Skip to main content

War Correspondent Nicholas Proffitt

Nicholas Proffitt, who covered the Vietnam War for Newsweek magazine and wrote the book Gardens of Stone, died Nov. 10 at age 63. Gardens of Stone was later made into a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. This interview originally aired on May 25, 1987.

14:05

Other segments from the episode on November 17, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 17, 2006: Interview with Selwyn Raab; Review of Ornette Coleman's new album "Grammar;" Obituary for Nicholas Proffitt; Review of the film "Casino Royale."

Transcript

DATE November 17, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Selwyn Raab discusses his book "Five Families"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave DAVIES, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Few people in America know more about the Mafia than my guest, investigative
reporter Selwyn Raab, who spent 25 years covering the mob for the New York
Times. He wrote a detailed and colorful history of the Cosa Nostra called
"Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful
Mafia Empires." It's now out in paperback.

Raab's book illuminates the mob's influence in dozens of areas from its
control of New York's Fulton Fish Market to its decision to market heroin in
American cities to its racketeering in the construction and waste-hauling
industries, which drove up costs for millions of consumers and businesses.
Besides his reporting for The New York Times, Selwyn Raab worked as a
television producer in the 1970s. As a reporter, he exposed critical new
evidence in the Hurricane Carter case. He's the author of two other books,
"Justice in the Back Room" and "Mob Lawyer." I spoke with Selwyn Raab when
"Five Families" was first published.

Well, Selwyn Raab, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. SELWYN RAAB (Author, "Five Families: The Rise, Decline and Resurgence of
America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires"): Good to be here.

DAVIES: You know, most of us have seen "The Godfather" films, and there's
that memorable scene in "Godfather I" where the heads of all of the crime
families sit around a big oak table with their cigars, and make decisions as
if they were, you know, the president's Cabinet, deciding how organized crime
in America's going to be run. I think most of us look at that and think,
`That's just a little exaggerated.' How close did the Mafia have to having a
ruling body, a commission?

Mr. RAAB: No question, they did have a commission, which was started by
their organizational genius, Lucky Luciano, in 1932, in which the point was
that they needed some kind of regulatory oversight over territorial disputes
and about other policy questions. Eventually, with the diminution of many of
the families in other cities, it became essentially a New York-based
commission with other cities and families from other cities coming to them to
run things through, including who was to be the boss of the other cities
except for one place and that was Chicago. Chicago made its own decisions,
but outside of Chicago, whether it was Philadelphia or Boston or Milwaukee or
St. Louis or Detroit or Cleveland, they came to New York, to the five big
bosses, to make sure that the five bosses in New York, by majority vote,
approved of any decision, like who was going to run the enterprises in those
other cities. So it wasn't a wise decision, it wasn't a smart decision to
defy New York.

DAVIES: Now you wrote that Lucky Luciano's rules for organization kept the
Cosa Nostra functioning well for 50 years. What were these rules?

Mr. RAAB: Well, the rules essentially were an adaptation of what had been
established in Sicily. The most important rule was Omerta, which is both code
of silence and loyalty and manhood. That's the word they like to use and
honor. So the point was you never cooperated, and anything that took place in
a family within a gang, or a Borgata, was secret and could not be discussed
with anybody else. So the major point was, one, silence and two, absolute
loyalty to the regime or to the boss, that you never questioned a decision.

The other major thing that Luciano created, which was really an American
adaptation and an American invention, was he created a chain of command on the
idea that the family unit, or the Borgata, would always exist regardless of
what happened. If a boss died, was assassinated, was arrested, there was a
structure. People could fill those jobs below the boss and the boss at the
top if the boss was eliminated, the way they were in other ethnic gangs, the
Jewish gangs, the Irish gangs, which all existed, but had no table or
structure of command. If you took out the top leadership of one of the other
ethnic groups, they just disintegrated. They were loosely knit, but the Mafia
organization continued to exist. There were replacement parts. And that's
why they've outlasted every other organized crime faction that has ever
existed in the US.

DAVIES: As a measure of the penetration of the Mafia in the early 20th
century, you mention that they moved in on the kosher chicken industry. Why
did they go there?

