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Remembering 'Barton Fink' actor Michael Lerner

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. Actor Michael Lerner, who died Saturday at age 81, was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for his work as a Hollywood studio executive in the movie "Barton Fink." But for most of his career - and it was a long one - he worked as a character actor, guest starring on dozens and dozens of TV shows through the decades. He guest starred on "The Brady Bunch" in the '60s and "That Girl," "The Bob Newhart Show," "Starsky And Hutch" and "M*A*S*H" in the '70s. Michael Lerner also appeared on "Hill Street Blues" in the '80s, the Coen brothers movie "Barton Fink" in the '90s and, in this century, the movie "Elf" and several episodes of the TV series "Glee."

Some of his standout supporting roles came early and in made-for-TV movies. The 1974 ABC telemovie "The Missiles Of October," a drama about the Cuban Missile Crisis, featured Michael Lerner as White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger in a performance that Jackie Kennedy Onassis later told him out-Pierred (ph) Pierre. Another memorable role by Michael Lerner in a TV movie - Lerner himself later called it one of his favorites - also had a Kennedy connection. He starred in the 1978 CBS TV movie "Ruby And Oswald" opposite Frederic Forrest. Forrest played Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated JFK in 1963. And Lerner played Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who shot and killed Oswald days later. Here's a scene from "Ruby And Oswald" in which Ruby is visiting his sister just after Kennedy's death. The sister also is played by a strong character actor, Doris Roberts, who later played the mother on the sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUBY AND OSWALD")

MICHAEL LERNER: (As Jack Ruby) Well, at least tonight they'll be together.

DORIS ROBERTS: (As Eva) Who?

LERNER: (As Jack Ruby) The Kennedys - that wonderful, big family. Look at all the pain and trouble they've had, huh? But they've endured it.

ROBERTS: (As Eva) They're very strong people.

LERNER: (As Jack Ruby) They love each other. They're so close. And right now they're easing the pain for each other - right now.

ROBERTS: (As Eva) That's the best part of a family.

LERNER: (As Jack Ruby) The same with us. We had our share of trouble, us Rubensteins. We're always there to help each other out.

ROBERTS: (As Eva) We did the best we could, but we were always being pulled apart so much. I mean, it wasn't easy to be close like the Kennedys.

LERNER: (As Jack Ruby) Poor Jackie - what she's going through this minute - those beautiful, little kids. (Crying).

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Michael Lerner in 1992, the year after his role as Hollywood studio chief Jack Lipnick in "Barton Fink." The title character is a New York theater writer played by John Turturro. He's new to Hollywood, and he very quickly is taken to the lavish office of Lerner's Jack Lipnick.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BARTON FINK")

LERNER: (As Jack Lipnick) Is that him? Is that Barton Fink? Let me at him. Let me put my arms around this guy. Let me hug this guy. How the hell are you - good trip? My name is Jack Lipnick. I run this dump. You know that. You read the papers. Lou treating you all right? Got everything you need? What the hell's the matter with your face? What the hell's the matter with his face, Lou?

JOHN TURTURRO: (As Barton Fink) It's not as bad as it looks. It's just a mosquito in my room.

LERNER: (As Jack Lipnick) Place OK? Where'd we put him?

TURTURRO: (As Barton Fink) I'm at the Earl.

LERNER: (As Jack Lipnick) Never heard of it. Let's move him to the Grand or the Wilshire. Hell, he can stay in my place.

TURTURRO: (As Barton Fink) Thanks, but I wanted a place that was a little less...

LERNER: (As Jack Lipnick) Less Hollywood. Sure. Say it. It's not a dirty word. Say whatever the hell you want. The writer is king here at Capital Pictures. You don't believe me? Take a look at your paycheck at the end of every week. That's what we think of the writer. So what kind of pictures does he like?

JON POLITO: (As Lou Breeze) Mr. Fink hasn't given a preference, Mr. Lipnick.

LERNER: (As Jack Lipnick) So how about a part?

TURTURRO: (As Barton Fink) Well, to be honest, I don't go to the pictures much, Mr. Lipnick.

LERNER: (As Jack Lipnick) That's OK. That's OK. That's OK. That's just fine. You probably walked in here thinking that was going to be a handicap, thinking that we wanted people who knew something about the media, maybe even thinking there was all kinds of technical mumbo-jumbo to learn. You were dead wrong. We're only interested in one thing. Can you tell a story, Bart? Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? OK. The point is, I run this dump, and I don't know the technical mumbo-jumbo. Why do I run it? Because I got horse sense, damn it - showmanship. And also - and I hope he told you this. I am bigger and meaner and louder than any other [expletive] in this town. Did you tell him that, Lou?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Now, who did you model the character on?

LERNER: I decided that Louis. B. Mayer was a good image for Jack Lipnick because Louis B. Mayer was rather schizy in terms of on one side - on one hand, he was very paternalistic, very sweet, very charming and on the other hand, quite a monster. And in reading about him, you know, he was the one - he was the guy who really discovered Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. And he was their paterfamilias. He was their father figure in many respects and is a very sentimental guy. But then he was quite brutal in his business dealings, as well. So I physically attempted to model myself on Louis B. Mayer because I felt that that helped me be be the man, be the character. So what I did was I studied a lot of pictures of his hair, hairstyling, the eyeglasses that he wore. I was very determined to wear a pair of eyeglasses that seemed exactly the kind of eyeglasses that he wore.

GROSS: There's a certain kind of charm that you use in "Barton Fink" that's this real over-the-top, phony charm that - and you know that the person can turn on a dime and really kind of eat you up afterwards. Have you been treated that way, with this phony charm?

LERNER: Well, I don't know. I'm going to question you about that phony charm. How phony is it? I don't know. I think - you know the Yiddish expression haimish?

GROSS: Yeah.

LERNER: Yeah.

GROSS: But explain it anyways.

LERNER: Like, we're all family.

GROSS: Explain it anyways.

LERNER: Well, we're all family, you know? And it's like, you know, so I think I embrace Barton with an overwhelming paternalistic, we are now family. You are now with me, and we're working together. And I think there's a genuineness with - I guess it's contradictory, but I think - or paradoxical. There is a genuineness in the charm, and that is that I do want this guy to work for me. I do want him to - you know, he's - because he's going to make me money, you know? And I don't think the charm gets oily until you begin to hear what I say, you know, some of the things I say. I think there's a distinction between what I say and how I look in the film.

GROSS: The parts that you're getting best known for now are parts like the studio head in "Barton Fink" and, you know, Arnold Rothstein, the gambler in "Eight Men Out" and...

LERNER: Right.

GROSS: ...You know, a mafioso in "Harlem Nights" and...

LERNER: Right.

GROSS: ...You know, the team owner now in the HBO movie.

LERNER: Right.

GROSS: I saw you in a horror movie in which you played the absolute opposite kind of character. The movie was called "Anguish." It came out about...

LERNER: One of the best films I've ever done.

GROSS: It came out about five years ago - very unusual movie.

LERNER: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: A horror film in which you play the really backwards son of a kind of demented mother who hypnotizes you into...

LERNER: Yes.

GROSS: ...Committing murders.

LERNER: The mother played by Zelda Rubinstein...

GROSS: Yes.

LERNER: ...Who is the - who was the lady - the medium in "Poltergeist," right?

GROSS: Yes. Yes.

LERNER: Yeah, Zelda. We - that was an interesting part. And again, you know, this explains the career of an actor and the turmoil that we live with daily in our careers. I had been advised by my managers at the time not to do that part because it was so unflattering to me because I play a character who is quite repulsive in many respects. But...

GROSS: That's a good word for it, yeah.

LERNER: But it was a great part. It's a great part. And also, it's a terrific, Grand Guignol kind of movie. And over the years, I've had people like Sean Penn and Bob Dylan and - how much more name dropping can I do?

GROSS: That'll do.

LERNER: Come over to me and just say they think this is a terrific film. And they just loved what I did in the film. It's kind of becoming a cult movie. It's playing on all the cable channels all the time. And I'm getting a lot of attention for it.

BIANCULLI: Michael Lerner speaking to Terry Gross in 1992. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO'S "DE DAH")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1992 interview with character actor Michael Lerner, who died Saturday at age 81.

GROSS: Let me ask you some things about your background. You grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y.

LERNER: Yes.

GROSS: What kind of neighborhood?

LERNER: Housing projects. Red Hook.

GROSS: And what did your parents do for a living?

LERNER: My father was what you would - he liked to think he was an antique dealer. But in all actuality, he was more like a junk dealer. My grandfather had a store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where he sold Venetian blinds and, in quotes, "antiques." And my father used to work with my grandfather. And, you know, that was their relationship. My mother, you know, raised the children.

GROSS: Were you ever expected to go into the business?

LERNER: Oh, never. Never. That happened mysteriously. You mean become an actor? No.

GROSS: No. Were you ever expected to go into your father's business?

LERNER: Oh, into my father's business?

GROSS: Yeah.

LERNER: No, I don't think so. The real business in the family was my older brother, who is 11 years older than I am. And he owned a delicatessen, a kosher deli in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn called Zei-Mar. It was there for about 30 years. And when I went to Brooklyn College, my undergraduate time at Brooklyn College, I used to work in the deli. And when I went to Lafayette High School, I worked in the deli. And I think that, possibly, there was thinking that I was going to take on the deli business and be - you know, because I was a counterman for many years in delis in New York. I've been fired from very good delis in New York.

GROSS: What were you fired for?

LERNER: Well, I got screwed up in making triple-decker sandwiches. I used to get the Zero Mostel sandwich and the Red Buttons sandwich screwed up.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LERNER: The Sixth Avenue - this is a true story. The Sixth Avenue Deli in Manhattan. Yep.

GROSS: Oh, that's great.

LERNER: Yeah.

GROSS: So what was the difference between the Zero Mostel and the Red Buttons?

LERNER: Well, I think one had corned beef and one had pastrami. And I used to...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LERNER: I used to screw it up, you know? And there was - I do remember vividly there was a Peter Lind Hayes-Mary Healy double decker.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LERNER: And I didn't know who they were. But, you know, I found out who they were.

GROSS: Oh, they should name a sandwich after you now in one of those delis.

LERNER: Wouldn't that be nice? Well, you know, I love the Carnegie Deli in New York. And the guys there - you know, as I'm getting to be more, you know, better known over the years, I mean, they're treating me real good now. I mean, when I walk into the place now, they put down, you know, linen on the table. So maybe eventually, they'll name a sandwich for me - would be nice.

GROSS: So you said you originally...

LERNER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Wanted to be a sportswriter.

LERNER: Yes. In New York, growing up, I was a sports quiz kid. I was a little fat kid who just knew everything about baseball. 1951, Stan Musial hit five home runs and a doubleheader. And there used to be a program on Channel 13 before it was PBS - Channel 13 in New York was really from New Jersey. And there was a Bert Lee Jr. show. And I was a quiz kid on that show when I was about 13, 14 years old. And I studied sports writing with Bert Lee Jr. And I don't know if the names Gussie Moran, Marty Glickman mean anything to you, but there used to be a program in New York, a sports program - we're talking about the '50s now, 1950s. And I was a guest on that show quite a bit.

GROSS: So what got you interested in acting?

LERNER: Escape. Escape from, I think, the narrow confines of the way I had been brought up, in terms of living in the housing projects in Brooklyn, which was very rough. And for some reason, you know, I don't - I really remember playing a donkey in a high school play. I don't even remember the name of the play. But I do remember playing Willy Loman at the age of 18 at Brooklyn College - and graying my hair and putting on all these lines, these old age lines, and stuff - and then looking in the mirror, and my father standing in back of me and looking at me as I was taking my makeup off after the play and saying, Michael, you're an actor, aren't you? And I don't know. I became an actor.

I wasn't - I was quite good academically. And I think - I have a master's degree from graduate school in Berkeley. And then, you know, I went on a Fulbright for two years. And I think a lot of people expected that I would be a teacher. And I did teach at San Francisco State for about a year. And I was going to have an academic career, an English professor. And for some reason, I didn't want to do that. I like insecurity. I thrive on it.

GROSS: Have you always been able to make a living acting since you started?

LERNER: Amazingly, yes. Yeah.

GROSS: Has it always been taking roles you wanted to take? Or are there a lot of roles that you took just to pay the rent?

LERNER: Oh, no. There are quite a number of parts in the early days in Los Angeles that I took to pay the rent. I mean, I did everything from "Starsky And Hutch" to the - oh, I did a film recently that didn't do that well called "Newsies." And there was all these teenage kids in this movie. And they knew me. All these kids knew me not from Arnold Rothstein, not from Jack Ruby, not from playing Pierre Salinger, not from "Barton Fink." They all knew me as the bicycle salesman in "The Brady Bunch."

GROSS: Was that a regular part?

LERNER: No, no, no, no. It was a one-time appearance. Can I tell you something that I find very amusing?

GROSS: Sure.

LERNER: I don't know. Maybe your listeners will. When I first came to Hollywood, you know, I come with a lot of baggage. I'm 25 years old, and, you know, I have a lot of schooling behind me and all that. And I have a meeting with Aaron Spelling on the pilot of a TV show called "Starsky And Hutch." Do you remember that show?

GROSS: Yeah.

LERNER: And...

GROSS: It's a cop show.

LERNER: Two people - right, right. And I'm going to be reading for the part of Starsky, and I am slightly overweight, OK? And it's between me and Paul Michael Glaser, an actor named Paul Michael Glaser. And I remember that I wore a girdle when I went in to meet Aaron Spelling and tried to impress him with all my academic credentials. And he whispered to me. He said, Michael, Michael. No, you don't do that. You don't do that. You know, you don't want to intimidate anybody.

GROSS: Oh.

LERNER: I wound up playing Fat Rolly in that show, by the way.

GROSS: (Laughter) So he told you not to try to impress people with the fact that you were smart or had studied.

LERNER: Yeah. Yeah. I don't do that too much.

GROSS: Was that a lesson? Did you never do that again?

LERNER: It's true. Yes. For about 20 years, I kept quiet about it.

GROSS: You said in a New York Times interview that your dream was to play a sympathetic, romantic leading man.

LERNER: Yeah, lumpenproletariat. Yes.

GROSS: That's still your dream.

LERNER: Absolutely. Absolutely. I'd just like to play not a larger-than-life character. I'd like to play somebody who's simple, who's got problems with his family. And, you know, in the whole world of European film, the kind of people like Philippe Noiret and Jean Gabin - there's, you know, the middle-aged guy who is every man, who is - you know, can be skinny, can be fat, can be in between. But he's the leading character. He's the person that you care about. He's not a romantic, sexy person, necessarily. And in European films, that tradition has seemed much stronger than in American films. Do you agree with that?

GROSS: Oh, come on. It's nearly absent right now in American films.

LERNER: Yeah. I mean, the closest you get to it, I guess, is somebody like Gene Hackman.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

LERNER: You know, the unusual leading man.

GROSS: Yeah.

LERNER: But, I mean, I'd like to play characters that are - you know, have the problem. And the movie's about them.

GROSS: Yeah, sure.

LERNER: You know? The problem with the kind of parts that I often get offered are that they're very vivid, small parts, cameos, you know, or smaller roles. And, you know, in "Barton Fink," I'm on screen maybe 15 minutes.

GROSS: Yeah.

LERNER: And I would just like to have parts in film that I used to have in the theater, which are just more substantial.

BIANCULLI: Michael Lerner speaking to Terry Gross in 1992. The veteran character actor, who was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting performance in the Coen brothers movie "Barton Fink," died Saturday. He was 81 years old. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Showing Up," the new movie directed and co-written by Kelly Reichardt. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON DIEHL'S "EPILOGUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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