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Remembering Milos Forman, Director Of 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'

The Academy Award-winning filmmaker, who died on April 13, spoke to Fresh Air in 1994 about growing up in the former Czechoslovakia, first under the Gestapo, then under communist rule.


Other segments from the episode on April 20, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 20, 2018: Obituary for Milos Forman; Obituary for Harry Anderson; Review of the film 'I Feel Pretty.'


DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, we remember Academy Award-winning director Milos Forman. He died a week ago at the age of 86. His American films include "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," "Hair," "Ragtime," "Amadeus" and "The People vs. Larry Flynt." Earlier this month, his film "Amadeus" was screened at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic providing live orchestral accompaniment. Forman began his film career working under the Communist bureaucracy in his native country of Czechoslovakia. His Czech movie "Fireman's Ball" played at the New York Film Festival in 1967 and was his ticket to the U.S.

Terry first interviewed Forman in 1994 about his memoir called "Turnaround." Milos Forman was a child during World War II when the Gestapo was in charge. After the war, in 1948, the Communists took over. Both of Forman's parents died in Nazi death camps. One of the Nazis responsible for the death of Forman's parents had been one of their employees years before.


MILOS FORMAN: My parents built a very small 50-room panzio - or little hotel, if you want - in the former Sudetenland, which was the part of Czechoslovakia which was taken over by the Nazis first - by the Germans first. And as a kind of foreman on the building of this panzio in 1920-something, I was not even born, was a German citizen there who - and I know that my parents were very fair people and they treated him fairly.

But when the Nazis came to power, suddenly this man, of course, was somehow humiliated that he worked for some Czechs, which is, you know, not a race or nation, which is, you know, up to the Nazis or German statute (ph). And by sheer coincidence, this man ended up in the Gestapo in Corleen (ph), which was the town under which - Chanslaff (ph), a little town in the middle of Bohemia was under. And when he got all these names, and he saw the names of my parents - first my father and then my mother - he just slammed the paper with a stamp which said the return undesirable, and that's it. And then they perished.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Your mother was taken by the Gestapo after they came to search your house. What was it like? You were, I think, 7 years old or something?

FORMAN: With mother I was 8 and a half, yeah. I was 8 and a half years old. I was sick that day, and I was - I had a fever. I had a flu. I was in bed. And I heard, you know, that - some voices downstairs because we were living in a little house, you know, one-story house in Chanslaff and for a long time. And I knew that something is strange because I heard strange noises from downstairs. And then I hear steps coming upstairs. And then the door open a crack, and my mother is there. And she's handing me a cup of water and a pill and says, now take the pill. And I said, but I shouldn't be taking the pill until the afternoon. The Gestapo is here. And she just gave me that.

So I took the pill, and I, you know, the door closed. And I saw a man standing behind her there. And then I realized why she's telling me that because I was - my bedroom was a tiny little room behind which was another tiny little room to which the door were covered by a cupboard. And to keep the fresh air in, the cupboard was always a little bit away from the front door. And I realized that she wants me to push the cupboard back to the wall so that it covers the door. And when they come to my bedroom for search, they will not find it. But I was too weak, and the cupboard was oak wood and very, very heavy. I took all the things out. And I was trying to push it back and I didn't succeed.

That was the most horrible feeling because I felt like I failed my family. The irony is that then when they came in and found out, you know, this other room there, they went in. They looked around. They went out. They were even smiling at me. And then they went down again with my mother. But then I hear the door click, and then there was silence. And this was, you know, they came like 8 o'clock in the morning, and this was like 2 o'clock in the afternoon. And there was silence. And I hear the car going away in the street. And there is a total silence. They just didn't even let my mother go upstairs and say goodbye. And I am alone, absolutely alone in the whole house. And there was nobody in the town of Chanslaff would come home.

GROSS: So that's the last time you ever saw your mother?

FORMAN: No. Then we had a very, you know, sort of - it's - everything is such a paradox, you know. About a year later, suddenly we were allowed visits with our mother. Me, my brother and my uncle, my mother's brother. So we went to Prague. We were taken down to the catacombs of a former bank, which was now Gestapo headquarters in Prague. And they, you know, locked us in, closed the door. And we are sitting there - my brother, my uncle - for about two hours. And then the door opens, and in the door they brought in my mother. And from - in the first moment I realized, she didn't know why - where they are taking her. She didn't - they obviously didn't tell her that she's not going to be interrogated or whatever, that she's going to meet her family. And we had 10 minutes allowed with her.