Mr. RAAB: Well, it was an example of what happened in the '30s essentially
in New York. It was a very profitable industry, the kosher industry in New
York City, or the New York metropolitan area. And it was essentially--the
Lucchese family saw this as a terrific opportunity. They had been shake
downed by Jewish gangsters of the whole industry, the slaughterers, the people
who raised chickens and the sales of it. What they did was they saw it was a
million-dollar industry. Prohibition was over. The Mafia was looking for
other ventures, and this looked perfect. They had the muscle. They moved in,
kicked out the Jews and ran it as simple as that. Maybe they didn't eat
kosher chicken, but they certainly profited from it.

DAVIES: There's also been this idea that the Cosa Nostra did not want its
members to get involved in the drug trade, at least not directly. What does
history tell us about the accuracy of that notion?

Mr. RAAB: Well, it's a mixed industry. It's a mixed story. What happened
was the Mafia actually was pretty big in narcotics since its origin in the
'20s and the '30s. But for the most part, as late as the late '30s, the
Jewish gangsters or Jewish mobs that were still functioning were prominent or
pre-eminent in narcotics. It was an important part of the Mafia but not an
essential or not the most vital aspect of their business.

Things changed after World War II. And what happened after World War II,
there was some legislation passed in the '50s which for the first time made
narcotics a very heavy crime for penalties if you were convicted. You might
get 20 to 30 years. And the bosses got together and said, `This could be a
problem.' The problem is, for the most part, what the Mafia was doing did not
lead to lengthy prison sentences, so there was no compulsion perhaps for
people to become rats, to talk and to turn in higher people. The Mafia was a
little worried, especially Joe Bonanno who ran one of the most powerful
families in New York, the Bonanno family.

Bonanno came up with an idea in the mid-'50s that the best thing to do was to,
in effect, create franchises, get the Mafia out of the actually daily sale and
the routine of doing business on the streets, the retail business. So what he
decided to do was he went to Italy, met with the Italian Mafia in Sicily.
There was a famous meeting in 1956 in Palermo where Bonanno made this offer.
He said, `We'll help the Sicilian Mafia,' which was beginning to thrive on
narcotics and getting plants from the Middle East and from Turkey, `and we'll
help you bring in heroin. You bring it in. The American authorities have no
real line on what you're doing. You're unrecognizable to them. You come in.
We'll tell you where to set up shops and how to handle the street trafficking.
You bring in the big supplies. You take care of the wholesaling, and what
we'll do is we'll help you out, especially in the inner cities.'

And what organized crime, what the Mafia got was a kickback. They got a
percentage, but they did not have to do any of the dangerous dirty work.

DAVIES: You know, another part of Mafia lore is that the mob controlled
politicians and judges. How accurate is that? I mean, could they have a hand
in deciding who the mayor was? Could they get help from the top, from the
highest levels of city hall?

Mr. RAAB: No doubt that the Mafia controlled many big city governments. New
York, Philadelphia, they had a hand there, Boston, Chicago. No question. One
of the ways they were able to do it is they had money and they had volunteers,
workers. They could get the vote out, and they could provide you with
election campaign funds. The best example of that was New York where Frank
Costello was really Mr. Tammany Hall, the major Democratic political
organization in New York for 20 years and made no bones about it. Costello
would have big fund-raising affairs, sometimes for charitable groups,
sometimes for the Democratic organization. Judges would appear. Legislators
would come. Nobody wasn't in the least embarrassed.

Now for the most part, this continued into the '70s. You still had many big
cities where there were these almost open affiliations. When things began
getting hot in the '70s and in the '80s, it was done more discreetly.

DAVIES: Our guest is investigative reporter Selwyn Raab. We'll hear more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: my guest is investigative reporter Selwyn Raab. His history of the
American Mafia called "Five Families" is out in paperback.

One reason that I guess the Mafia could operate with such, you know, wanton
abandon in places like New York was that the FBI just was not--was leaving
them alone. I mean, for decades, J. Edgar Hoover not only didn't investigate
the Mafia, he essentially denied its existence. Why do you think J. Edgar
Hoover was so opposed to investigating the Mafia?

Mr. RAAB: Hoover was very savvy about the Mafia and he didn't want any part
of it. The reasons are very simple. One, he did not have the ability with
the kind of agents that the FBI recruited into the '70s, almost into the '80s.
They were usually people from small towns who had no identification, no
knowledge whatsoever about how the American Mafia operated, and they were
incapable of infiltrating them. Hoover was also very worried. He knew the
only way you could undermine the Mafia was actually by doing undercover
infiltration, and that was dangerous, dangerous in two degrees: one, that
your own people might be corrupted and, two, that they might have to commit
crimes. It was all too--it wasn't worth it for him.

Hoover wanted easy opportunities. He went after the bank robbers in the '30s.
That got him plenty of headlines. In the '40s, during World War II, it was
after spies. It was after German or Japanese agents. And then later, he got
obsessed with communism and leftist movements in America. And those were easy
things to do. And, secondly, the American Communist Party was not going to
corrupt you, not going to pay you off. So he left the Mafia alone.

DAVIES: Well, Selwyn Raab, once Hoover was gone and the FBI did begin to
investigate the Mafia, they found it was very hard to make cases stick, very
hard to get long penalties which would put big guys in jail. And as you tell
the story, perhaps the greatest hero of law enforcement is essentially a
lawyer and eventually a law professor named Robert Blakey. What did he
contribute to the fight against the mob?

Mr. RAAB: Without Robert Blakey's intervention, we'd probably still have the
most powerful Mafia in the world operating in most of our big cities. Blakey
almost single-handedly created the law that has led to the evisceration and
the first crackdown on the Mafia. It's called RICO, Racketeer Influenced
Corrupt Organizations Act. And that act was passed in 1970. Now the
important part of that was that until RICO, the higher-ups, the bosses, the
capos, the consiglieres, the counselors, the underbosses were virtually immune
from prosecution. If somebody in the gang or the Mafia got caught, they were
usually low-level people. They never ratted. Nobody higher up was ever
implicated. So they went out scot-free. The big shots continued. The
organization was self-sufficient and just continued to prosper. Under RICO,
if you were anyway involved with that enterprise, you were equally guilty
whether or not you committed the crime. This, for the first time, gave the
government, or at least the FBI, a shot at getting the big operators.

What happened, however, was this law was passed in 1970 and neither the
federal prosecutors nor the FBI wanted anything to do with it. They said it
was a hair-brained scheme invented by some law professor who had no idea about
what was really going on. Blakey proselytized for a decade. He went around
like an itinerant preacher, going to US attorneys' offices throughout the
country, lecturing FBI agents. Nobody wanted to take advantage of this new
law. RICO was something new no one dared to use for 10 years.

DAVIES: So what changed? When did prosecutors take advantage of this tool?

Mr. RAAB: The big breakthrough in RICO came in 1980. What happened was
there was a new head of the FBI office in New York by the name of Neil Walsh,
who's an iconoclast. Hoover had hated him but Hoover was dead, and now Walsh
was in the driver's seat in New York. And Neil Walsh was also a lawyer and
read law journals, and he knew about RICO. And he sent two of his agents up
to Cornell University where in the summers in the '80s Blakey was lecturing.
He was lecturing about RICO. And they were impressed. They sat through these
hearings, these lectures, and they said, `This is a perfect weapon. Nobody's
used it.' They came back to New York and said, `We've got this terrific weapon
that nobody wants to use.'

At the same time, Rudy Giuliani became the US attorney for what is called the
Southern District, which is in Manhattan of New York. He knew about RICO. He
was interested in RICO. He knew about Blakey. They had their own sit-downs,
and they decided a perfect case would be a case against the commission in New
York, the heads of the five families that ran New York and, for the most part,
ran the country. Call it The Commission Case. Giuliani didn't personally
prosecute it. It was prosecuted by Michael Chertoff, who's now in charge of
Homeland Security. And that case became a milestone. They didn't convict the
five bosses, but they convicted major people, including several bosses, in
this celebrated commission case in 1986. And that was the breakthrough. It
showed prosecutors throughout the country what you could do with RICO.

