Right. Well, good luck with that. I look forward to seeing it when
you get it made.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Steve Buscemi is currently in two films, "The Grey Zone" and "Love in
the Time of Money."

Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward remembers The Lovin' Spoonful. This is

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Band The Lovin' Spoonful

One of those questions people love to debate is whether there was ever an
American Beatles. Our rock historian, Ed Ward, thinks The Lovin' Spoonful
came close, even though they lacked the brilliant chemistry of Lennon and
McCartney. The Spoonful drew on American folk music and some amazing
songwriting talent. Here's Ed's retrospective of the band.

(Soundbite of song)

THE LOVIN' SPOONFUL: (Singing) You know I've been wanting you my whole life
through. And now that I'm your guy, I'm gonna live and die for only you.
Baby, baby, now you're gonna know all the ways I've planned to thrill you so.

ED WARD reporting:

In the days before psychedelia and long guitar solos came around, and pop
music wasn't a dirty word, The Lovin' Spoonful was probably the greatest band
in America. Drawing on folk roots, writing classic songs, they could have
gone far. John Sebastian was the son of a harmonica virtuoso of the same name
and he was a player in the New York folk scene, first coming to attention as a
member of the Even Dozen Jug Band, a temporary assemblage that made a record
for Elektra in 1964. In those days, there were folkies who hated The Beatles
and those who thought they were a good idea, and Sebastian was firmly in the
second camp, as was his friend Mama Cass Elliot. It was in her apartment one
night that he met a guy she'd been dying to introduce him to, Zalman Yanovsky,
a Canadian folksinger and guitarist. The two hit it off, and before long,
they'd poached half of a Long Island bar band and added bassist Steve Boone
and drummer Joe Butler. Sebastian had also attracted a very gung ho producer,
Eric Jacobson, who was well-connected in the record business.

Before long, the band, who had named themselves The Lovin' Spoonful after a
line from a Mississippi John Hurt song, was playing regularly at a coffeehouse
in Greenwich Village to some leftover beatniks. One night, Sebastian looked
down from the stage and saw a young teen-age girl dancing alone to the music
and knew something had happened. That night, he went home and wrote a song.

(Soundbite of "Do You Believe in Magic")

THE LOVIN' SPOONFUL: (Singing) Do you believe in magic in a young girl's
heart, how the music can free her whenever it starts? And it's magic if the
music is groovy and makes you feel happy like an old-time movie. I'll tell
you about the magic and it'll free your soul, but it's like trying to tell a
stranger about rock 'n' roll-oll. Do you believe in...

WARD: Weirdly, it took them six months of shopping the tape around before
they found anyone who thought it was any good. Charles Koppelman and Don
Rubin had just started something called Kama Sutra Records and had a deal with
MGM, but no artists. They had The Spoonful finish an album's worth of
material, had their manager send them off on the road, and by the summer of
1965, "Do You Believe in Magic" was in the top 10. Suddenly girls were
screaming at them and the shows they were playing got bigger. "Magic" would
be the first of seven straight top-10 singles, the third of which came off
their next album, which was named for it.

(Soundbite of "Daydream")

THE LOVIN' SPOONFUL: (Singing) What a day for a daydream. What a day for a
daydreamin' boy. And I'm lost in a daydream, dreamin' 'bout my bundle of joy.
And even if time ain't really on my side, it's one of those days for takin' a
walk outside. I'm blowin' the day to take a walk in the sun and fall on my
face on somebody's new-mowed lawn.

WARD: "Daydream" was a great album, far less dependent on traditional
material than the previous one. It was filled with great John Sebastian
tunes, often written with Steve Boone, but there was often tension building
between Yanovsky and Sebastian, which came from a number of sources. Zal
didn't think he was being well-used in the context of the band, particularly
in the studio. And then there was the matter of John stealing and then
marrying his girlfriend. On the other hand, between incessant touring and yet
another album gestating in the studio, plus two film soundtracks to work on,
there wasn't a whole lot of time to fight. And the hits kept on coming, too,
including the anthem for the summer of 1966.

(Soundbite of "Summer in the City")

THE LOVIN' SPOONFUL: (Singing) Hot town, summer in the city. Back of my neck
gettin' dirty and gritty. Been down. Isn't it a pity? Doesn't seem to be a
shadow on the city. All around, people lookin' half-dead, walking on the
sidewalk hotter than a match head. But at night it's a different world. Go
out and find a girl. Come on, come on and dance all night. Despite the heat,
it'll be all right. And, babe, don't you know it's a pity that the days can't
be like the nights in the summer, in the city. In the summer, in the city.

WARD: It seemed like nothing could stop them, but, of course, something
could, the San Francisco Police Department. Late in the year, Zal and Steve
Boone were busted for pot, and Zal, still a Canadian citizen, was told that if
he didn't name his source, he'd be deported. Figuring he could use The
Spoonful's resources to get the guy a good lawyer, Zal gave him to the cops,
but unfortunately, the guy's lawyer wasn't so good. And also, the last place
you'd want a story like this to get out was in the Haight-Ashbury in 1966.
The Lovin' Spoonful were narcs. By all accounts, Yanovsky became harder and
harder to deal with after this, and the band split into pro- and anti-Zal
camps. Their next big hit was virtually a John Sebastian solo record.

(Soundbite of song)

THE LOVIN' SPOONFUL: (Singing) Come and talk of all the things we did today.
Hear and laugh about our funny little ways while we have a few minutes to
breathe. And I know that it's time you must leave. But, darling, be home
soon. I couldn't bear to wait an extra minute. If you dawdle, my darlin'...

WARD: By June 1967, Zal was a solo act, replaced by another rocking folkie,
Jerry Yester. Yester played keyboards, not guitar, but he was an ace
arranger. But by the end of the year, it was obvious The Lovin' Spoonful
weren't going anywhere and it was time to call it a day. Zal eventually
returned to Canada and opened an acclaimed restaurant. John made his famous
appearance at Woodstock and later made zillions from his song "Welcome Back,"
which was used as the theme of "Welcome Back Kotter" on TV. The other two
guys hook up with Jerry Yester from time to time and tour as The Spoonful.
Not a sad ending at all, but not magic.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin. "Daydream," which was released by The Lovin'
Spoonful in 1966, was reissued this year.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue