Studs Terkel Talking With David Thompson

Studs Terkel and noted film critic David Thomson discuss Terkel's latest book The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays With Those Who Make Them.

00:00Copy video clip URL Opening credits. Nicole Sawaya, Executive Director of the Pacifica Radio Network, introduces the speakers. We see an advertisement for the event’s sponsor KPFA 94.1 FM in Berkeley, Calif.

02:40Copy video clip URL “I have this theory that the films we loved as children stay with us forever,” Thomson begins, and Terkel recalls Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms as an early influence. The two reminisce about the first time they met, 30 years earlier at a rowdy rugby game in England. “I think we literally sneaked in,” Thomson says. “We were surrounded by alcoholics, and he had brought this enormous [tape recorder] and all through the game he interviewed the fans!”

08:56Copy video clip URL Terkel explains the great influence of films on his childhood. Growing up in a “rough and tumble” men’s rooming house in Chicago, a young Terkel scored free tickets to plays by letting press agents advertise theaters in the hotel windows. “Movies influenced my life and my thoughts,” he says, even attributing his penchant for cigars to Citizen Kane.

16:52Copy video clip URL Thomson contrasts today’s “one-third full” movie audiences with the packed houses of the 1920s. “That experience of a huge crowd of strangers, which was laughing and crying and moved by the film, that’s vital to the movies,” he says. “It was a communal event,” agrees Terkel, talking about his days as a ham actor, performing with silent film star Buster Keaton.

23:08Copy video clip URL Terkel elaborates on his time as an actor in radio soap operas, his gravely voice often typecasting him as “the dumb gangster.” He explains that a good actor must be a “good craftsman.”

26:44Copy video clip URL They discuss the “lost souls” of out-of-work actors. Terkel also describes when, in a twist, Marlon Brando interviewed him and called acting “his trade.” They discuss Brando’s career and the “revolution in American acting.”

32:18Copy video clip URL Thomson asks Terkel if “sometimes the actor who was so great on the stage turns out to be someone not quite there when you meet him.” Terkel replies by telling the story of his interview with actor Zero Mostel, “who was always ‘on stage,’ even when he was off stage.”

35:32Copy video clip URL Drawing a parallel between art and politics, they discuss the curious habit of politicians having to also constantly act for the public, poking fun at former actor and President Ronald Regan as an example. “Nixon was not that good an actor. … Kennedy was a leading man,” they joke.

40:30Copy video clip URL Thomson asks Terkel to “give a little portrait” of living in Chicago “in a period of enormous corruption, of historic gangsters … a wonderful time for all the arts.” In a fascinating response, Terkel relates his discussion of mob movies with a group of Chicago gangsters.

46:16Copy video clip URL They comment on the rise of the “talkies” and how films changed with the addition of sound. “Words can lie … but the gesture cannot lie,” Terkel says, praising heroes of the silent film like Marcel Marceau and Zero Mostel. Thomson comments on how Humphrey Bogart changed as cinema transformed. Terkel also shares his own experience on the set of Eight Men Out, playing an extra that was supposed to deliver two lines then drive off. Unable to drive, they hired a double. Terkel jokes, “Have you ever heard of anyone with two lines who’s had a stand in?”

52:45Copy video clip URL Terkel describes the challenges of television’s early days in Chicago, which blossomed at the same time as McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Blacklisted for signing progressive anti-Jim Crow petitions, Terkel shares the captivating tale of how his friend, gospel great Mahalia Jackson once told CBS, “If they fire Studs, you tell them to find another Mahalia.” They both kept their jobs. “Mahalia, by saying ‘no,’ had more spine, more Americanism than General Sarnoff, William Bailey, and all the sponsors put together.”

1:00:00Copy video clip URL Turning again to television, Thomson raises the point that American children watch up to 8 hours of TV daily. What ensues is a discussion of education, in which Terkel shares an anecdote and concludes that too much TV robs children of that “certain moment of discovery for that kid, that’s so fantastic.”

1:02:09Copy video clip URL Thompson opines that American cinema is charting a “disastrous track,” relying increasingly on digital effects. Terkel agrees,  saying, “Isn’t there a point of diminishing returns, as far as humanity is concerned?”

1:07:18Copy video clip URL Thompson asks the obvious question: What films would Terkel bring to a desert island? Grand Illusion, Bicycle Thief, Charlie Chaplin flicks, and an Akira Kurosawa film all make Terkel’s list. He also shares his list of greatest nights in the theater. After some closing remarks, the audience responds with a standing ovation.

 

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