DAVIES: It was clear that an informer from the mob who--somebody who talked
to the government risked execution. But there were plenty of situations where
someone would cooperate with the government and prepare to rat on his Mafia
brethren, but the families were still around. Now was there any rule about
whether you could kill or threaten family members, wives, children, parents,
of a mob member cooperating with the government?

Mr. RAAB: Civilians were technically immune or technically safeguarded. You
weren't supposed to touch anyone who wasn't involved in Mafia matters.
However, that's broken down. It started essentially in the '80s where this
whole new generation of younger mobsters came in. They started going after
family members, threatening anybody who had turned or had become a government
witness, that maybe they couldn't reach you but they would go after your
family. And there have been many cases of that.

And the most recent was only a year ago in the Bonanno family. Some of the
tapes were picked up by the FBI overhearing mobsters saying, `Well, if
someone's gonna rat on me and I have to go away for 20 years or 30 years, why
should that rat and his family, why should his kids survive when my kids will
be in trouble?'

So all those rules are broken down. It's no longer a gentleman's game.
That's one of the theories that they'll now use to try to prevent snitches,
turncoats, rats, that, `We'll get your personal relatives.' There are no
longer civilians. Everyone is now in danger if you rat.

DAVIES: And what happened in that case? What? Did the family members get
harmed?

Mr. RAAB: Well, the people who made the threats were arrested and the family
members were put into the Witness Protection Program. So that's part of the
Witness Protection Program. Another element that Blakey dreamed up in the
RICO law, another great positive step, the RICO law for the first time created
a Witness Protection Program, which meant that after you testified, after you
served whatever sentence you served, you and your entire family would be given
new identities, the government would take care of you, and that was a great
encouragement to become a government witness.

DAVIES: The government's gotten some huge Mafia players, you know,
underbosses, bosses, capos. But, you know, kind of the base level, there's a
couple of hundred soldiers which each of the family has, who--and they're the
ones who are going out, committing extortion, running bookmaking, running
prostitution, running narcotics and making money. If they take the bosses
away, aren't the guys still out there on the street, you know, committing
crimes and raising prices and, you know, corrupting unions?

Mr. RAAB: The Mafia in America is never going to be eliminated for two
reasons. One is called gambling, and the second is called loan sharking.
They're symbiotic. They work together. It's the bread and butter. It's
always been the bread and butter for the Mafia, and that is continuing to go
on. And as long as you have that, they have the seed money to do other
things. They'll go into labor racketeering, Wall Street. All the new
high-tech frauds, wide open to them. They don't have to have the knowledge of
how to function or create these rackets. What they do is they pick up on it.

Often, I--a fine example of how the mob moved into Wall Street was that many
brokers on Wall Street got into financial problems. They couldn't go to banks
for loans. They went to loan sharks. And once they got into loan sharks, the
mob guys wanted not only their money to repay the loans, they wanted a piece
of their action, whatever fraud they were committing in the brokerage
industries. And that's the way they've functioned for 70 years, and there are
still plenty of wise guys who are ready, willing and able to handle Mafia
business in America.

DAVIES: Selwyn Raab's book is "Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and
Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires." It's now out in
paperback.

I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

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

Review: Kevin Whitehead recommends Ornette Coleman's "Sound
Grammar"

