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TV Writer Paul Feig

Feig is the creator of the now-defunct TV comedy series Freaks and Geeks. He's just written a new book, Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence. Feig was an actor before moving on to writing for TV and film.


Other segments from the episode on August 29, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 29, 2003: Interview with Paul Feig; Interview with Lewis Gould; Interview with David Thomson.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Paul Feig discusses his memoir "Kick Me" and his TV
series "Freaks and Geeks"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.

We conclude our book week with TV and film writers. Paul Feig is an author
and TV writer who's at work right now on a new series for HBO. It's about the
same subject matter he's written about almost his entire career. Slightly
nerdy young people who don't quite fit in but wish they did.

Feig was the creator of the short-lived but much admired NBC sitcom "Freaks
and Geeks" which was set in high school and co-creator of the Fox sitcom
"Undeclared" which was set in college. Fans of those shows may suspect that
Paul Feig was kind of nerdy himself when he was growing up and his memoir, now
out in paperback, confirms those suspicions. It's called "Kick Me:
Adventures in Adolescence."

Terry spoke with Feig last fall. Let's start with a reading from the
beginning of his memoir.

Mr. PAUL FEIG (Author, "Kick Me"): `There is no God. I mean, there can't
be. Think about it. If there were, then things in life would have to be
fair. There would be no suffering. There would be no war. There would be no
poverty. And none of us would be born with last names that could make us the
brunt of adolescent jokes for the entirety of our school careers. In a truly
just universe, no child's last name would be Cox(ph), Butz(ph) or Siemen(ph).
No teen-ager would come from a family named the Hardins(ph) or the Balls. A
young Richard Shaft(ph) wouldn't have to come home from school crying each
day. An underendowed Lisa Titwell(ph) wouldn't beg her parents to let her
finish her education at an all-girls school. And an adolescent Paul Feig
wouldn't have had to endure hearing the letters E and I consistently taken out
of his last name and replaced with the letter A. But alas, I did.'


That's Paul Feig reading the opening of his new memoir, "Kick Me." Now as you
point out just a little further down into your book, that, you know, a lot of
kids didn't even know what the word `fag' meant, so even though you were being
called Paul Fag, a lot of kids had no clue what that was supposed to mean. I
know when I was growing up, people used the words fag, fruit, fairy, and it
always meant that a boy was a little effeminate. Beyond that, if it had any
meaning, I don't think we knew about it.

Mr. FEIG: No, I don't think they really did. I always think it must be
something they heard from their fathers or from their older brothers, and it
sounded like an insult, and people reacted like it was an insult, so it just
got hurled around. In my neighborhood, insults were used so oddly. For some
reason, my father bought me this backpack for my books when I was in, like,
second grade, and I would ride my bike to school, and there was these mean
kids who--when I would ride by with that backpack, they would call me the
N-word for some reason. It didn't even make sense, 'cause I knew what that
word meant. And it was, like, `Because I have a backpack?' And then if you
wore white socks, you were a Pollack. So there was some sort of school logic
that nobody gave me the handbook on to figure out, so I...

GROSS: So what did you do, the whole `Sticks and stones' thing, or would you,
like, insult the person back?

Mr. FEIG: No, I was never tough enough to insult them back. I would either
try to make a joke and get them to laugh, and if that didn't work, I would
just hightail it out of there, basically, to my nerdier friends who were in
the same boat, and we would just do dialogue from Warner Bros. cartoons and
be glad that we had no athletic ability and no desire to beat up other kids,
like everyone around me seemed to have.

GROSS: Now your memoir of adolescence really got me thinking about some
things that I haven't thought about in a while, like you say you'd always
liked girls ever since you were five. What does it mean to have a crush on a
girl when you're five or six, when you're in first or second grade?

Mr. FEIG: It's odd, because you don't get the support of your peer group. I
thought it was normal, because I was just attracted to girls, and I would, you
know, sort of tell that to one of my friends and they'd give me this strange
look, like, `Eww, you like her? Why do you like her?' And then the word
`cooties' generally would come into play, which I don't know where the whole
concept of cooties came from, but if somebody could have patented it, they
would have made millions of dollars off of it.

But you really felt alone in a weird way, because if you wanted to hang out
with girls, it was looked at that you were being a sissy or you were a girl or
something, and so they never really caught on to it. Of course, then, in
later years, they surged past me very quickly, figured it out and then
actually figured what the next step was, as opposed to myself, who just became
best friend to every girl I knew and the safe friend.

GROSS: Now you describe your earliest feelings of sexual arousal--and this
was in gym when you were climbing the ropes, and you kind of accidentally got
turned on by it. And I'm really interested in hearing you talk about that
feeling of confusion and discovery, realizing that something quite sensational
was happening to you. Was there impulse to, like, talk about it at the next
show-and-tell in class or to keep it a big secret or to run and tell your
mother and father, `You'll never guess what happened to me today'?

Mr. FEIG: Well, first of all, that was a very sexy rope, I just have to say.

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. FEIG: No, I knew something was happening that was probably a private
thing, but on top of it, I had thought I sort of discovered something, you
know, because I never talked about that sort of thing with anybody around me.
You know, this was in the late '60s when--well, I was going to say I guess
there wasn't a lot of sexual talk on television, although it was the sexual
revolution, but still it wasn't in the shows I was watching. There wasn't a
lot of talk of orgasms on "Bewitched" or "Gilligan's Island" or any of those
things, so I missed out on that. But I was so happy that I had found
something that seemed to be pleasure-giving that you didn't have to buy or pay
for other than--at that moment, I thought you had to climb ropes in gym class,
which I didn't enjoy doing and wasn't particularly good at but sure put my
nose to the grindstone to try to get up that rope after that first time. It's
odd. I don't know. My poor wife, she goes, `Boy, you were very honest in
this book.'

And to me there's few moments in your life where you have such an amazing
discovery. I mean, there's times when, you know, you find a great restaurant
you like or you find a great book or you discover a movie you've never seen,
but to come across something that is so intense and life-changing as, for lack
of a more discreet term, having your first orgasm, I just found it to be a
profound experience, and it was almost disappointing once I found out that
everybody experienced this, not particularly in gym class, but just as a
species in general.

GROSS: Was there a moment that you could put your finger on where you learned
that you're supposed to feel that--you know, a lot of people were going to try
to instill in you a sense of embarrassment and shame about this feeling?

Mr. FEIG: Yeah. Oh, you know what it was? My father owned this store, and
he just worked constantly, but we'd always take a week off, and it was this
big thing for us to go on a vacation like to the Caribbean. He loved that.
We lived in Michigan, and we wanted to go somewhere warm. So we were in the
Caribbean, and we first got there, we turned on a radio show, and there was
this--I think we were in Jamaica or something--interview show, and it was this
religious show talking about masturbation, and it was all these things about
how when you masturbate you lose, like, a day off your life and all these
strange things about how it was going to kill you. And I remember my father
looking over to my mother and giving her this look and she turned off the

And it was very confusing for me, 'cause I thought, `Either they know I'm
doing this and I'm shortening my life and they just don't want to--you know,
they want to get rid of me,' or it was something that was not true and needed
to be, you know, shut off. But it was very odd because I think after that I
really carried this thing with me of, `Oh, my God, maybe it's right. Maybe
every time you do this event, you're shortening your life. It's worse than
cigarettes,' because I heard cigarettes, you know, knock like a minute or
something, each one, but this was a whole day. So there was a lot of tense
moments as a young man kind of bargaining away my life, going, `OK, well, if
I'm 80, I probably won't need that day 'cause it'll be a Sunday. So if I die
on a Saturday, that's all right,' and then, of course, very quickly, bargained
myself down to being about 30 years old, I think, so there you go.

GROSS: Paul Feig is my guest. He created the TV series "Freaks and Geeks."

When you created the characters for "Freaks and Geeks," what traits from
yourself did you give to the main characters?

Mr. FEIG: I actually think there's a bit of me in each character. What you
tend to do is--the way I like to work is kind of break up my personality a bit
and sprinkle it around in all these different characters.

GROSS: Well, let's look at the two main characters, the sister and the

Mr. FEIG: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, why don't you describe each of them and tell us which of those
traits came directly from your life or from people that you knew.

Mr. FEIG: Well, to be honest, I always describe it as Sam Weir was me back
then, and Lindsay Weir is me today 'cause I always feel--and people will
always back this up--that teen-age girls mature much quicker than teen-age
boys, to the point, I feel, that teen-age girls are probably at about the same
emotional maturity level as guys in their 30s, because it takes us so much
longer to catch up to you guys.

But for Sam it was just this kid who really just is trying to get through the
day with his friends and the things he likes. And he's not athletic, and he
feels a bit intimidated by the tougher kids in school and the more popular
kids, but he has a crush on the most beautiful girl in the school, the head
cheerleader, which I did, too. I asked this girl to go to the homecoming
dance the day of the homecoming dance, thinking, for some reason, she would be
available and was completely relieved when she wasn't, but at least I gave it
a try.

