Curtain Call With Terkel | The Nation


Curtain Call With Terkel

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Ibsen, too, was waiting for Godot. All education has to be resumed every day, anew, afresh. We are never completely educated. And if we lived a thousand years, we'd still have much to learn, much to investigate, and much to be extremely curious about.... I say most people are latent human beings. And to become a human being takes an awful lot of effort and determination throughout a long life, because you can die long before you're buried.
   (Harold Clurman)

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

Also by the Author

Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, blasphemes not only Islam and Hinduism, but Thatcherism and the advertising industry. He's unkind, too, to V.S. Naipaul. For this they want to kill him?

John Leonard, former literary editor of The Nation, died November 6 at 69. From the archives, his iconic piece on Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize win, in his honor.

Studs's favorite actor is Spencer Tracy. I wish I'd known this at his eightieth birthday party in an Upper West Side penthouse, where Kenneth Clark was on the couch, in black-tie, obviously headed somewhere fancier, and Pete Seeger was in the kitchen, without a banjo, and Nelson Algren should have been outside on the ramparts, looking down at Broadway and explaining that "Mortimer Adler is the Lawrence Welk of the philosophy trade." Studs, telling naughty stories about Saul Bellow and Newton Minow, was his usual motley of red checkerboard, open-collared--but had there been about the roll of his shoulders some Bad Day at Black Rock? Probably. We've all been to Chicago. And if we're lucky, we've been interviewed on his radio show after he's read every word of our book, highlighted half of it and found some raucous tape snippet to shock us into sentience. And if there is about him a ghostly aspect of the sportswriter in the press box (he played one in Eight Men Out, the John Sayles Chicago Black Sox film), there is also about him the specter of a Cagney/Warner Bros. gangster out of Brecht (and he's played them, too, in thirties radio serials, the only man with a University of Chicago law degree to appear regularly on Ma Perkins). Who else would start smoking cigars because he liked the way they looked in the insolent mouths of the Cossacks in the Soviet movie Chapaev?

For that matter, how come the guy who lost his local television show, Studs' Place, during the fifties Red Scare is always so damned cheerful? Shouldn't those of us who were losing with the Cubs even before we lost the Spanish Civil War be moping in a corner and sucking on an egg? Act your age, like Abe Rosenthal.

But Studs leads a rich interior life, imagining himself as Erich von Stroheim playing Colonel von Rauffenstein in Grand Illusion. Or Conrad Veidt playing the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Or Takashi Shimura, in Kurosawa's Ikiru, singing "Uta No Gondola." Or the French chanteuse Lucienne Boyer singing "Plaisir d'amour" in Balieff's Chauve Souris. Or a "shuffling old Theseus in need of Ariadne and her ball of thread," whistling "Who Will Buy My Pretty Violets?"--the blind flower-girl's song from Chaplin's City Lights. From his Division Street beginnings, he was forever to be found at the theater, in an opera house or concert hall, losing it at the movies. (He even talks here to Pauline Kael.) From 1929 on, living in a "Rooms for Men" boardinghouse within walking distance of the Loop, he got two free tickets to almost everything in exchange for putting up posters in his seedy lobby. During the fifties blacklist, he even mismanaged an art-house theater. Ever after, he had his radio program five days a week on WFMT.

By most of what he saw and heard--from Ethan Frome to Beau Geste to Pather Panchali--he was so often either "bowled over" or "knocked out" that it's amazing he was never floored. And he hasn't forgotten an image or a note. He pleases Vittorio De Sica by recalling the name of the little kid in The Bicycle Thief, startles Satyajit Ray by having seen the all-but-unknown Kanchenjungha, amazes Edward Albee by knowing the real-life vaudeville model for a character in A Delicate Balance and flabbergasts James Bell, the actor who was electrocuted at the first-act curtain of The Last Mile in a 1930 Chicago production, by calling him up thirty-eight years later to offer him the part of an old Wobbly in a play Studs himself had written: "You want me?" says Bell, too old and too sick to stir from Virginia. "I had a funny feeling he was crying," Studs tells us.

This isn't to mention such historical nuggets as Studs's reminding Cagney that George M. Cohan "was a fink" in the early days of Actors Equity, firing anyone who dared to join the union. Or such grace notes as his memory of Buster Keaton playing with a bedsheet, now a Roman senator, now an Arab sheik, now a white shroud. Nor even to hint at the search engine at work in these pages, the browsing and the hyperlinks--from Edith Piaf and William Powell to the black Macbeth of Orson Welles to Steiner's suicide in La Dolce Vita to Simone Signoret's French version of Little Foxes to Billie Holiday and Lotte Lenya to Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens, Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain and E.G. Marshall in The Iceman Cometh. As if his own wise head were a Cinema Paradiso, he free-associates these interviews to weave a ramifying pattern. Thus Buster Keaton shows up in the middle of Truffaut, and De Sica in the middle of King Vidor, and Tallulah Bankhead in the middle of Carol Channing, and Diana Barrymore in the middle of Tennessee Williams, and Marcello Mastroianni and Alain Cuny in the middle of Federico Fellini.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size