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave DAVIES filling in for Terry Gross.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says when Fort Worth's Ornette Coleman came along
in the 1950s, his detractors said his rough and wayward jazz was too crazy to
stand the test of time. Fifty years later Coleman's still standing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: When Ornette Coleman first stepped out on record in
1958, his tone was as raw as a bumpkin's feet in new shoes. But gradually, so
slowly folks barely noticed, his tone got more urbane, sleeker, more seasoned
and conventionally beautiful. The reason few noticed is that the lines he
played had barely changed. The open vowels of Texas field hollers and country
blues still sing through after his 48 years as a New Yorker. His sound is
wonderfully voicelike, full of schoolyard shouts, laughter, sobs, prayers, joy
and pain mixed together, like real life. But his solos are most always
orderly. He'll introduce a scrap of melody and turn it this way and that
before picking up another. He keeps things moving and takes his sweet time.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Ornette's live album "Sound Grammar" is his first in nine
years, though he's been gigging with the new quartet for the last three. He's
always had an ear for great base players. This band has two of them, who
divvy up the chores to avoid collisions. One plucks, the other bows that big
violin. Greg Cohen's the picker, and after umpteen tours playing fake Ornette
with John Zorn Masada, this is a cakewalk. Classical whiz Tony Falanga's bass
sings, echoes Ornette's alto, or scrapes out extra rhythm, recalling his great
predecessor David Izenzon. Throw in a drummer taught by the boss from
scratch, son Denardo Coleman, they're good to go.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Coleman needs musicians attentive to but unfazed by his
little detours or shortcuts through a tune. This rhythm section holds him up
without hemming him in, as when he bobbles a quote from "Beautiful Dreamer"
and goes back to get it right.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: A quote that deliberate deserves a footnote. "Beautiful
Dreamer," Stephen Foster, 1862, a late career tune with a built in sob, I
hadn't made that Foster connection before Coleman made it for us, but it makes
sense. By now Ornette does belong on the list of our great sentimental
melodists. He's that big, skies of America size.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the
University of Kansas and he's a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed
"Sound Grammar," the first live recording from Ornette Coleman in nine years.

Coming up, we remember novelist and war correspondent Nicholas Proffitt. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

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

Interview: Writer Nicholas Proffitt, who died at the age of 63,
describes being in the Army, his books, and reporting from
Vietnam
DAVE DAVIES, host:

Nicholas Proffitt, the novelist and veteran war correspondent, died last week
of kidney cancer at the age of 63. Proffitt's first novel, "Gardens of
Stone," was drawn from his experience in the Army as an honor guard at
Arlington National Cemetery. Though Proffitt served at Arlington before
casualties began coming back from Vietnam, his book tells the story of a
sergeant who's frustrated by burying dead soldiers rather than serving in
southeast Asia. It was made into a film by Francis Ford Coppola. After his
military service, Proffitt went to college and then covered the Vietnam War
and the civil war in Lebanon for Newsweek. He wrote two other novels,
"Embassy House" and "East of Eden." Terry spoke to Nicholas Proffitt in 1987.

Mr. NICHOLAS PROFFITT: My father was a career Army sergeant and I went into
the Army and spent three years in it before I went to college, and I ended up
a sergeant, buck sergeant, a low one. But as I've had this fascination with,
and association with the Army all of my life, I thought that this was a side
of things that hadn't been told before. I especially wanted to look at the
institution of the Army and get across the idea of the Army as a family, and
take a look at what the war did to the institution of the Army.

TERRY GROSS, host:

When you found out that Coppola wanted to buy the rights to your book, were
you able to find out what it was that attracted him to your book?

Mr. PROFFITT: I'm not really sure. I haven't really talked with him about
it. I think ritual, the rituals. It's a book full of rituals, and Coppola's
previous work has always had a strong emphasis on rituals, "The Godfather"
movies, for instance. Male bonding between my protagonists, that sort of
thing has also interested him. He's a very family-oriented director. He's
got a very strong sense of family, I know, both in his personal life and in
his vision as a director. And I think the elements of family, of the Army as
family, you know, these people coming together as family members who aren't
really related by blood appealed to him. But I'm guessing for him. I don't
really know, but that's what I suspect.

GROSS: Let's talk about the part of your life that your novel "Gardens of
Stone" and the film "Gardens of Stone" is based on. It's loosely
biographical, autobiographical.

Mr. PROFFITT: Loosely, right.

GROSS: So you, in 1961 to '64, served in the Old Guard. Now what is the Old
Guard? Most of us have seen it but I don't--I never actually identified it as
the Old Guard before.