And then for Lindsay it's just the character that questions things more. I
was really into just kind of not accepting things as they were, as a lot of
teen-agers are, but I always found that teen-age girls were a little less
likely to accept things as they were, at least the ones I knew back then. And
I just love the idea of an adolescent questioning things, questioning
everything; questioning their religion, questioning what they're being taught,
questioning popularity. And so for her to go over and hang with the freaks,
or the burnouts, was something that I was doing back then, just because I
found them to be more honest and more real.

GROSS: My guest is Paul Feig. Here's a scene form his TV series "Freaks and
Geeks." The main characters, Sam and Lindsay, are sitting around the dinner
table with their mother and father. Sam is worried because his gym teacher
just announced a new rule that everyone has to shower after class.

(Soundbite of "Freaks and Geeks")

JOHN FRANCIS DALEY: (As Sam Weir) I don't want to get naked in front of
other guys.

Mr. JOE FLAHERTY: (As Harold Weir) Well, who does? Do you know how many men
have seen me naked in my lifetime? A lot. Do you think I'm comfortable with
it? No, but I live with it.

DALEY: I just don't want them to tease me.

Ms. BECKY ANN BACKER: (As Jean Weir) Oh, who would tease you?

Mr. FLAHERTY: All right. Look, here's what you do. You tell them you're
proud of your body. That'll show them.

Ms. BAKER: Sam, you have a beautiful body, doesn't he, Harold?

Mr. FLAHERTY: Yes, I just said he had a beautiful body.

Ms. BAKER: Those other boys are probably just jealous. Lindsay, tell your
brother what a beautiful body he has.

LINDA CARDELLINI: (As Lindsay Weir) Mom.


Mr. FLAHERTY: Lindsay.


Mr. FLAHERTY: Your mother asked you to tell your brother that he has a
beautiful body.

CARDELLINI: That is so stupid.

Mr. FLAHERTY: Lindsay, tell him.

CARDELLINI: It's not going to help him.

Ms. BAKER: Lindsay, just say the words. It'll make him feel better.

CARDELLINI: Sam, you have a beautiful body. You're an Adonis, a slab of
beef. If I wasn't your sister, oh, my God...

Mr. FLAHERTY: Lindsay, can it.

Ms. BAKER: See, sweetheart.

BIANCULLI: A scene from the TV series "Freaks and Geeks." Our guest is Paul
Feig. Back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Our guest is Paul Feig, the creator of the TV series, "Freaks and
Geeks." He has a memoir called "Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence" now out
in paperback. Terry spoke with him last fall.

Were there any pressures on you when you were doing "Freaks and Geeks" to
smooth out the rough edges of any of the characters?

Mr. FEIG: Oh, yeah. The head of the network at that time, I remember, had a
lunch with Judd Apatow, the exec producer, and basically said, `Can't these
kids ever win? Can't they ever have a victory?' Like it drove him crazy that
we had one episode where Sam Weir finally goes on a date with the head
cheerleader, and when they're at the restaurant, the head football player
walks in and she basically confides in Sam that she's in love with him and
ends up by saying, `I love talking to you. You're just like my sister.' And
it just drove him crazy. He was, like, `He's on a date with a cheerleader,
and she talks about another guy. Can't he have a successful victory?' And
it's, like, no, he can't, 'cause A, then what's the series, and B, that's not
how life works out. You know, if I went out with the head cheerleader and she
said she loved me, well, then my whole life would have been different, and it
wouldn't have occurred, because those kind of things, in my world, never

GROSS: I want to mention that you told me right before we started taping that
your father died a couple of days ago. And, first of all, I want to say how
sorry I am about that. And second of all, I think it must be--you're very
affectionate toward your parents in the book, even though, I mean, you're
making fun of the whole experience of adolescence, which includes, you know,
having some laughs at your relationship with your parents. But you obviously
are very affectionate about them in the book...

Mr. FEIG: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and I think it must be a strange time to be having your book
published and to be talking about all this, having just lost your father.

Mr. FEIG: Yeah, it is odd. I mean, he's been sick with Parkinson's for a
while, but he was not doing badly, so it was still quite a surprise. But I
just really wished he could have at least made it to the book coming out,
because his picture's on the front of it. And I kept saying to him, `You
know, you're going to be'--not famous, but I said, `You're going to be in
bookstores all over the country, you know, your picture, so, you know, you got
to get ready,' and we'd joke about that.

But it is sad. I mean, I loved my parents. So many artists and especially
people who do comedy are very down on their parents or had bad childhoods or
say they did and are really at odds with their parents. And I just didn't
have that experience. My parents were very supportive of me. My mom just
loved the idea that I was leaning towards doing something creative. And my
father, who owned this Army surplus store, desperately wanted me to take it
over, but I was an only child also. And he saw the writing on the wall, and
it was more important to him the ethic of `You must be happy in your work'
than it was `You have to do this, because, you know, it's the family business
or you can't let this go away.' And so I feel that's the greatest thing both
my parents gave me is an acceptance and a real love of life and a love of
doing what you love to do.

GROSS: You mention that your father is on the cover of your book and you wish
that he'd been alive to see it in bookstores. This is a great picture. I
mean, if anybody ever challenges you and says, `Were you really a geek in high
school?' all you have to do is show them the cover of this book and, you

Mr. FEIG: Exactly.

GROSS: ...what other proof would anybody require? Can I ask you to describe
this photograph?

Mr. FEIG: Yeah. This photo--the reason I put it on the cover of the book is
this is a photo that would sit, seriously, in our house for years and not one
person ever looked at this and didn't laugh, because, first of all, it's three
conflicting hairstyles. My father was completely bald. My mother had hair
the size of a watermelon. And I had this sort of mock John Denver meets--I
don't know--some other hair disaster; John Denver meets "That Girl," I guess.
And we're all posed very nicely in a nice studio setting, me with my spicy new
jean jacket on that I'm sure I thought made me extra cool, until I walked out
of the studio and probably was immediately beaten up in it.

But what I love about this picture is it just shows how clueless one can be,
'cause it's just--we just look happy. And I look like, `Hey, everything's
great.' And, you know, clearly, things were not great outside of the house.
I had great friends, but, you know, it was--there's that movie "Welcome to the
Dollhouse," which is so funny, because it starts with a portion on this family
portrait and everyone looks so happy. And, to me, that just kills me,
because, you know, there's the two worlds you live in. And if you come from a
nice household, there's the happy, womblike environment that you're in there,
and then you're just immediately every day spit out into the real world, and
at night, you reset, like, you know, when you wake up in the morning and you
kind of wake up and you forget the problems of the past day for a little bit
and you feel like it's a reset button. And the minute you walk out of the
house and you get to the bus stop or you get to work or whatever and it just
starts wearing you down every day. But that's why I love pictures like this.
This was like the reset button was hit and everyone's happy for the moment.

GROSS: How do you think the adult Paul Feig is influenced by the adolescent
Paul Feig? I mean, you're pretty successful now. You've had a TV series,
you're directing a movie that you're editing now, you know, you've got a new
book. You know, you've done OK for yourself so far. In your book about
adolescence, you describe being afraid of everything, even Ronald McDonald and
"Robin and the 7 Hoods" scares you in the movies. I mean, are you still as
afraid and self-conscious and inhibited as you were as an adolescent?

Mr. FEIG: No, I'm not. I've actually kind of swung the other way, where
there's not--this sounds so cavalier, but there's not a lot that scares me
now. And what I find is I don't have patience for adults who get scared of
things, because I worked through it. It was odd. I mean, I was literally
afraid of everything when I was a kid, from thunder to dogs to anything. And
at some point I just realized I wasn't able to do anything. And I think it
was right around when I was about halfway through high school I just said to
myself, `You can't go on this way. It's ridiculous. You're going to cut
yourself out of so much life.' And there was so much stuff that I wanted to

I always got really inspired by things I would see. Like, if I saw a movie, I
wanted to be a movie actor and I wanted to direct a movie. If I saw a TV
show, I wanted to have a TV show. If I read a book, I wanted to be an author.
If I saw a play, I wanted to be Will Shakespeare. The good thing about all
that was it made me do a lot of things and it forced me to have to break out
of who I was, because the only way you could do those things--you couldn't
just really sit in your room and do those outside of writing, but you had to
get out and experience things.

And so I've really come full circle on it. But that said, you know, it's
really hard to divorce yourself from who you were. And I'd hate to forget
that, because I love those feelings of that, and I love trying to remember
that intensity of being in love with somebody when you were a teen-ager, that
crush where it's just you feel like there's a wrench in your chest. I
just--to me, it's such pure emotion and it's really beautiful. And even
though it was tough back then, to lose that--you know, there is a sense of
loss about having your emotions dulled a bit.

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

Mr. FEIG: Oh, thank you, Terry. It's been really a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Paul Feig is the author of the memoir "Kick Me: Adventures in
Adolescence." He created the TV series "Freaks and Geeks." I'm David
Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Professor Lewis Gould discusses editing "Watching
Television Come of Age," and his father, Jack Gould, who
reviewed TV for The New York Times from 1947 to 1972

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

After World War II, when radio began to give way to a new medium called
television, The New York Times responded by assigning its radio writer to
cover TV on a regular basis. That writer was Jack Gould, who became one of
the first and most influential TV critics at a time when the medium was fresh
and experimental. He reviewed "Howdy Doody," "I Love Lucy," "Marty" and "See
It Now." He also wrote essays about TV's big issues of the day from the quiz
show scandals and blacklisting to the increasing popularity and impact of
television itself. Gould covered TV for The Times from 1947 until 1972, and
died in 1993. His son, Lewis L. Gould, a professor of American history at
the University of Texas at Austin, sifted through thousands of his father's
reviews and essays and published a book collecting 70 of his father's most
historical, original and passionate columns. The book is called "Watching
Television Come of Age: The New York Times Reviews by Jack Gould."

Lew Gould provides historical context for each entry and some personal context
as well. In 1947, when Jack Gould began reviewing television, he moved his
family to Stamford, Connecticut, and began working from home. I spoke with
Lew Gould last year when the book first came out in paperback.

Professor LEWIS GOULD (University of Texas, Austin): Well, he believed that
he should see television, which was mostly live in those days, except for, you
know, the old movies and things--that he should see it the way people at home
saw it, and this imposed on him severe deadlines because The Times had to put
the paper to bed by, I guess, 11:30 at night, so when the programs ended at
11, he had about 15 to 17 minutes to write a 300-word review. It was a
gut-wrenching experience for him, but he learned how to do it. And then he
would call them up and dictate his piece over the phone to the city desk and
it would appear the next day.

BIANCULLI: Well, take us into the Gould living room or the TV room back then.
When he started, you would have been--What?--eight, seven? How old?

Prof. GOULD: Yeah, I'm really not too familiar with it until I was about--in
my early teens, which would have been the early '50s. He didn't like much in
the way of disturbances then, and young boys tended to be more disturbing than
encouraging. And there was some--if you read some of the pieces where he
talks about us bouncing on the sofas and otherwise distracting him, you'll get
a sense of how we could drive him crazy. But by the early '50s as we got to
be more mature, in our early teens, I, at least, he would ask us in to watch
and we could sit there as long as we didn't say anything. And then when he
was done, he would say, `That's it,' and we got--that was our cue to get out
of the room. And the typewriter would start away. By the time I got to
college, I could sit in the room and watch him type and still not say
anything, and then sometimes he would let us read the pieces and see what we
thought of them. But it was an awe-inspiring experience.

I can remember one occasion when we were watching the--one of the
television--televised national political conventions and Huntley and Brinkley
were on the set where they were very close together and he said, `It looks
like those guys are playing kneesies out there.' And the phone rang and it
was somebody from NBC and he said, `By the way, are Chet and David playing
kneesies out there?' And about five minutes later over the air Huntley and
Brinkley says, `Someone in the East says we might be playing kneesies out
here,' and I thought `That is amazing stuff.'

BIANCULLI: That is amazing.

Prof. GOULD: But most of the time he didn't, you know, get involved in the
actual program, but just watched.

BIANCULLI: It is interesting when you read the columns 50 years later and
he's writing about Lucille Ball, he's writing about Rod Serling, he's writing
about Paddy Chayefsky. And now these people are Lucille Ball, you know, Paddy
Chayefsky, Rod Serling, they're icons. But back then, they were just other,
you know, performers or writers and you're seeing icons being shaped. And--go
ahead, I just wonder...

Prof. GOULD: Well, that--yeah, that--but this was what was on Tuesday. And
he would go in there and sit down and you didn't--part of the excitement of it
was that you might have a "Marty" or a "Patterns." Now sometimes you had a
clinker and a dud, but when those magical moments came, with a play that--like
the--"Julius Caesar" or "Patterns" or "The Days of Wine and Roses," there was
an immediacy and a power about it that whatever the technical quality of
television now, and it's impressive, I don't think it has that same sense that
it was an event and that the next day when you went to school or talked to
people, they would say, `Did you see that last night?' And that sense of a
shared experience of people in the late '40s and early '50s is something, I
guess, except for, you know, cable or some news broadcast now, there's not
that sense of excitement.

BIANCULLI: Did your father's tastes strike you as odd in any respect in
looking over these things?

Prof. GOULD: Well, his taste in culture generally tended to be pretty
congruent with mine. I suppose that's the norm growing up with somebody,
though I was more interested in modern jazz than he was. But I had not
realized how much he was involved as a young reporter with the nightclub
scene in New York, jazz and the swing era. He wrote a terrific article
about Count Basie and how black bands at that time were discriminated against
by white booking agents, which I was quite surprised to find. Gratified, but

But he had a kind of New York theatrical kind of sensibility. As I say in the
book, he thought Rodgers and Hart was terrific and was less impressed with
Rodgers and Hammerstein. Which is a continuing debate in that area. But not
having gone to college, he was somewhat sensitive about his intellectual
credentials and defensive in some instances on that. But he seemed to be a
very well-read and interesting man in the way that he dealt with opera, shows
like "Omnibus" and things where there was a range of artistic development
involved. So I came to have a great deal of respect. He was obviously
reading more than I thought as a child when he seemed to be, you know, too
busy to talk to me.

BIANCULLI: Was it his passion for the moral issues that had him write so many
columns, or at least so many that you collected in the book, about
blacklisting, about the quiz show scandals?

Prof. GOULD: Well, of course, as you know, reporters tend to have a deep
well of cynicism about human nature but there's also a vein of idealism in
there in the best of them. And he was--I think it's fair to say, I mean,
allowing for prejudice, a very moral man in his view of what the networks and
television should be. And he had a sense of fair play. And I think the
biggest reason he was outraged by blacklisting and the quiz show scandals is
that the networks had really betrayed the faith of their audience. And that
he, I think, believed was unforgivable, that it was their--they had the power,
they had the influence over society, and it was up to them to play fair and to
do the right thing. And so in some ways, now a naive and innocent view, but I
must say reading back on it I found it as attractive now as I did at the time.

BIANCULLI: Lew, I think the next thing I think I'd like to ask you to do is
to pick your own favorite passage from the book and maybe read a paragraph
from it.

Prof. GOULD: OK.

BIANCULLI: If there's something that you can single out that--as a son, as an
historian, for whatever reason that you're especially proud of being able to
disseminate in this new form.

Prof. GOULD: I think the thing that impressed me was the "See It Now" column
from 1951, November 19, 1951, where he talks about Murrow and his trip to
Korea. And they have a documentary film made in Korea, and it talks about the
soldiers on the front, and when we think about North Korea and the axis of
evil and the problems that we have today, it makes you realize how short
history is and how much we're still living the results of the 1950s.

BIANCULLI: Well, go ahead. Read it for us, please.

Prof. GOULD: `The last half of the program was devoted to a documentary film
that CBS had taken in Korea. It showed all the hardship, good humor and
tension of the average soldier's existence at the front. The film was tough
and real, but always thoughtful. And Mr. Murrow's sparing comments cut to the
viewer's heart. When the film showed the GIs digging their foxholes, he
remarked, "If you dig before dark, you have a better chance of living until

`Then came the climax. One by one, the soldiers stepped before the camera and
merely gave their name and hometown. Mr. Murrow reported on what had happened
to the company since the film was made. Fifty casualties. With searching
eyes, Mr. Murrow looks straight at the camera and said that some of the
wounded might need blood. "Can you spare a pint?" he asked. To television in
short finally has come Mr. Murrow's rare feeling for the value of
understatement in reporting the news and telling the facts as they are. Those
qualities obviously were a source of inspiration for all who contributed to
the success of "See It Now." And, more important, to the persons privileged
to watch their efforts. Television had a taste of its true glory yesterday.'

I can't read that--every time I read that I choke up a little bit. I remember
seeing the program, but it just seemed to me that was Dad at the top of his
form. And Murrow, too.

BIANCULLI: Now he was a television critic--we've been focusing on the early
years of television because that's just so fascinating, to me anyway, for him
to start in 1947 as a television critic. But he actually didn't retire as a
TV critic until 1972. So he had a large body of work. What was your sense of
him in the later decades in terms of his relationship with television?

Prof. GOULD: I think he became progressively more disillusioned. He would
say that he was written out, that he'd spent 20 years glued to the tube, that
he was repeating himself, that he had nothing new to say. And I think some of
that was true. It was a high-tension job that wore him out physically and
emotionally. But I also think that by the mid-'60s, he had the sense that
whatever the promise of television had been 15 years earlier, it was not to be
realized or it didn't seem to be realized. And after the Newton Minow episode
in the early '60s with the Kennedy administration and the vast...

BIANCULLI: The vast wasteland, yeah.

Prof. GOULD: ...wasteland issues, that that was not going to change. I think
he became convinced that repetition and money-making and the high ratings were
going to dominate, and that television, while it would have its moments, was
not something to which he wanted to devote the rest of his life, and I think
it was time. He was only a man in his late 50s by the time he retired. But
he had said most of what he wanted to say and most of what he could say. And
there was an arc to his career that told him that it was time to move on, and
it was clear that it was.

BIANCULLI: American history Professor Lew Gould, editor of a book of
influential TV reviews and essays by his late father, Jack Gould. The book is
called "Watching Television Come of Age."

Coming up, the "Biographical Dictionary of Film." This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: David Thomson discusses his "Biographical Dictionary of

(Joined in progress) ...worn reference works here at FRESH AIR. It not only
has basic biographical information on each actor, writer, producer, director,
but offers critical observations of the person's work. Thomson describes his
book as `personal, opinionated and obsessive.' He cautions that within nearly
every entry there are things that may be startling in a biographical
dictionary, the sharp expression of personal taste, jokes, digressions,
insults and eulogies.

The first edition of Thomson's "Biographical Dictionary" was published 25
years ago. A new edition has recently been published.

Thomson was born in London, and now lives in San Francisco. He's a regular
contributor to The New York Times, Salon, Film Comment and The London
Independent. He's also the author of three novels and a biography of producer
David O. Selznick.

Terry spoke with Thomson last December. He writes that his favorite
actress is Angie Dickinson, though, he says, many of his readers don't
understand that assessment. Let's start with a film clip from the 1959 film
"Rio Bravo," starring John Wayne as sheriff and Angie Dickinson as a dance
hall entertainer.

(Soundbite of "Rio Bravo")

Mr. JOHN WAYNE: Where are you going?

Ms. ANGIE DICKINSON: Downstairs.

Mr. WAYNE: You better not.

Ms. DICKINSON: Why had I better not?

Mr. WAYNE: 'Cause I'm still sheriff. You wear those things in public, I'll
arrest you.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh! John T, I've waited so long for you to say that. You--I
thought you were never--you have the funniest way of saying things. Just when
I think you're going to say a thing, you say something else and...

Mr. WAYNE: Well, all right. Never mind about that. Take those darn things
off. I'll wait outside.

Ms. DICKINSON: No, no. You don't have to go. I can use the screen.
Besides, I want you to stay here because the other thing's all over now, isn't
it? I'm trying to hurry but I'm all thumbs. What I had to go through--put on
these tights, ask a lot of questions, start to walk out. I thought you were
never going to say it.

Mr. WAYNE: Say what?

Ms. DICKINSON: That you love me.

Mr. WAYNE: I said I'd arrest you.

Ms. DICKINSON: It means the same thing. You know that. You just won't say

Mr. DAVID THOMSON (Author, "Biographical Dictionary of Film"): Well, there
are many people I have known and many women I have known who have found my
adoration for Angie Dickinson far-fetched. They're not sure whether I'm
teasing or whether I really mean it. And I'm here to tell you that I do mean
it. I think that in the 1950s, particularly, and in the 1960s, she was an
extraordinary actress. And I'm deeply fond of her. I've never met her, but
everything I say about her is sincere and heartfelt.

I think everything in the book is heartfelt, although sometimes I think one
needs to tease people a bit. And I always understood that saying Angie
Dickinson was a great actress would make people laugh. But laughter sometimes
is a prelude to thought.


Now Cary Grant, you've described him as `the most fascinating male personality
in pictures.' Why do you give him that prized spot?

Mr. THOMSON: Well, it's a complicated thing; I'll be as brief as I can about
it. I think essentially it comes to this: That Grant could go from lightness
and humor and charm and being incredibly attractive to being dark, secretive,
selfish, unpleasant. And he could do it in a moment. He could do it in a
beat. And I think in a way it's that kind of ease of transition that makes
the most interesting people in films, to do it without going through immense
antics of "acting"--with quotes around it--but just to let your being shift.

And for years, Grant was regarded as simply a movie star. I think, again,
people have come to realize that in so many ways he's a very uneasy figure.
We sort of take for granted now that he was very uneasy sexually. I think he
was very uneasy with his fame. I think he was uneasy with being a hero and
all of those things. And in his best work--and that's often the work for
people like Hitchcock and Hawks, because he did his best with the great
directors--I think you see that really volatile, uneasy personality.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to turn to the entry for the director James
Toback, the director and screenwriter. And I'm asking you to do this because
he is a friend of yours. And for our listeners who don't know his movies, his
movies include "Fingers" and "The Pick-up Artist." Name some other of his

Mr. THOMSON: "Harvard Man" was the most recent, "Black and White,"
"Exposed," "Love and Money," "The Big Bang," "Two Girls and a Guy."

GROSS: Good. So this is you writing about somebody who's a good friend of


GROSS: But as we know, as we've heard, you write very opinionated, critical
entries for everybody in your "Biographical Dictionary." So read us an
excerpt of what you've done for James Toback, your friend.

Mr. THOMSON: `Dear Jim, you may not know it but you were the best friend I
feel obliged to include in this book. That may be a wretched position for
both of us. You are also one of the friends I most value in life.' I then go
on and I quote what was an original review of his first film, "Fingers," which
opened in '78, in which I reviewed as critic on The Will paper in Boston. And
now picking up. `Anyway, our friendship began a few days after this review
ran, and it lasts, I hope. Have you known, or guessed, that I've never liked
anything of yours quite as much or nearly as much since? Have we betrayed
each other? Is it possible for a movie maker and a critic to be friends?'

GROSS: Well, let me ask you that question. Is it possible for a critic and a
movie maker to be friends?

Mr. THOMSON: It's extraordinarily difficult, and it requires enormous
tolerance and openness on both parts. And I would have to say that on Jim's
part--and Jim and I haven't spoken for a few months, and I think he knows it's
because I didn't like "Harvard Man." So, again, I'm sending a kind of letter
to him over the air. I think it depends upon his generosity, and to me he has
been an extraordinary, compulsive friend, someone I could never dream of
giving up. But it's very, very difficult if you're a critic because sooner or
later, the critic is going to offend the filmmaker, I think, and visa versa.

And in the decades over which I've done this book, I've come to know many more
people in the book. When I began the book, I don't think I had met more than
two or three people that were in the book. I've probably met, oh, a couple of
hundred now who are in the book. And some of them don't talk to me anymore.
Some of them have become even friendlier. And I have to wonder whether that's
because I happen to like them. It puts friendship to a very, very great test.
But I do think that anyone in the arts knows this dilemma, and you have to
make up your mind how far flattery and the critical spirit, how much those two
things mean to you. And I try always to tell people what I think about their

BIANCULLI: Film critic David Thomson, author of the "Biographical Dictionary
of Film." A new edition was recently published.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with film critic David
Thomson, recorded last December.

GROSS: You know, Todd Haynes has a new movie out, I think is very good,
called "Far From Heaven." And it's an homage to the movies of Douglas Sirk,
who made the movies "Magnificent Obsession," "All That Heaven Allows,"
"Written on the Wind," "Imitation of Life." You have an interesting entry on
Douglas Sirk in your "Biographical Dictionary of Film." Would you talk a
little bit about what you see as Douglas Sirk's style and importance?

Mr. THOMSON: Well, Sirk was a very interesting figure. He had come out of
German theater and he came to America in the late '30s. And he gradually
found his way to Universal where in the 1950s he made a series of very
successful--what are called women's pictures, pictures with Rock Hudson, Jane
Wyman, people like that in them. He was a great stylist. He loved color, he
loved decor, he loved camera movement.

And those people who just love film style for film style's sake adore Sirk and
were in raptures, as I was, when "Far From Heaven" unpeeled on the screen,
because it isn't just a homage; it's as if Todd Haynes has become Douglas Sirk
almost for a moment. It's just breathtakingly beautiful. The colors in the
film are put together with a kind of boldness that really no one since Sirk or
Michael Powell has dared to do.

GROSS: You know...

Mr. THOMSON: It's interesting--mm.

GROSS: ...we usually use the word `melodrama' in a very dismissive way, like,
`Oh, it's just a melodrama.' In your entry for Sirk, you sing the praises of
melodrama and you write, `Long live melodrama, and let us stress the quality
of Douglas Sirk.'

Mr. THOMSON: I think...

GROSS: What do you think of as melodrama? Like what does melodrama mean to
you and...

Mr. THOMSON: I'll tell you what...

GROSS: ...what was his approach to it? Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. THOMSON: I'll tell you what melodrama is. Melodrama is going in out of
the daylight, paying money to sit in the dark packed in by strangers so that
you feel you can't get out, in front of a screen the size of an ocean liner
where the screen is filled with a tear dropping from a woman's blue eye down
to her red mouth. That's melodrama. It's in the nature of the movies. It's
sitting in front of a screen where you know that quicker than you can close
your eyes, the image can change from, say, the one I've just described to an
image of a knife tearing down that woman's cheek. It's the basic melodramatic
condition of not knowing what's going to happen next and longing to find out.

And so long as that lives, movies will live. When people feel they've seen it
all before and, therefore, are not surprised, are not shocked, not delighted,
not moved, and maybe we're there already, that's when movies are in danger of
fading away, I think.

BIANCULLI: Film critic David Thomson. He's the author of the "Biographical
Dictionary of Film." A new edition was recently published. Our interview was
first broadcast in December of last year.

(Soundbite of music; credits)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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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