And the funny part is that, you know, what do you - now when I recall it, all we are talking about - mother was asking, how were the prunes this year? And did you did you have enough sugar to make a jam? And obviously, Mrs. Praskovya (ph), it was absolute. And she was just holding me all these 10 minutes, you know. And then the man said, you know, goodbye and say goodbye. So my mother left and never saw her again.

GROSS: So what was it like for you to go through the rest of the war without parents?

FORMAN: Well, that's another big paradox. You know, a child doesn't really perceive the tragedy like that, especially, you know, I probably would be much more stricken by grief if my parents died yesterday than when they died when I was a child because a child doesn't really perceive the finality of life. The death is - especially in this case is because they were away. They were somewhere.

GROSS: You didn't know they were going to die.

FORMAN: So you don't know they are going to die. They are somewhere. And then one day, somebody tells you - in this case, it was my uncle - told me, listen, my sister, your mother, died. But in my daily life, nothing changed, you know.

GROSS: So you had family - extended family to bring you up, uncles...

FORMAN: Oh, my relatives were taking care of me, yes.

GROSS: I want you to recall a specific day during the war, and this is a day that must have had special significance for you. It's the day that the Germans decreed that all the art houses had to close - the theater, the ballet, the orchestra, the movies. Were you already interested in the arts when that happened?

FORMAN: I was very much - not interested, I was seduced because I was a child. Again, you know, I was 10 years old or 11 years old. And my brother, who is 12 years older than I am, he was like 23 years old, he was a set designer for a travelling small group - theater group company which was playing operettas. And every time when they came to town where I was living with my relatives, you know, I was - every day, I was backstage. And, you know, I was just mesmerized by the atmosphere of the theater. Because I was a little kid, you know, nobody kicked me out from the ladies' dressing room.

So it was very, very exciting. And then, you know, I didn't really - I didn't know anything, you know, why it's happening. It was the most weird experience because I - this was - I remember very well "Polish Blood" is the name of the operetta. It's a very fluffy, light operetta. And this was 1944. And suddenly, in the third act during a very merry kind of a song, it was like a quartet or quintet and the ballet dancers on the stage. Suddenly, the singers stopped singing and started to cry, tears running down. And the orchestra stopped, conductor stopped. The people in the theater are sitting silently, quietly, sort of upset or surprised. I just didn't know what's happening.

Then the conductor tried to start the aria or the quintet again. They started to try to sing again this very merry, happy song. And again, in the middle of the song, they broke down in tears and cried. And then the man came on the stage and said, ladies and gentlemen, I hope you understand that the emotional state of the artists, will not be able to finish their performance today. Thank you for coming. It was so nice. Good night. And the curtain went down. And that was the end of culture. I didn't know that the day before, the Germans just canceled culture. The next day, every single singer, every single dancer, every single musician had to go and enlist himself or herself in factories, do work for the victory of the Third Reich.

GROSS: You ended up trying to go to theater school. You were rejected from theater school and ended up in film school, which I suppose was really lucky. (Laughter).

FORMAN: For me, definitely.

GROSS: Lucky break. Yeah. Had you seen a lot of movies growing up?

FORMAN: Yeah. In the film school. It was another paradox of communist society because it was the best school I could ever be going into. Because after the Communists took over, they purged from public life the best writers, the best filmmakers, the best artists in the country because they were not enough in creating in the vein of socialist realities for them. So they purged them. But they couldn't, you know, they couldn't kill them. They had to give them some chance to make a living. So make a meager living in teaching. So the result was that at the film school we had the best minds, the greatest artists, you know, which were teaching us, which we could talk to.

GROSS: Milan Kundera, who wrote...

FORMAN: Milan Kundera was one of them.

GROSS: Yeah. Who wrote "The Unbearable Lightness Of Being" was one of your teachers.

FORMAN: Yes. "The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting," "The Joke." You know, wonderful books.

GROSS: One of the things that you did - I think this is while you were in film school or just afterwards - you hosted what you describe as a sort of Czech, Socialist, Realist Thursday-night-at-the-movies show on TV. So what would you say to introduce a film? Do you remember any of the introductions you did?

FORMAN: All the introductions had to - you know, I was always trying to show on the television films which had some, you know, which were not just the propaganda films. But then of course you had to present them in the way which the Communists would accept. If it was filmed from France, for example, if, I don't know. "Children Of Paradise" - beautiful, romantic film. But you had to stress that this film is showing the cruelty of bourgeoisie, how it's suppressing the working-class people, you know?

GROSS: Did you believe any of that?

FORMAN: Of course not. Because everybody knew it's nonsense. It's a game. It's a game, you know?

GROSS: When you started writing and directing movies, did you have to avoid what government officials would have defined as bourgeois subject matter?

FORMAN: I was lucky because for some reasons, they think - you know, my first films were comedies, basically, films in Czechoslovakia. And they perceive comedies as something not as important. Something light, you know? Make it, you know, just funny. It's just like that. So I was able to do these films very much the way I wanted to do them.

GROSS: One of the best known of your Czechoslovakian films was "Firemen's Ball," and this was a comedy. And in the version that's in circulation now, I don't know when you put this part in. I mean, I know you put it in in the late '60s. The film opens with you in front of the camera explaining that, first of all, "Firemen's Ball" was released just before the Dubcek leadership took over and that the film had a very surprising reaction. Forty-thousand resigned in protest against this film.

FORMAN: Well, they were ordered to resign. This film, it was banned. This film was banned right away when it was finished, and it was banned officially for eternity.

GROSS: Why was it banned? You said comedies weren't considered as dangerous. This is a comedy.

FORMAN: Well, they thought it's a metaphor on the politburo and the Communist Party. You know, that Firemen's Ball committee, right, that it's a metaphor for the whole leadership of the country. So they banned the film. You know, that it was orchestrated by the government people, this strike or threat of practically all the volunteer firemen, the whole country because they needed - you know, the people were so apathetic already. You know, they didn't give a damn. But, of, course if the people read in the newspapers that, well, tomorrow if your house is on fire, just kiss the house goodbye because the firemen are on strike, likely because they are upset about this film. So, you know, that turns people's anger against the artists, against the film's filmmakers, you know?

GROSS: Were there any fires that you were accused of being personally responsible for, and did you feel responsible for any of it?

FORMAN: No, no, no. They didn't go on strike.

GROSS: They didn't really go on strike?

FORMAN: They provoked this threat so that the government can say that they have a right to ban the film. So when the government banned the film, the firemen said, all right. So now we know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: Film director Milos Forman speaking to Terry Gross in 1994. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's 1994 interview with film director Milos Forman, who died a week ago at the age of 86. His 1975 film, "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Let's hear a clip from the film, which starred Jack Nicholson as the rebellious mental patient McMurphy, and Louise Fletcher as his nemesis, the no nonsense Nurse Ratched. McMurphy has entered the psych ward as a ploy to avoid prison, but the constant Muzak is beginning to drive him crazy for real.


JACK NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) Excuse me, miss. Do you think it might be possible to turn that music down so maybe a couple of the boys could talk?

LOUISE FLETCHER: (As Nurse Ratched) That music is for everyone, Mr. McMurphy.

NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) Yeah. I know. But do you think we might ease it down a little bit so maybe the boys didn't have to shout? Huh?

FLETCHER: (As Nurse Ratched) What you probably don't realize is that we have a lot of old men on this ward who couldn't hear the music if we turned it lower. That music is all they have. Your hand is staining my window.

NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) Sorry, man. Really sorry.

MIMI SARKISIAN: (As Nurse Pilbow) Mr. McMurphy?

NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) Huh?

SARKISIAN: (As Nurse Pilbow) Your medication.

NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) What's in the horse pill?

SARKISIAN: (As Nurse Pilbow) It's just medicine. It's good for you.

NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) Yeah. But I don't like the idea of taking something if I don't know what it is.

SARKISIAN: (As Nurse Pilbow) Don't get upset, Mr. McMurphy.

NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) I'm not getting upset, Miss Pilbow. It's just that I don't want anyone to try and slip me saltpeter.

FLETCHER: (As Nurse Ratched) It's all right, Nurse Pilbow. If Mr. McMurphy doesn't want to take his medication orally, I'm sure we can arrange that he can have it some other way. But I don't think you'd like it, Mr. McMurphy.


GROSS: The second film you made in the United States, "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," is one of your most famous films. It got a bunch of Academy Awards. You keep stressing the absurdity of stories that surrounded life under communism in Czechoslovakia, and you found out that you had been sent a copy of the novel "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" years before you actually made the movie, but you never got it.

FORMAN: Well, there was Kirk Douglas, who bought the rights for the book, you know, when it was - even before it was published. And he loved the book, and he wanted to make a movie but never succeeded to get the money to do it. But in that time, he was still hoping to do it. And he was in Prague on a goodwill mission which was originated by President Kennedy. And he came to Prague because he did the adaptation of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" for Broadway, Kirk Douglas. And he starred in it on Broadway.

And even there, you know, this adaptation at that time flopped. So suddenly he had time on his hands so he accepted to go to Eastern Europe and Central Europe. So he went to Prague. They showed him one of my films. He liked it. Then he asked me at the party if he can send me a book and if I would read it. And I tell him, you know, of course, of course, of course. And, you know, the book never came. So I thought, well, that he was another American big shot...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FORMAN: ...And the moment he left the room, he already forgot. OK. Ten years later, I'm over here in the United States and I get a book in an envelope sent by the producers and Michael Douglas, Kirk Douglas' son. If I would read it, and that was "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest." And, well, of course I said yes. It was the most fascinating, intelligent piece of literature in that time. So it was offered, and I read. And when little, you know, few weeks later I met Kirk, he said, you Czechs, you son of a bitches. I said, whoa, whoa, whoa, why are you saying that?

Well, listen. I was sending you 10 years ago this book, and you don't have the courtesy to say, you know, kiss off, or something like that. And I told him, well, listen. This is, you know, the same thing I thought about you. Well, what happened was, he sent the book but the censors at the customs confiscated the book as a subversive literature without informing Kirk Douglas that the book - or sending it back to Kirk Douglas and without informing me.

GROSS: So did Michael Douglas, when he sent you the book, did he know that his father had sent it to you 10 years before?

FORMAN: That's the funny thing. No, he didn't. It was some kind of a strange fate that the book came back again to me by Kirk's son.

BIANCULLI: Milos Forman speaking to Terry Gross in 1994. He died a week ago at age 86. After a break, we'll listen to another of their conversations, from 1996. We'll also pay tribute to Harry Anderson, the sitcom star and amateur magician who died earlier this week at age 65. And we have a review of the new Amy Schumer comedy, "I Feel Pretty." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Today we're listening back to conversations with film director Milos Forman, who died a week ago at the age of 86. Terry spoke with him a second time in 1996 about his film, "The People Vs. Larry Flynt," starring Woody Harrelson as the publisher of Hustler magazine. The film follows Flynt's rise from small-time strip joint owner to pornography mogul. It also follows Flynt in and out of court as he uses the First Amendment to defend himself against obscenity charges. During one of his obscenity trials, he was shot outside the courthouse, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

In this scene, he's about to board a plane in defiance of a court order preventing him from leaving Los Angeles. His lawyer, played by Edward Norton, is fed up with Flynt's courtroom antics and his continued defiance of judges.


EDWARD NORTON: (As Alan Isaacman) Larry. Hey. Larry. Hey. Larry, you're not getting on that plane.

WOODY HARRELSON: (As Larry Flynt) Yes, I am.

NORTON: (As Alan Isaacman) No, you are not. Don't do it. Do you think this is some kind of a game we're playing?

HARRELSON: (As Larry Flynt) Yeah. You're right. You're right. It's a [expletive] joke. 5 1/2 years since they - since they shot me, and now the government hadn't...

NORTON: (As Alan Isaacman) Hey, I was there too, all right? You remember? You don't see me running around, pissing off everybody we're trying to get to help us.

HARRELSON: (As Larry Flynt) Yeah. Well, you can walk, and you can [expletive]. And I'm in this chair. And I've got money. OK? I got money, and that gives me the power to shake up this system. Dougie (ph).

NORTON: (As Alan Isaacman) Well, find somebody else to help you, then, because this is not what I signed on for. I don't even know what we're engaged in anymore, Larry. If you get on that plane, I quit.

HARRELSON: (As Larry Flynt) Alan, don't be so melodramatic. You don't want to quit me. I'm your dream client. I'm the most fun. I'm rich. And I'm always in trouble.


GROSS: You've said that one of the reasons why you were interested in the movie is because you're interested in freedom of expression. And you lived under two totalitarian regimes growing up in Czechoslovakia, first the Nazis and then the communists. And I'm wondering if some of Larry Flynt's uses of the right to free speech seemed trivial to you, both the pornography and things like nude photographs of Jackie Onassis. Having been deprived of free speech, did this seem like such a trivial way of taking advantage of it?

FORMAN: Yes. There's a lot of trivial things in what the - Larry Flynt is doing. And there is a lot of, you know, tasteless things in which - what he's doing. But, you know, freedom of the speech is much bigger than Larry Flynt himself, you know? It's a - you know, it's - this is a - you know, this country really never experienced censorship. And so you - you know, we are taking the freedom for granted, and we don't know what kind of terrible consequences the loss of freedom of speech can have.

Because, you know, it might, you know, ruffle some feathers when I say, yes, we have to strive for 100 percent freedom of the speech because once you open the door to censorship, it never stops with pornography. It never stops with smut. It start to spread. You know, who is going to decide what is obscene, and who is not obscene - what is not obscene?

GROSS: Was there pornography when you were growing up in Czechoslovakia?

FORMAN: No. No, there was not pornography. You know, that's the funny thing. You know, it's - probably for this, you know, sentiment, you know, moralists who are calling for censorship, the - you know, the totalitarian regime would be ideal. Because for 40 years, you wouldn't see any pornography on Czech television or in Czech movies or on the magazines' racks. You wouldn't see any, you know, violence, anything like that.

Everything was - and the good question is, do you think that any kind of a bad - things which we try to blame, you know, our moral relaxation for, that they didn't exist in those times? Oh, my God. (Laughter) They were as rampant as always before and always after, you know.

GROSS: Now, you have Larry Flynt playing a judge in Cincinnati who sentences Larry Flynt to 25 years in an obscenity case. Did Larry Flynt ask to play that part?

FORMAN: (Laughter) No. No, I was just joking one day. And I - you know, I had a kick to say, little Larry, do you want to sentence yourself to 25 years in prison? And he laughed and said, (imitating Larry Flynt) oh, why not?

GROSS: (Laughter).

FORMAN: So he's there. And we all had a - you know, it brought some kind of a wonderful feeling, an atmosphere on the set, because, you know, everybody had a kick out of it.

GROSS: Something I read that you said about pornography, you've said that pornography - that you were brought up in an environment where pornography was considered bad. And you've never shaken that attitude about pornography, and you also feel especially uncomfortable if someone sees you while you're looking at pornography. And I'd like you to explain why (laughter).

FORMAN: Well, it is something to do with my upbringing, I guess. You know? Because I am from a - I was born in a small town. My parents, my father was a teacher. My mother was a housewife. I don't really know. I was going to church. And all this made me feel like - that sex is bad except in marriage, you know, that it's something I should be ashamed of even to think about. You know?

When I was a - I never - as I said, I never bought Hustler. I bought Playboy maybe - I don't know - I know once, I bought Playboy when the - Jimmy Carter's interview was in the Playboy. And I was blushing when I was buying it at the corner of 57th Street and 6th Avenue. And I was - I had a feeling that everybody's looking at me, and everybody is looking at me, you know, with such a disdain. And so that's why I was, like, running home.

GROSS: (Laughter) You could tell me if this is too personal, OK? You grew up during World War II. Your parents were both killed in concentration camps in Czechoslovakia. So you were on your own by the time you were 8, I think. How did you learn about the facts of life without a family?

FORMAN: Well, I lived with other families afterwards. And - listen, how do you learn about these things? It's so ridiculous to think today that, you know, we have to just hide everything from our children, and then they will be wonderful citizens, you know. I remember that for us, when I was already 6 years old, I discovered a medical book, you know, in my father's library. Every time I was home alone, I was browsing, you know, through this book, watching this, you know, drawings of human body without cloth. That's how you discover things.

You know, also to believe that films or television - that they are so powerful that you are educating so beautifully your children for 15, 20 years, and then the poor son of mine sees one movie or one television show, and all this - my education goes down the drain, it's ridiculous, you know.

BIANCULLI: Milos Forman speaking to Terry Gross in 1996. He died a week ago at age 86. Coming up, we remember conman, magician and actor Harry Anderson. He's best known for his role as the judge in the NBC sitcom "Night Court." Anderson died Monday at age 65. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Harry Anderson, the sitcom star of the '80s NBC sitcom "Night Court," died earlier this week at age 65. Before playing the judge on "Night Court," Anderson made memorable recurring appearances as con man Harry The Hat on another NBC sitcom, "Cheers." And long before that, he was a con man, magician and street performer. Terry Gross spoke with Harry Anderson in 1989 and asked him about one of his street stunts in which he surprised people waiting in line to see the film "Jaws" by pretending to chop off his hand.


HARRY ANDERSON: What you do is you buy a phony hand at the magic shop. And you get a loaf of French bread. And you hollow out one end of the French bread. And you stick the phony hand in there. It's, you know, a baguette, a long loaf, about the diameter of an arm and then on the other end, you take a turkey baster her and you fill it with stage blood, and you stick that in the other end. Then you take an old shirt. You cut the sleeve off, and you put that around the bread.

Now, standing at my table and on the street, I used to wear this big robe. I would reach over with one hand and get this ugly-looking cleaver. And at the same time, using that distraction, I would grab this phony hand and pull my arm up into the robe, bring the phony hand down on the table, bring the meat cleaver through the bread. And a cleaver going through crunchy French bread really does - if you think you're going through somebody's arm, does give you the sound of of gristle and bone. It's remarkable. Then I would hit this turkey baster a couple of times, and the stage blood would go everywhere.

And it was sensational. And I thought, this is really going to - this is going to kill them. So I did it once. I got it all set, went out there, did it once. The crowd absolutely freaked out, turned on me. A guy came up and punched me in the face. And I didn't do it anymore.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: They must have thought you were psychotic.

ANDERSON: Well, they were waiting to see "Jaws." I mean, I thought I was playing the crowd. They didn't throw a lot of money at me, no.

GROSS: Did you ever run real swindles before it actually became an act?

ANDERSON: Did I run real swindles? Oh, yeah. I mean, I started as a - on the street. I did not begin as a performer. I began running the shell game. And again, another experience with a dissatisfied customer who decided that I was not playing a game of chance. And that was another punch - broke my jaw, got me sitting down and wondering if there was an easier way to make a living. What I did was I took the stuff I knew, which was essentially cheating at cards and picking locks and running the shell game, and turned it into an act and made less money initially. But I had a better chance at survival. And then I've just been in the process of becoming more and more legitimate through the years. And now I'm a judge. Who would've thought?

GROSS: (Laughter) So how did you learn to pick locks and run a shell game?

ANDERSON: Well, it was the stuff that fascinated me. When I was a kid in Chicago, I hung around a place called the Ambassador Hotel. And they had a room there called the pump room. And that's where the old guys would come and play cards. And my dad was a salesman. And I don't recall exactly why I was spending afternoons there. But I do recall watching these old guys play cards. And Chicago is a big town for magicians and card hustlers. So when I was very young, a fellow sat me down and taught me the Three-Card Monte. And that kind of put me in a - pointed me towards easy money.

And I just learned what I could to become what they call a wise guy. Unfortunately, that was the early '50s. And the day of the wise guy was really ending. The day of the street entrepreneur was kind of vanishing. They flourished in the post-war era. But then fortunately, the history of it overlapped neatly with street performers, who made a comeback in the '60s when I was a teenager. And so I was able to step right into that.

GROSS: So you learned how to do shell games. You also learned how to pick locks. Did you use that to rob people?

ANDERSON: Oh, no. No, I didn't. Really, my only run-ins with the law were over hustling on the street. I did get - I did get busted once in New Orleans for a couple of nights for - and the irony was that that was after I had stopped actually hustling with the shell game and was doing it as a kind of a bunko demonstration.

GROSS: What was your rap when you were running the shell game?

ANDERSON: Little game of hanky poo, two for me and one for you. Hey diddle diddle, it's the one in the middle. Which one is it now? And on and on as the game required.

GROSS: So how were you discovered after playing the streets and then playing casinos? How did you make it onto television?

ANDERSON: Well, it all happened kind of quick. I was in town with my wife. She was raised in Los Angeles. And we were in town visiting her folks and playing the Magic Castle, which is a night club for magicians here in town. And I was doing my act, which at that time consisted of a stage version of the Three-Card Monte and the demonstration of the holdout. Kenny Rogers' manager, Ken Kragen, saw me. And at that time, Kenny's big song was "The Gambler." And he thought that my material was very appropriate to go along with Kenny's hit. And he asked me to open for Kenny in Las Vegas, which I did. And I was seen there, asked to do "Saturday Night Live," which I did nine or 10 times over the years.

The Charles Brothers had a new show - Glen and Les Charles had a new show in mine called "Cheers." And they thought that a con man would be a very natural character in the bar. So they hired me to do the first season of "Cheers." And somebody saw me on "Cheers" and thought that I was an actor playing a part as opposed to a guy just doing what he knew. And they gave me "Night Court." And by the time they realized I wasn't an actor, I had already signed a five-year contract. Joke's on them.

GROSS: (Laughter) Do you think of yourself as having used any cons to get your role on "Night Court?"

ANDERSON: Well, I - based on that story I'd say that's exactly how I did it. I mean, it was a little inadvertent, but it was by playing a con man. I mean, I hadn't acted. I hadn't taken lessons, and I hadn't auditioned. I had simply done what I knew. And that led to playing Judge Harry Stone.

GROSS: I've got one last question for you.


GROSS: OK. Now that you're...

ANDERSON: What are you, a cop? You got a lot of questions. You know that?

GROSS: (Laughter) Now that you're really recognizable because all of your work on television...


GROSS: ...Does this mean that you can't take a train and play cards anymore? I mean, you couldn't even have fun running a game somewhere.

ANDERSON: You know, that's one of the things I really miss. I used to make my living by understanding people. And the way I learned to understand them was by observing them. I would sit in a train station or a bus station or a restaurant. And I would watch people. I would watch how they related to one another. I would try to get some insight into them and make them as predictable as I could in my mind. And it was - what I guess I felt was my job. But at the same time, it was very enjoyable. I love people. I love their mannerisms and their eccentricities.

And now it's very difficult for me to anonymously sit back and watch. I tend to hide at the airport - and especially if I'm with my family, just so that we can have a little quiet time. But what I do miss is that that observation time. I used to rely on anonymity. That was one of my tools - was the fact that I could go from one town to another and that I wasn't known. Now that has really turned around 180 degrees, although, you know, I'm not complaining about - I don't mean to sound as if I'm complaining about my success here. There are things that I miss.

GROSS: Do you miss being able to run a good card game?

ANDERSON: Oh, I still play cards. You know, but now I cheat my wife at cards, you know, with no money. I just - now she's going to hear this, and she's never going to play cards with me again.

GROSS: Well, Harry Anderson, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

ANDERSON: Well, thank you. I'm glad we finally did.

BIANCULLI: Harry Anderson speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. He died earlier this week at age 65. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "I Feel Pretty," the new movie starring Amy Schumer. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. The comedian Amy Schumer became a movie star with her 2015 comedy "Trainwreck," which she co-wrote. Her third big screen comic vehicle, "I Feel Pretty," opens today preceded by some noteworthy negative publicity. Film critic David Edelstein explains.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The Internet backlash against the Amy Schumer comedy "I Feel Pretty" began early, based on the trailer. And it rested on the idea that the movie is about how an ugly woman becomes beautiful. That's an understandable mistake but a mistake nonetheless. It's a funny, deft, in some ways conventional rom-com about a woman with painfully low self-esteem who hits her head and suddenly sees herself as madly attractive. Behaving as if she's the most gorgeous creature on earth might make her an object of hilarity. But her stratospheric sense of self-worth disarms everyone she meets.

Schumer didn't conceive "I Feel Pretty." It was written and directed by the team of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein. But it fits into her TV show "Inside Amy Schumer's" history of challenging men on their caveman aesthetic and those women who feel they have no choice but to accept male definitions of beauty. Along with Lena Dunham, Schumer has been on the front lines, as Twitter jackasses have argued that a woman who looks like her shouldn't even have her own show, a criticism she transformed into an ingenious parody of "12 Angry Men" in which a jury of overentitled male dweebs debated her hotness.

Her character in "I Feel Pretty," Renee Bennett, stares forlornly into the mirror and attempts to compensate for not looking like a fashion model - the kind of women who walk around in micro-miniskirts at the corporate office in which she wants to work, an Estee Lauder-like makeup company overseen by Michelle Williams' blonde and beauteous Avery LeClaire. Renee rewatches the movie "Big," in which a kid who longs to be a grown-up is magically transformed. And then she goes and wishes at a fountain to be, quote, "undeniably pretty." It doesn't happen then. But the next day, she goes flying off the bike in spin class, bangs her head and thinks her wish came true. Believing she's a guy magnet, Renee banters at her dry cleaners with an unassuming bearded man played by Rory Scovel.


AMY SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) You probably haven't been here before, but you have to wait in line and take a number.

RORY SCOVEL: (As Ethan) Oh, all right.

SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) I can grab it for you, yeah.

SCOVEL: (As Ethan) Oh, thank you.

SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) I just - here.

SCOVEL: (As Ethan) Thank you.

SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) And this guy just calls out, like, the number completely out of sequence.

SCOVEL: (As Ethan) OK.

SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) It's like a weird game of Bingo.

SCOVEL: (As Ethan) All right.

SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) But no one wins. So yeah.

SCOVEL: (As Ethan) What's your number?

SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) So this is how it happens, just like that. Wow.

SCOVEL: (As Ethan) Just like what happens? Like what?

SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) That is very clever.

SCOVEL: (As Ethan) I don't know why that's clever. What is clever? I was just asking...

SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) What's your number? And then I go, oh, 118. And then you're like, no, your phone number.

SCOVEL: (As Ethan) Oh.

SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) Yeah. You are good. How long have you been hanging onto that little nugget?

SCOVEL: (As Ethan) I haven't. I haven't been holding onto that. That's not a nugget at all.

SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) You don't hang out in a lot of dry cleaners and hit on perfect girls? That's - wow. All right. Give me your phone.

SCOVEL: (As Ethan) My phone?

SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) Give me your phone. I'm going to give you my number.

SCOVEL: (As Ethan) Are you still talking to me?

SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) Don't chicken out now.

SCOVEL: (As Ethan) I'm not chickening out.

EDELSTEIN: That scene's loose, overlapping dialogue as two characters on different wavelengths do and don't connect is one of the movie's glories. Rory Scovel stays in the film and proves an inspired straight man for Amy Schumer's Renee, a social outcast with little romantic experience who comes to see her as a life force. You can go with or shrug off such rom com contrivances, though co-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein are masters of them, having written the wonderful "Never Been Kissed" with Drew Barrymore.

"I Feel Pretty" is by leagues Schumer's best film. Her motormouth delivery has a high-wire quality, as if she's babbling for her life. And her pratfalls have a ballerina's precision, probably enhanced by the editor, Tia Nolan. When Renee spontaneously enters a Coney Island bikini contest, the scene could be squirm-inducing. But instead, it's exhilarating because Renee is at home in her body. As the shellacked and baby-voiced mogul Avery LeClaire, Michelle Williams has a lyrical melancholy. She's a smart, educated woman who feels as trapped in her body as Schumer's Renee does in hers and stuck with a voice she's unable to change.

The movie suggests almost no one has the appropriate level of self-esteem. "I Feel Pretty" can be criticized as too rosy on the grounds that the power of positive thinking can only get us so far. Indeed, it can even reinforce the repressive social norms it claims to challenge. But Renee's positive thinking has such a dizzy, life-affirming charge that she makes you believe if she's not quote, "pretty," it's because the definition of pretty is inadequate. It needs to be elasticized or maybe blown to smithereens.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo. His new memoir is called "Air Traffic: A Memoir Of Ambition And Manhood In America." Some of the things that figure into his story - his father losing his job when Reagan broke the Air Traffic Controllers Union, joining the Marine Reserves and then wanting out, and being on a reality TV show with his family. Join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our engineer today is Charlie Kaier. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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.

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