Mr. PROFFITT: You know, it's those background people you see in shots of the
president when his plane lands, or at the White House ceremony. They're the
guys standing in the background holding flags or standing at attention. It's
basically a ceremonial battalion, part of the 3rd Infantry. It's one
battalion of the 3rd Infantry. It's stationed at Fort Myer, Virginia, which
is right across the Potomac from Washington. And it does many, many different
jobs, everything from putting together a color guard in old powdered wigs and
colonial uniforms out at Mount Vernon to guarding the Tomb of the Unknown
Soldier to providing escort platoons for the president when he arrives at an
airport or takes off from Washington, to greet heads of state that are coming
in. But basically their jobs is to bury people at Arlington Cemetery, to
render the final military honors. They are firing party teams and those are
the guys that give the 21-gun salutes, and there are casket bearer teams, and
their job is just to carry coffins. There's a caisson section which handles
the horses that are used in the ceremonies, and then there are just marchers,
who march along as an armed escort.

GROSS: Were you glad that while you were in the military your service was in
the Old Guard?

Mr. PROFFITT: No. I mean, I thought--it's a very spit and polish outfit. A
haircut every other day, shaving three times a day, shining shoes all the
time, uniforms pressed all the time. You couldn't even wear your shoes inside
your barracks, you had to go in stocking feet because you might mess up the
floor. You had to be ready for inspection all the time. And that kind of
thing I thought was rather Mickey Mouse and didn't appeal to me greatly.

I was really out of the service before the Vietnam War really got started. As
I say, I got out in '64 and the buildup in Vietnam started in '65, so when I
wrote the book, I advanced the time a bit because I wanted to get the Vietnam
thing in. I wanted to use Arlington Cemetery as a metaphor for Vietnam, as a
final resting place for our casualties. And if I had been in the Old Guard
doing those kinds of things during the height of the fighting, like the people
in the book and in the movie are, I don't really know how I'd have felt about
it. It seems kind of silly to be doing that sort of thing when people are
dying 10,000 miles away.

GROSS: In the movie, one of the sergeants says to one of the young men just
arriving, `Welcome to show business'...

Mr. PROFFITT: Right.

GROSS: ...because there's so much ceremony and so much emphasis on clothing.
And somebody else says that the Old Guard is the Kabuki theater of American
arms. Was there a lot of sarcastic comments like that when you arrived?

Mr. PROFFITT: There were because there's always sarcastic comments from
young soldiers no matter what they're doing and where they are. There was a
lot of "toy soldiers" talk, but at the same time, I think, almost every man in
that unit knew that the requirements to be accepted were quite strict. You
had to have a certain military bearing. You had to be a certain height. I
was very surprised that I was accepted into it simply because I wear glasses.
And today that's not really a hinderment. If you wear glasses and you're
assigned to that unit, they issue you contact lenses and pay for it. But at
that time I don't even think contact lenses had been invented yet. But I wore
glasses, and as a result did not get to do any of the high visibility things,
like Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or casket bearers. I was always in an honor
platoon, and more often than not in the back rank where you couldn't see me
very well.

GROSS: You know, one of the things in the story of "Gardens of Stone" is that
the soldiers who are on burial detail all the time, as you were, their
attitude toward the people who they're burying changes as they start to
realize that it's them, you know, it's people like them, it's people who they
know. Did you go through anything like that yourself? And I wonder what it's
like to preside over burials of people who are totally anonymous to you. And
it's a ritual you perform day after day. It's like theater really.

Mr. PROFFITT: You went through a--the first funeral was a very moving and
shattering experience and terribly poignant. In fact, I think tears came to
my eyes the first funeral I pulled. There's the full panoply of ceremony and
the rendering of "Taps," and the black stallion with the boots backwards in
the stirrups, and the rat-tat-tat of the drum. It's very moving. By the time
you've done your hundredth, you tend to become a little irreverent towards the
whole process. The Old Guard, we called burials "drop jobs." We called the
cemetery itself either "the boneyard" or "the garden." And we were burying 12,
13, 14 people a day. I don't--I wasn't around to bury people when the war was
going on, although my characters in the book are. I don't know what I would
have felt if the people we were burying were our age. Most of the people that
I was burying as an 18, 19-year-old in 1961 and '62 were older men. They were
colonels and captains and sergeants, men who had done 20 or 30 years and had
died from natural causes brought on by the kind of illnesses that older people
are prone to. I don't know what the reaction would have been if the
casualties had been 19-year-olds, just like myself, who had been killed in a
war while I was in a very cushy post stateside and these kids were over in
Vietnam.

GROSS: You know, you were describing "Gardens of Stone" as in a way being
about the military as family and the ruptures in that family that were caused
by the war. Your father was a career military man, and I imagine there were
probably ruptures in your family when you were against the war, especially
when you were reporting for Vietnam.

Mr. PROFFITT: Not really, I avoided all that by...

GROSS: By being in Vietnam?

Mr. PROFFITT: No, by having my father die on me. He died...

GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry.

Mr. PROFFITT: No, no. He died in '63. I remember it very clearly because I
was home for his funeral when President Kennedy was assassinated, and I got
called by my unit off of my father's funeral. He had been buried but I was
still helping my mother do some administrative things, and I got called away
because they needed every available body back at Arlington to participate in
the state funeral for JFK. They hadn't pulled a state funeral like that for
many years so they were blowing dust off the procedure books and running
around panicking. So in a way, I'm almost glad he didn't live to see it. He
loved the Army very much. He was a veteran of World War II and of Korea, and
I don't think he would have--could have taken what the Army went through in
Vietnam.

GROSS: When you were reporting in Vietnam, did you spend a lot of time
thanking your lucky stars that you were there as a reporter...

Mr. PROFFITT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and not in the military?

Mr. PROFFITT: Yes, of course. I spent a lot of time out in the field with
the troops, and part of my job was to actually go looking for trouble. I
probably saw as much, if not more, combat than the average GI who was over
there, but I never forgot that I had that option to get out, to bug out
anytime I wanted to. And I exercised that option a couple of times, where I
thought that this was a no survivors situation and caught that last resupply
helicopter out. And I felt badly about it but not badly enough to stay. And
one time when I left, there were about 15 people left and they were all
killed, and if I'd stayed I'd have died, and I'd gotten out on the last
resupply helicopter.

GROSS: Did your military training come in handy as a reporter?

Mr. PROFFITT: Not much. I did not, as a matter of principle, carry a
weapon. I was a reporter, not a combatant. I had some trouble with some of
the units I went out with. They didn't want to carry me along unless I armed
myself, and I just refused and usually talked them into letting me come along
anyway. It helped a little bit. It certainly helped in my reporting, yes. I
knew some basics about strategy and tactics and small unit maneuvers and that
sort of thing, so it did help.

GROSS: What was your position on the war by the time you got there for
Newsweek?

Mr. PROFFITT: The position of my generation in general was that the war was
a mistake, that it wasn't working out. I think it was fairly obvious by that
time. I went to Vietnam with the idea of being an objective reporter and
making my own decisions, but I think I was predisposed to thinking that the
war was a colossal mistake, a misadventure for our country. When I left two
years later, I had not changed my mind at all. I still thought it was a
colossal mistake. I think that the way I got to my decision was a little
different than before. For instance, I had a great deal of respect for the
American fighting man and for the kids that were over there and what they had
to go through. Not very much respect for the politicians and some of the
higher brass involved.

DAVIES: Terry spoke with Nicholas Proffitt in 1987. He died last week at age
63.

(Soundbite of music)

Coming up, David Edelstein on the new James Bond. This is FRESH AIR. This is
FRESH AIR.

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

Review: David Edelstein recommends new "Casino Royale" movie

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel, "Casino Royale," was the source of a
1954 TV adaptation and an expensive '60s spoof that went off the rails in
production when its star, Peter Sellers, abruptly quit. Now the producers of
the familiar Bond series have acquired the film rights and mounted their own
version. The film also boasts a new Bond, Daniel Craig. Film critic David
Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: A couple of years ago I was watching the thriller "The
Jacket," and one of the mental patients was overacting like crazy, but there
was something other-worldly about the actor. I couldn't take my eyes off him.
Then in the credits, I saw that it was Daniel Craig and I'd seen Craig a month
before as Ted Hughes in "Sylvia," where he was every inch the black marauder
of Sylvia Plath's letters. As the son of crime boss Paul Newman in "The Road
to Perdition," he was a freaky paranoic with shocking blue eyes. He was a
hunky handyman in "The Mother," and a bespectacled intellectual at arm's
length from his own life in "Enduring Love." His phsyicalizations, his
rhythms, they were different in each role. I couldn't wait to see what Craig
would do with James Bond.

