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Remembering ‘Barton Fink’ actor Michael Lerner : NPR


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That is FRESH AIR. I am David Bianculli, professor of tv research at Rowan College, 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 government within the film “Barton Fink.” However for many of his profession – and it was an extended one – he labored as a personality actor, visitor starring on dozens and dozens of TV exhibits by way of the many years. He visitor starred on “The Brady Bunch” within the ’60s and “That Lady,” “The Bob Newhart Present,” “Starsky And Hutch” and “M*A*S*H” within the ’70s. Michael Lerner additionally appeared on “Hill Road Blues” within the ’80s, the Coen brothers film “Barton Fink” within the ’90s and, on this century, the film “Elf” and several other episodes of the TV collection “Glee.”

A few of his standout supporting roles got here early and in made-for-TV motion pictures. The 1974 ABC telemovie “The Missiles Of October,” a drama concerning the Cuban Missile Disaster, featured Michael Lerner as White Home Press Secretary Pierre Salinger in a efficiency that Jackie Kennedy Onassis later advised him out-Pierred (ph) Pierre. One other memorable position by Michael Lerner in a TV film – Lerner himself later known as it one in every of his favorites – additionally had a Kennedy connection. He starred within the 1978 CBS TV film “Ruby And Oswald” reverse Frederic Forrest. Forrest performed Lee Harvey Oswald, the person who assassinated JFK in 1963. And Lerner performed Dallas nightclub proprietor Jack Ruby, who shot and killed Oswald days later. Here is a scene from “Ruby And Oswald” wherein Ruby is visiting his sister simply after Kennedy’s dying. The sister is also performed by a robust character actor, Doris Roberts, who later performed the mom on the sitcom “Everyone Loves Raymond.”


MICHAEL LERNER: (As Jack Ruby) Effectively, not less than tonight they’re going to be collectively.


LERNER: (As Jack Ruby) The Kennedys – that great, huge household. Have a look at all of the ache and bother they’ve had, huh? However they’ve endured it.

ROBERTS: (As Eva) They’re very sturdy folks.

LERNER: (As Jack Ruby) They love one another. They’re so shut. And proper now they’re easing the ache for one another – proper now.

ROBERTS: (As Eva) That is the very best a part of a household.

LERNER: (As Jack Ruby) The identical with us. We had our share of bother, us Rubensteins. We’re at all times there to assist one another out.

ROBERTS: (As Eva) We did the very best we might, however we had been at all times being pulled aside a lot. I imply, it wasn’t straightforward to be shut just like the Kennedys.

LERNER: (As Jack Ruby) Poor Jackie – what she’s going by way of this minute – these lovely, little youngsters. (Crying).

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Michael Lerner in 1992, the yr after his position as Hollywood studio chief Jack Lipnick in “Barton Fink.” The title character is a New York theater author performed by John Turturro. He is new to Hollywood, and he in a short time is taken to the lavish workplace of Lerner’s Jack Lipnick.


LERNER: (As Jack Lipnick) Is that him? Is that Barton Fink? Let me at him. Let me put my arms round this man. Let me hug this man. How the hell are you – good journey? My title is Jack Lipnick. I run this dump. You realize that. You learn the papers. Lou treating you all proper? Acquired all the things you want? What the hell’s the matter together with your face? What the hell’s the matter together with his face, Lou?

JOHN TURTURRO: (As Barton Fink) It isn’t as unhealthy because it seems. It is only a mosquito in my room.

LERNER: (As Jack Lipnick) Place OK? The place’d we put him?

TURTURRO: (As Barton Fink) I am on the Earl.

LERNER: (As Jack Lipnick) By no means heard of it. Let’s transfer him to the Grand or the Wilshire. Hell, he can keep in my place.

TURTURRO: (As Barton Fink) Thanks, however I wished a spot that was rather less…

LERNER: (As Jack Lipnick) Much less Hollywood. Certain. Say it. It isn’t a unclean phrase. Say regardless of the hell you need. The author is king right here at Capital Footage. You do not consider me? Check out your paycheck on the finish of each week. That is what we consider the author. So what sort of footage does he like?

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

LERNER: (As Jack Lipnick) So how a few half?

TURTURRO: (As Barton Fink) Effectively, to be trustworthy, I do not go to the photographs a lot, Mr. Lipnick.

LERNER: (As Jack Lipnick) That is OK. That is OK. That is OK. That is simply tremendous. You most likely walked in right here considering that was going to be a handicap, considering that we wished individuals who knew one thing concerning the media, possibly even considering there was all types of technical mumbo-jumbo to study. You had been lifeless fallacious. We’re solely serious about one factor. Are you able to inform a narrative, Bart? Are you able to make us snort? Are you able to make us cry? Are you able to make us need to escape in joyous track? Is that a couple of factor? OK. The purpose is, I run this dump, and I do not know the technical mumbo-jumbo. Why do I run it? As a result of I received horse sense, rattling it – showmanship. And likewise – and I hope he advised you this. I’m larger and meaner and louder than every other [expletive] on this city. Did you inform him that, Lou?


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

LERNER: I made a decision that Louis. B. Mayer was a very good picture for Jack Lipnick as a result of Louis B. Mayer was relatively schizy by way of on one facet – on one hand, he was very paternalistic, very candy, very charming and however, fairly a monster. And in studying about him, you understand, he was the one – he was the man who actually found Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. And he was their paterfamilias. He was their father determine in lots of respects and is a really sentimental man. However then he was fairly brutal in his enterprise dealings, as effectively. So I bodily tried to mannequin myself on Louis B. Mayer as a result of I felt that that helped me be be the person, be the character. So what I did was I studied a number of footage of his hair, hairstyling, the eyeglasses that he wore. I used to be very decided to put on a pair of eyeglasses that appeared precisely the sort of eyeglasses that he wore.

GROSS: There is a sure sort of allure that you just use in “Barton Fink” that is this actual over-the-top, phony allure that – and you understand that the individual can activate a dime and actually sort of eat you up afterwards. Have you ever been handled that means, with this phony allure?

LERNER: Effectively, I do not know. I will query you about that phony allure. How phony is it? I do not know. I feel – you understand the Yiddish expression haimish?

GROSS: Yeah.


GROSS: However clarify it in any case.

LERNER: Like, we’re all household.

GROSS: Clarify it in any case.

LERNER: Effectively, we’re all household, you understand? And it is like, you understand, so I feel I embrace Barton with an amazing paternalistic, we are actually household. You are actually with me, and we’re working collectively. And I feel there is a genuineness with – I assume it is contradictory, however I feel – or paradoxical. There’s a genuineness within the allure, and that’s that I do need this man to work for me. I do need him to – you understand, he is – as a result of he will make me cash, you understand? And I do not suppose the allure will get oily till you start to listen to what I say, you understand, a few of the issues I say. I feel there is a distinction between what I say and the way I look within the movie.

GROSS: The components that you just’re getting finest identified for now are components just like the studio head in “Barton Fink” and, you understand, Arnold Rothstein, the gambler in “Eight Males Out” and…

LERNER: Proper.

GROSS: …You realize, a mafioso in “Harlem Nights” and…

LERNER: Proper.

GROSS: …You realize, the workforce proprietor now within the HBO film.

LERNER: Proper.

GROSS: I noticed you in a horror film wherein you performed absolutely the reverse sort of character. The film was known as “Anguish.” It got here out about…

LERNER: Top-of-the-line movies I’ve ever achieved.

GROSS: It got here out about 5 years in the past – very uncommon film.

LERNER: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: A horror movie wherein you play the actually backwards son of a sort of demented mom who hypnotizes you into…


GROSS: …Committing murders.

LERNER: The mom performed by Zelda Rubinstein…

GROSS: Sure.

LERNER: …Who’s the – who was the girl – the medium in “Poltergeist,” proper?

GROSS: Sure. Sure.

LERNER: Yeah, Zelda. We – that was an fascinating half. And once more, you understand, this explains the profession of an actor and the turmoil that we stay with every day in our careers. I had been suggested by my managers on the time not to try this half as a result of it was so unflattering to me as a result of I play a personality who is kind of repulsive in lots of respects. However…

GROSS: That is a very good phrase for it, yeah.

LERNER: However it was an amazing half. It is an amazing half. And likewise, it is a terrific, Grand Guignol sort of film. And through the years, I’ve had folks like Sean Penn and Bob Dylan and – how way more title dropping can I do?

GROSS: That’ll do.

LERNER: Come over to me and simply say they suppose this can be a terrific movie. They usually simply cherished what I did within the movie. It is sort of changing into a cult film. It is taking part in on all of the cable channels on a regular basis. And I am getting a number of consideration for it.

BIANCULLI: Michael Lerner chatting with Terry Gross in 1992. Extra after a break. That is FRESH AIR.


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

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


GROSS: What sort of neighborhood?

LERNER: Housing tasks. Crimson Hook.

GROSS: And what did your dad and mom do for a dwelling?

LERNER: My father was what you’d – he appreciated to suppose he was an vintage seller. However in all actuality, he was extra like a junk seller. My grandfather had a retailer on the Decrease East Facet of Manhattan the place he bought Venetian blinds and, in quotes, “antiques.” And my father used to work with my grandfather. And, you understand, that was their relationship. My mom, you understand, raised the youngsters.

GROSS: Had been you ever anticipated to enter the enterprise?

LERNER: Oh, by no means. By no means. That occurred mysteriously. You imply turn into an actor? No.

GROSS: No. Had been you ever anticipated to enter your father’s enterprise?

LERNER: Oh, into my father’s enterprise?

GROSS: Yeah.

LERNER: No, I do not suppose so. The true enterprise within the household was my older brother, who’s 11 years older than I’m. And he owned a delicatessen, a kosher deli in Brighton Seashore in Brooklyn known as Zei-Mar. It was there for about 30 years. And after I went to Brooklyn School, my undergraduate time at Brooklyn School, I used to work within the deli. And after I went to Lafayette Excessive Faculty, I labored within the deli. And I feel that, probably, there was considering that I used to be going to tackle the deli enterprise and be – you understand, as a result of I used to be a counterman for a few years in delis in New York. I have been fired from superb delis in New York.

GROSS: What had been you fired for?

LERNER: Effectively, I received screwed up in making triple-decker sandwiches. I used to get the Zero Mostel sandwich and the Crimson Buttons sandwich screwed up.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LERNER: The Sixth Avenue – this can be a true story. The Sixth Avenue Deli in Manhattan. Yep.

GROSS: Oh, that is nice.


GROSS: So what was the distinction between the Zero Mostel and the Crimson Buttons?

LERNER: Effectively, I feel one had corned beef and one had pastrami. And I used to…

GROSS: (Laughter).

LERNER: I used to screw it up, you understand? And there was – I do bear in mind vividly there was a Peter Lind Hayes-Mary Healy double decker.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LERNER: And I did not know who they had been. However, you understand, I came upon who they had been.

GROSS: Oh, they need to title a sandwich after you now in a kind of delis.

LERNER: Would not that be good? Effectively, you understand, I like the Carnegie Deli in New York. And the fellows there – you understand, as I am attending to be extra, you understand, higher identified through the years, I imply, they’re treating me actual good now. I imply, after I stroll into the place now, they put down, you understand, linen on the desk. So possibly finally, they’re going to title a sandwich for me – could be good.

GROSS: So that you stated you initially…


GROSS: …Needed to be a sportswriter.

LERNER: Sure. In New York, rising up, I used to be a sports activities quiz child. I used to be just a little fats child who simply knew all the things about baseball. 1951, Stan Musial hit 5 residence runs and a doubleheader. And there was once a program on Channel 13 earlier than it was PBS – Channel 13 in New York was actually from New Jersey. And there was a Bert Lee Jr. present. And I used to be a quiz child on that present after I was about 13, 14 years previous. And I studied sports activities writing with Bert Lee Jr. And I do not know if the names Gussie Moran, Marty Glickman imply something to you, however there was once a program in New York, a sports activities program – we’re speaking concerning the ’50s now, Fifties. And I used to be a visitor on that present fairly a bit.

GROSS: So what received you curious about appearing?

LERNER: Escape. Escape from, I feel, the slim confines of the way in which I had been introduced up, by way of dwelling within the housing tasks in Brooklyn, which was very tough. And for some motive, you understand, I do not – I actually bear in mind taking part in a donkey in a highschool play. I do not even bear in mind the title of the play. However I do bear in mind taking part in Willy Loman on the age of 18 at Brooklyn School – and graying my hair and placing on all these traces, these previous age traces, and stuff – after which trying within the mirror, and my father standing in again of me and me as I used to be taking my make-up off after the play and saying, Michael, you are an actor, aren’t you? And I do not know. I turned an actor.

I wasn’t – I used to be fairly good academically. And I feel – I’ve a grasp’s diploma from graduate college in Berkeley. After which, you understand, I went on a Fulbright for 2 years. And I feel lots of people anticipated that I’d be a trainer. And I did train at San Francisco State for a few yr. And I used to be going to have a tutorial profession, an English professor. And for some motive, I did not need to do this. I like insecurity. I thrive on it.

GROSS: Have you ever at all times been capable of make a dwelling appearing because you began?

LERNER: Amazingly, sure. Yeah.

GROSS: Has it at all times been taking roles you wished to take? Or are there a number of roles that you just took simply to pay the lease?

LERNER: Oh, no. There are fairly various components within the early days in Los Angeles that I took to pay the lease. I imply, I did all the things from “Starsky And Hutch” to the – oh, I did a movie lately that did not do this effectively known as “Newsies.” And there was all these teenage youngsters on this film. They usually knew me. All these youngsters knew me not from Arnold Rothstein, not from Jack Ruby, not from taking part in Pierre Salinger, not from “Barton Fink.” All of them knew me because the bicycle salesman in “The Brady Bunch.”

GROSS: Was {that a} common half?

LERNER: No, no, no, no. It was a one-time look. Can I let you know one thing that I discover very amusing?

GROSS: Certain.

LERNER: I do not know. Perhaps your listeners will. After I first got here to Hollywood, you understand, I include a number of baggage. I am 25 years previous, and, you understand, I’ve a number of education behind me and all that. And I’ve a gathering with Aaron Spelling on the pilot of a TV present known as “Starsky And Hutch.” Do you do not forget that present?

GROSS: Yeah.


GROSS: It is a cop present.

LERNER: Two folks – proper, proper. And I will be studying for the a part of Starsky, and I’m barely chubby, OK? And it is between me and Paul Michael Glaser, an actor named Paul Michael Glaser. And I do not forget that I wore a girdle after I went in to satisfy Aaron Spelling and tried to impress him with all my tutorial credentials. And he whispered to me. He stated, Michael, Michael. No, you do not do this. You do not do this. You realize, you do not need to intimidate anyone.


LERNER: I wound up taking part in Fats Rolly in that present, by the way in which.

GROSS: (Laughter) So he advised you to not attempt to impress folks with the truth that you had been sensible or had studied.

LERNER: Yeah. Yeah. I do not do this an excessive amount of.

GROSS: Was {that a} lesson? Did you by no means do this once more?

LERNER: It is true. Sure. For about 20 years, I stored quiet about it.

GROSS: You stated in a New York Occasions interview that your dream was to play a sympathetic, romantic main man.

LERNER: Yeah, lumpenproletariat. Sure.

GROSS: That is nonetheless your dream.

LERNER: Completely. Completely. I might identical to to play not a larger-than-life character. I might wish to play someone who’s easy, who’s received issues together with his household. And, you understand, in the entire world of European movie, the sort of folks like Philippe Noiret and Jean Gabin – there’s, you understand, the middle-aged man who’s each man, who’s – you understand, might be skinny, might be fats, might be in between. However he is the main character. He is the individual that you care about. He is not a romantic, attractive individual, essentially. And in European movies, that custom has appeared a lot stronger than in American movies. Do you agree with that?

GROSS: Oh, come on. It is almost absent proper now in American movies.

LERNER: Yeah. I imply, the closest you get to it, I assume, is someone like Gene Hackman.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

LERNER: You realize, the bizarre main man.

GROSS: Yeah.

LERNER: However, I imply, I might wish to play characters which are – you understand, have the issue. And the film’s about them.

GROSS: Yeah, positive.

LERNER: You realize? The issue with the sort of components that I typically get supplied are that they are very vivid, small components, cameos, you understand, or smaller roles. And, you understand, in “Barton Fink,” I am on display possibly quarter-hour.

GROSS: Yeah.

LERNER: And I’d identical to to have components in movie that I used to have within the theater, that are simply extra substantial.

BIANCULLI: Michael Lerner chatting with Terry Gross in 1992. The veteran character actor, who was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting efficiency within the Coen brothers film “Barton Fink,” died Saturday. He was 81 years previous. Arising, movie critic Justin Chang critiques “Displaying Up,” the brand new film directed and co-written by Kelly Reichardt. That is FRESH AIR.


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NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This textual content might not be in its ultimate kind and could also be up to date or revised sooner or later. Accuracy and availability could fluctuate. The authoritative report of NPR’s programming is the audio report.


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