In "Casino Royale," he's absolutely fascinating, which is not an adjective you
could apply to many Bonds. Only one actually, Sean Connery, and what made
Connery the ideal was that he could be rough, super masculine, and at the same
time elegant. Craig isn't elegant, but the movie isn't about Bond the bon
vivant. You could call this Bond "Bond Begins," 007 has only just earned his
license to kill. In the meantime, he's studlier than his four predecessors
put together. He tips his head forward like a boxer, an impression reinforced
by his semi-smashed nose and skin that often sports fresh lacerations. He's
also pumped up, with huge cords around his neck, in a scene in which he's
stripped and tortured.

Although Judi Dench is back as the scolding distaff M, everything else in
"Casino Royale" is played as if for the first time. The classic Bond tropes
are there, but they're rearranged to catch you off guard, and the villain
isn't the usual Blofeld like wannabe world dominator but a financier and
gambler called Le Chiffre, whom Bond is supposed to bankrupt so that the Brits
can have leverage to grill him about his terrorist connections. He's played
by the amazing Dane Mads Mikkelsen, made up to bring out his liver lips and
monkian cheekbones. When he sits opposite Bond at a high-stakes poker game in
Montenegro's Casino Royale, Le Chiffre clicks his rectangular chips as if he's
a new breed of preying mantiss. He's blood-curdling.

He needs to be since "Casino Royale" frontloads the dazzling action set pieces
and then settles into something considerably more cerebral. It's a mysterious
choice, and some viewers will feel cheated when Le Chiffre leaves the picture
early and Bond has an extended romantic interlude in Venice. Even at its most
languorous, though, the film has a pulse. The luscious Eva Green, best known
for Bertolucci's "The Dreamers," is a banking emissary called Vesper Lynd.
She's supposed to keep tabs on the vast sums of cash Bond risks against Le
Chiffre. In a limo on the way to the Casino Royale, the couple goes over
their cover story.

(Soundbite of "Casino Royale")

Mr. DANIEL CRAIG: (As James Bond) It's just last minute details. Apparently
we're very much in love.

Ms. EVA GREEN: (As Vesper Lynd) Do you usually leave it to porters to tell
you this sort of thing?

Mr. CRAIG: (As James Bond) Only when the romance has been necessarily brief.
I'm Mr. Arlington Beech, professional gambler, and your Miss Stephanie
Broadchest...

Ms. GREEN: (As Vesper Lynd) I am not!

Mr. CRAIG: (As James Bond) You're going to have to trust me on this.

Ms. GREEN: (As Vesper Lynd) Oh no I don't.

Mr. CRAIG: (As James Bond) We've been involved quite a while, hmm, hence the
shared suite.

Ms. GREEN: (As Vesper Lynd) But my family's strict Roman Catholic, so for
appearances' sake it will be a two-bedroom suite.

Mr. CRAIG: (As James Bond) I do hate it when religion comes between us.

Ms. GREEN: (As Vesper Lynd) Religion and a securely locked door. Am I going
to have problem with you, Bond?

Mr. CRAIG: (As James Bond) No. Don't worry. You're not my type.

Ms. GREEN: (As Vesper Lynd) Smart?

Mr. CRAIG: (As James Bond) Single.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: No, Bond likes them married. No entanglements. And Vesper's
banter sometimes cuts too deeply for a superficial fling. She even engages
him in an impudent game of "What's My Backstory." She guesses he's had the
best education money can buy but didn't come from money, and that he still
carries a chip on his shoulder against the elites.

In the early Bond movies, the violence was both brutal and stylish, with witty
curlicues. In "Casino Royale," it's mostly brutal, but that's in keeping with
Craig's evolving 007. Here he's not housebroken. He's still working out the
secret agent persona. In one scene, Vesper presents Bond with a new tuxedo,
and after he slips into it, he regards himself in a mirror with shining eyes.
You see him realize that it's a good look. I hope Craig finds more
discoveries like that in Bond, and I hope he gets to wear that tuxedo again
and again.

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

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

22:30

From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.

52:30

'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

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

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue