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'Fresh Air' Remembers Mary Wilson, Founding Member Of The Supremes

Wilson, who died Feb. 8, began singing with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard in 1959. As the Supremes, they helped define Motown sound with a string of hits in the 1960s. Originally broadcast in 1986.


Other segments from the episode on February 12, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 12, 2021: Obituary for Mary Wilson; Obituary for Christopher Plummer; Review of film 'Judas and the Black Messiah.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.


THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Stop in the name of love.

DAVIES: Mary Wilson, a founding member of The Supremes, which had a string of hits in the 1960s and helped to define the Motown sound, died Monday at her home in Henderson, Nev. She was 76. The band that became The Supremes actually began in 1959 when Wilson was a teenager living across the street from Diana Ross. The pair teamed up with Florence Ballard to form the Primettes and eventually began hanging around Motown studio after school, hoping for an audition. They were eventually signed and changed their name to The Supremes in 1962. With Diana Ross as lead singer, the group had a dozen No. 1 singles in the 1960s, including "Stop! In The Name Of Love," "Baby Love," "Back In My Arms Again" and "Where Did Our Love Go."


THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby, don't leave me. Ooh, please, don't leave me all by myself. I've got this burning, burning, yearning feeling inside me, ooh, deep inside me. And it hurts so bad. You came into my heart - baby, baby, where did our love go? - so tenderly with a burning love - baby, baby - that stings like a bee - baby, baby, ooh, baby, baby. Now that I surrender - baby, baby...

DAVIES: Diana Ross left the group in 1970. The Supremes replaced her as lead singer with Jean Terrell. And they had a few more hits before breaking up in 1977. Mary Wilson then had a solo career, recording two albums and performing into the 2000s. Over the years, she had some conflicts with Motown Records and with Diana Ross, who tweeted Tuesday that she had wonderful memories of her time with Wilson. Terry spoke with Mary Wilson in 1986 when she'd written a memoir called "Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme."


TERRY GROSS: What kind of material did they initially give you at Motown?

MARY WILSON: They didn't know what to give us. I mean, that was one thing, because, you see, we - as the world soon found out, we were the kind of singers that were not soulful. I mean, we were Black. But we didn't sing R&B, which is our voices - I mean, you can look at Diane's voice today. It's just not an R&B voice. And even though Florence was sort of a soulful singer, we - it was very hard to put us in a category. And our songs were very, I'd say, bubblegum-type songs, you know, not as soulful as Martha and the Vandellas or the Marvelettes.

GROSS: So they didn't know what to give you?

WILSON: No. They had no idea which way to go with us. And, in fact, we had 11 records. Now, that's 11 disks with two sides. So that's 22 records. So you see, we had recorded quite a bit before our first No. 1 record trying to find that sound for us.

GROSS: I want to play one of the early records that I think is before you really found that sound and before Holland, Dozier and Holland were writing and producing for...

WILSON: OK. Now, I want to bring this up, too.

GROSS: Yeah.

WILSON: Now, before we found the sound that the public liked, I think, still, the sound, the recordings that we did earlier, were very, very good and, you know, songs that they still were us. But the public didn't like them (laughter).

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Let Me Go The Right Way."


GROSS: This was recorded in 1962. That was - what? - a year after you signed your contract?

WILSON: I guess. Yeah, we signed in '61.

GROSS: So tell us about this session, yeah.

WILSON: OK. Now, this was a happy session. This was a song that was very - to me was a good record. And I felt it should've been a hit. It had Diane singing the lead. And in those days, she had a very, very high voice and a nasal - (singing) I'm yours - you know, a real nasally sound. Well, you'll hear it when you play it. "Let Me Go The Right Way."


THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Let me go right - let me - oh, no, no, no. Let me go right. I'm yours. Don't you know that I done fell for you? I fell for you. I want to know, baby, tell me what you're going to do? Oh, what are you going to do? You took my love. You took my love, all my love, baby, all my love. Don't lead me astray. Let me go the right way. My heart, baby, is all weak for you. It's weak for you, so please, be careful and treat me true. Won't you treat me true, because you're my life? You're my life. I want to be a wife. I want to be a wife. Don't lead me astray. Let me go the right way. Let me go the right way. Where you lead me, where you lead me - I'll follow you. What you tell me, what you tell me, that's what I'll do because, baby, I'm yours...

GROSS: That's The Supremes as they sounded in 1962, "Let Me Go The Right Way." You were still, really, kids when you recorded that. When you...

WILSON: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: When you signed your first contract, it was 1961. You were under 20, right?

WILSON: Well, we were 16.

GROSS: (Laughter) Sixteen? OK.

WILSON: We had not reached 17 yet.

GROSS: When did Berry Gordy, the head of Motown, make The Supremes his focus of attention, you really became his girls?

WILSON: Well, I must say, I'd have to answer this question my way, if you don't mind, for a second, OK...

GROSS: Sure.

WILSON: ...Because the reason that I wrote the book is to dispel the rumor that Berry Gordy made us his girls and that Berry Gordy made us into these chic, you know, nice, plastic dolls. In actuality, the three of us, every single minute, were pestering them for this, for that. We would beg the producers to produce us. I mean, it was our persistence that really, as you say, made Berry make us his girls. But I don't think, had we not been that persistent, he would not have. But he saw in us something that, you know, he felt he could really - ah, here's a group that not - I don't have to tell them everything. I mean, they, themselves, are business-like, you know? They are here on time. They - you know, they would look at the clothes they wear. Part of our image was what, maybe, was responsible for that becoming so very prominent in Motown, because they said, well, now, these girls have class. Now, let's maybe pattern some of the other people. So I think - what I'm trying to say is that we sort of made Berry pay attention to us. But thank God he had a good eye, (laughter) you know?

GROSS: When The Supremes started performing together, you'd alternate leads. You sang the lead on most of the ballads.


GROSS: But it wasn't too long after you were recording for Motown that Diana Ross started singing all the leads. Whose idea was that?

WILSON: OK. That was Berry's. Berry said to us - and as you heard, "Let Me Go The Right Way," they allowed us to, you know, sing whatever. But after a while, Berry said, you know, I really think that Diane has a more commercial voice. And by this time, we're in. You know, we're in with Motown. And we respect his opinion. And we said, well, if we really want a hit record, you know, what the heck? He could've chosen any one of us. And any one of us could have done the job. We were all for it. However, I don't think Florence nor I knew or could even imagine that he meant we would never be able to sing again. And it really broke down to that. So it wasn't Diane who said, you know, she wanted to do all the leads. And just that he felt her voice was more commercial.

GROSS: Was it frustrating for you to have your singing part confined to oohs and ahs and baby-babies?

WILSON: Well, in the beginning, it wasn't because I always felt that I would be able to sing. I mean, it just didn't dawn on me that early that it meant, never will you sing. And when we were becoming very, very popular, I got to the point where I would just go to a producer and say behind everyone's back, listen; I want to sing one of the songs on the albums. And they'd say, well, you know, Diana is the lead. And I'd say, yeah, but, I mean, this is a ballad. This is the kind of song I can sing, you know? And then I approached Berry one day, you know, when I was really frustrated. And I said, Berry, you know, I want to sing a song. And he says, oh, you can't sing, and he just kind of brushed it off.

And so it did bother me. But I also want, while I'm saying these things - that this was not the major thing that was going on with me at the time or with the group because these were things that we kept under wrapped. And they were personal, like if you were married and you love someone, but things are kind of going day-to-day. You're not happy with it, but you still love the person. So I want people to know that, yes, these things were going on, but I was having a ball. Let's face it. We were like princesses, BLAPS - Black American princesses, you know? And it was a beautiful thing. It was really beautiful. So if we can kind of add that beauty in there along with this, I'd feel very, very good about that.

GROSS: How did you change your image from wearing miniskirts to the sequined gowns and white gloves?

WILSON: Oh, yeah. That was - I think the little gloves and the short skirts and the cute thing came from us still being teenagers and not recognizing that we were growing up. But the minute we started hanging around Motown and around the guys - I mean, when you have people like Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, even the Four Tops walking around there and they're handsome and you're - you know, we were, like, really young and in awe of all these men. So immediately we wanted to be these grown-up girls. That's when our dresses changed. And we started wearing the - you know, the longer gowns. And it was really just to be grown up.

GROSS: When you were touring on the - like, the first Motown tour, there was a chaperone for the girls, right? Did they lecture you before the tour?

WILSON: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I mean, it was amazing because - now, you're talking about the Marvelettes, who were four country girls. I mean, they really were country girls - very sweet, very sweet but just, you know, kind of a little slow (laughter). Then you have Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells and Claudette of the Miracles, who was older and she didn't necessarily need a chaperone, and then The Supremes - so all of these young kids on the same tour, young females on the same tour with all these men.

Motown was really, you know, sort of frightened that something might happen, and they had every right to be. So they (laughter) - especially with me liking Eddie Kendricks, I mean, because I loved that man - I just - I still do. I really - I think he is the sweetest. He has this boyish look about him that just makes my heart just - ugh (ph). Anyway, so they would hire friends of theirs. Berry's mom was called Moms Gordy, and everyone loved her. So she had many, many friends. And she'd always bring in her friends to give them jobs, and they would become chaperones.

And the chaperones would always say to us, now, girls, we're going out on this tour, and I don't want to catch anybody out of their room after 8 o'clock. And we'd say, yes, ma'am, you know? And it's - they were very nice but, I think, a little overly protective. But they had to be because if anybody did get in trouble, they would - you know, it would be like they had lost their little self-image there. So they were really nice to us. But we had chaperones up until we were almost 25 years old.

DAVIES: Mary Wilson of The Supremes speaking with Terry Gross in 1986. Wilson died Monday. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview Terry Gross recorded with Mary Wilson of The Supremes. Wilson died Monday at the age of 76. Terry spoke to her in 1986, when Wilson had published her memoir, "Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme."


GROSS: Cholly Atkins did the choreography for most of the Motown groups. How did you work with him to get the movements for your songs? What were those sessions like?

WILSON: Hard (laughter) - I mean, I'm saying real hard. To learn how to do choreography is - it looks easy when you see it on stage. But to go through every movement - Cholly had us working where if - we had one song, "Where Did Our Love Go." We said, (singing) where did our love go, and brought our hands all the way around the head, all the way down, made a complete circle. So Cholly would spend a whole day on that movement to get us to move at exactly the same speed, the same - you know, the same angle.

It was, for me, always very easy, choreography. I dance very easily. Florence was a bit awkward and would - she would become very upset with herself because she was awkward. And Cholly was the kind of guy who is very hard, but he's a sweetheart. And so his whole approach would be, Florence, now I want you to get this step. You know, you have messed it up three times. And sometimes she'd go in tears. Now, Diana's the kind of person that will work very hard on something. If she realizes she can't get it, she will study it every second, just sit there and really just concentrate. And I've learned mine. I'm over in the corner, just sitting down, you know, cooling it. So the whole key now is that people remember the choreography just as much as they remember the song. So that makes me know that it was all worth it.

GROSS: Was it his idea for you to hold up your hands when you were doing "Stop! In The Name Of Love"?

WILSON: The stop? Yes. The stop - yeah, that's the famous one.

GROSS: Let's talk about the records some more. You had mentioned earlier that when you joined Motown that they really didn't know what kind of material to give you. And after a few years of recording different people's songs, you were basically given to Holland, Dozier and Holland...

WILSON: Right. Right.

GROSS: ...Who wrote and produced your material. What was the difference between what they were doing with you and what had been done before?

WILSON: Terry, I don't know. That has been something that I've wondered about. It was like we were meant to be with them. It was like finding the perfect tailor. The minute we worked with them, it was just like magic. In fact, they saved us. The entire company was calling us the no-hit Supremes. And HDH brought us out of that. And we were able to laugh at all the other groups at Motown, you know, for calling us the no-hit Supremes.

GROSS: They wrote almost all of your hits, right? Did they change the kind of backup singing that you were doing?

WILSON: Yeah. You know, I'm glad you brought that up. No one has ever really put it like that. And that is a point, because even though we gained our great records and our great sound with HGH, we also lost sort of the group thing, you know. I mean, what was ours before we came to Motown and that they gave - I always said that's the sound they gave us was really more Diane's sound, and we were her backup. And that was kind of sad in a way, you know, that in gaining our sound, we also lost a part of our uniqueness. So I'm glad you brought that up.

GROSS: When they gave the group a sound that you associated more with Diana Ross than with what you'd been doing, did she heartily approve of that? Did she like fronting the group in the way that she was?

WILSON: Yeah, you know, she really did. And I cannot say I blame her. I finally realized today that what Diane was doing was not so much being self-centered, it's that she felt that it couldn't be done right unless she did it rather than, I mean, I think that's a better way of saying - rather than saying she was self-centered and very aggressive. That's really what I want to bring out.

GROSS: How did the group become Diana Ross and The Supremes instead of just The Supremes?

WILSON: Right (laughter) through just with Diane becoming more and more popular. And of course, at the time, people started saying that she was a spokesman. And all of the attention was on her, so it just eventually led to that.

GROSS: Well, when you look back on it, The Supremes had such a strange history. Diana Ross became one of the biggest superstars in America.

WILSON: Yes, definitely.

GROSS: Flo Ballard died at a very young age not too long after she left The Supremes. And most of your performances are in Europe.

WILSON: Right? So it's like, oh, poof (laughter). This is true. I made that decision to go to Europe and to travel around the world because I knew that if I stay here with The Supremes as such, we'd become an oldie-but-goodie. Now, around the world, they'd never really seen us as much, so I could travel and receive nice amounts of money and things like that. Plus, I could regain my confidence as a singer, which I did. Now...

GROSS: How had you lost it?

WILSON: By singing only oohs (ph), by not growing. It's as if I stopped growing at the age of 16 because I never sang anymore. So my confidence now is really good. I know I can sing because I do it every day. But on the same hand, because I did that, I lost my American public. So now, I must come back and record and let them know that, hey, I'm back to let you know I can really shake them down. (Singing) Do you love me? Do you love me?


WILSON: Terry, I got you a smile. I'm so happy (laughter).

GROSS: What do you think about when you hear the old Supremes records?

WILSON: I just start listening to them, really listening to them.

GROSS: Well, you couldn't listen to them before?

WILSON: It was like I was too much a part of it. I was too a much part of it. And maybe - I don't - I can't say I didn't appreciate it, but we did them every day. I mean, I've been singing "Baby Love" and "Stop!" for about 20-some years, you know, so it's something you just don't do. But now that I had to write the book, in doing that, I also had to listen to the records. And in listening to them, I found that the sound is really beautiful. I have no regrets singing only the background, because I feel that, you know, the public loved all of us. No matter what the publicity said, the public still loved all of us.

The book signing today in Philadelphia was beautiful. I mean, I felt like - I can't tell you how much happiness I received. People would come in and said, well, Mary, we love you, you know, and keep up the good work. And thank you for showing us Flo, you know, that sort of Flo. We really appreciate that. So I'm just feeling really, really great about the whole thing.

GROSS: Well, good. I'm glad.

WILSON: Me, too (laughter).

DAVIES: Mary Wilson of The Supremes, speaking with Terry Gross in 1986. Wilson died Monday. She was 76. After a break, we'll remember actor Christopher Plummer, who died last Friday. Also, Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Judas And The Black Messiah" which revisits the events leading up to the 1969 death of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


THE SUPREMES: (Singing) All day long, I hear my telephone ring - friends calling, giving their advice. From the boy I love I should break away 'cause heartaches he'll bring one day. I lost him once through friends' advice, but it's not going to happen twice 'cause all advice ever got me was really long and sleepless nights. Ooh. But now he's back in my arms again, right by my side. I got him back in my arms again, so satisfied. Ooh. It's easy for friends to say let him go when I'm the one who needs him so. It's his love that makes me strong. Without him, I can't go on.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Christopher Plummer, the prolific actor of stage and screen, best known for playing Captain von Trapp in "The Sound Of Music," died Friday at his home in Connecticut. He was 91. In a career that spanned nearly 70 years, Plummer appeared in more than a hundred films and earned widespread acclaim as a Shakespearean actor.

The New York Times' senior theater critic, Walter Kerr, said of his 1981 performance as Iago in "Othello," it is quite possibly the best single Shakespearean performance to have originated on this continent in our time. Plummer won two Emmy Awards and two Tony Awards, but didn't win an Oscar until 2012 for his performance as an elderly man who comes out as gay after his wife's death in the film "Beginners." At age 82, he was the oldest person to win an Academy Award in a competitive category. Among his other films are "The Insider," "A Beautiful Mind," "Syriana" and "Inside Man."

Terry spoke to Christopher Plummer in 2007, when he appeared in the film "Man In The Chair," where he plays the last living crew member of "Citizen Kane." He's a bitter, cranky, alcoholic old man who ends up helping a high school student with a film project. In this scene, he's showing the kid a hidden room in an old Hollywood studio lot. The student is played by Michael Angarano.


MICHAEL ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) So this place was like a clubhouse?

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) Yes, sort of. But it was a tough club to get into. No above-the-line wankers, that's for sure.

ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) Above the line?

PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) Producers, directors, writers, actors, those creeps.

ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) So you know all these people?

PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) Most of them. A lot of them are dead. These are my friends. Hey, that's me with the crew of "Citizen Kane."

ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) You worked on "Citizen Kane"?

PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) Yeah. The skinny guy in the middle.

ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) So amazing. Is Orson Welles there?

PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) These are crew-only photos, for Christ's sake.

ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) Oh, so no directors, no wankers?

PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) Right.

ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) Always wanted to be a wanker - director.

PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) Director, huh? The man in the chair, huh?

ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) Yes.

PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) You guess? The man in the chair can't ever be a guesser. He's got to make decisions, you know, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. He's got to know what he's doing. Frank Capra says, if you're half right, you'll be a genius.


TERRY GROSS: Christopher Plummer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you describe your character in "Man In The Chair"?

PLUMMER: Oh, I think he was a wonderful old drunk, which I was for many years myself. So research was not a problem in that case. But he also - he was a gaffer on "Citizen Kane," but he spends most of his time drinking and prowling around and going to cinema, of which, of course, he's a huge authority. And he befriends this young kid who is mad to make movies himself. And their relationship grows. He becomes a grumpy, cynical, bitter old soak into someone who is now rejuvenated.

GROSS: Your character in "Man In The Chair" has grown bitter with age, whereas it seems to me in your life, you just keep getting better roles. You've been in a lot of interesting movies in the past few years.

PLUMMER: Yes. Yes, I have, which is great because once I hit the character actor level, the scripts started to improve as they came my way.

GROSS: Is there any movie that you see as like a turning point in your career?

PLUMMER: Yes. I think "The Insider" was. I mean, I spent my life on the stage. And I've done tons of film, both in England, Europe and here. But another level started to be reached after "The Insider," and the scripts that I was receiving were now much more intelligent and of an A level rather than a B-plus.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad that you mentioned "The Insider," because we just happen to have a clip from it.

PLUMMER: Oh, whoop (ph).

GROSS: And this film, for anyone who hasn't seen it, it's about - the insider is played by Russell Crowe. He's a whistleblower who had worked as a scientist at a tobacco company. And he knows all the secrets about the poisonous additives and all that stuff. So he's talking to "60 Minutes" about it. But this is the very beginning of the story in which your producer, Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino, has been setting up an interview for you with an Islamic extremist. And at this point, you step in as Mike Wallace to actually ask the questions. And you want to create the rules. But, of course, the Islamic group wants to create the rules. So here's how the interview gets started.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He says you must not sit so close.

PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) What? I can't conduct an interview from back there.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You must move back your chair.

PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) Well, you tell him that when I conduct an interview, I sit anywhere I damn please.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) There is no interview.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) I'm talking to you. Who the hell do you think I am, a 78-year-old assassin? Do you think I'm going to karate him to death with this notepad?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) Are you interpreting what I'm saying?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yes.

PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) Good. Well, ask him if Arabic is his second language.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).


GROSS: That's my guest, Christopher Plummer, in a scene from "The Insider." How did you get the part in "The "Insider," which you say, you know, was a turning point in your film career?

PLUMMER: Well, they sent me the script. I'm sure they sent it to others as well. But I got it. And I met Michael and Al. And I was in. It was just wonderful.

GROSS: One more clip for you. And this this one is inevitable (laughter). So the movie that made you famous, "The Sound Of Music," 1965, in which you were Captain Von Trapp, a widow who expects his children to behave as if they were in the military until you get a new governess played by, of course, Julie Andrews. And this is the scene in which she comes to your door. You meet her for the first time. And you're trying to evaluate her and also give her directions on how to handle the kids.


PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) Now, fraulein...

JULIE ANDREWS: (As Maria) Maria.

PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) Fraulein Maria, I don't know how much the mother abbess has told you.

ANDREWS: (As Maria) Not much.

PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) You are the 12th in a long line of governesses who have come to look after my children since their mother died. I trust that you will be an improvement on the last one. She stayed only two hours.

ANDREWS: (As Maria) What's wrong with the children, sir?

PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) There's nothing wrong with the children, only the governesses. They were completely unable to maintain discipline - without it, this house cannot be properly run. Will you please remember that, fraulein?

ANDREWS: (As Maria) Yes, sir.

PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) Every morning, you will drill the children in their studies. I will not permit them to dream away their summer holidays. Each afternoon, they will march about the grounds, breathing deeply. Bedtime is to be strictly observed, no exception.

ANDREWS: (As Maria) Excuse me, sir. When do they play?

PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) You will see to it that they conduct themselves at all time with the utmost orderliness and decorum. I'm placing you in command.

ANDREWS: (As Maria) Yes, sir.


GROSS: Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews in a scene from "The Sound Of Music." People have such strong feelings about that movie, they either love it, or they hate it and they think it's really insipid. Where do you stand on this issue of our time?


PLUMMER: I'm very fond of Julie. That's the nicest thing that came out of that film for me. We have a true and great friendship. She's an extraordinary woman, professional. I'm grateful to the film in many ways because it was such a success. It is not my favorite film, of course, because I do think it borders on mawkishness. But we did our damned best not to make it too mawkish. And Robert Wise kept a very tight control on it, which was difficult enough. And the sound and the music is quite wonderful.

DAVIES: Christopher Plummer speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2007. Plummer died last Friday at the age of 91. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor Christopher Plummer, recorded in 2007. Plummer died last Friday at the age of 91.


GROSS: You know, in your movies, you have such good diction, such proper diction in some of your roles. I almost thought you were from England. You're from Canada. Is the diction a result of theater training? Is it a class thing?

PLUMMER: No, it's to do with my family, who spoke well. I mean, we speak well in Canada, as well as they do in Great Britain, may I remind you. And my family were educated, well-read. And they spoke beautiful English. So I really got a lot from them. And, of course, theater training continued to make it better.

GROSS: Now, you were a member of two very famous British theatre groups, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. What years were you in England?

PLUMMER: I lived in England from 1961, right through into almost the mid 70s. So about 15 years, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, OK. So, I mean, you worked in a period when the method became very popular in the United States.


GROSS: But you were also doing classical theater.


GROSS: So you were doing classical theater and movies in which a lot of the actors were into the method. Did you find yourself going back and forth between more of a classical approach and more of a method approach to acting?

PLUMMER: Well, I think both. I think that one helped the other. I'm so glad that - I'm so glad I was Canadian, in a way, because the Canadian can take the best of the British and the best of the American school. And we're rather good at that. We're kind of like chameleons in that respect. That's why there's so many good Canadian comics and mimics that are terrific. So that was valuable to use the method and use the classical technique together at the same time. It was very exciting.

GROSS: Now, early in your screen career, you were actually on television. And you did a lot of the early TV shows...

PLUMMER: Yeah, the Golden Age of Television, yes, in New York.

GROSS: Like "General Electric Theater" and "Kraft Theatre" and...

PLUMMER: Oh, all of them. I did them all. Yeah.

GROSS: And a lot of those were live - right? - or all of them were live.

PLUMMER: All of them were live. Tape didn't come in until the late '50s, I don't think.

GROSS: You have any really good stories about doing live drama on television in the '50s?

PLUMMER: (Laughter) Well, yeah. I can't remember the name of the show, but Martin Manulis was the producer and director. And we were doing this time miling (ph) the story of Crown Prince Rudolf of Habsburg and his suicide attempt with Maria Vetsera, his lover. And the setting was in the hunting lodge. And on the night of the show - live, of course - Viveca Lindfors was such a beautiful Swedish actress. And she was playing Maria Vetsera. I had an immense crush on her. And the night came before I was supposed to make my entrance into the hunting lodge. And she is waiting for me. And the poor thing had to wait and wait and wait because offstage, I couldn't see anything. It was all black, and I couldn't find the door to come in. I didn't know where it was. And there was no stage manager, anybody to help me. So finally, I saw a light at the end of this long sort of black hole, and I thought, Oh, thank God. At last, I can find an entrance and make my entrance. So I sort of bent down and came out of it. But the audience must have been very startled to see Crown Prince Rudolf, with all his medals, coming out through the fireplace.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PLUMMER: And Manulis just screamed at me. He said, what the hell are you - after it was over - what the hell did you come in there for? I said, you got goddamn lucky I came in at all.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PLUMMER: Don't speak to me like that - after spending hours looking for this freaking entrance.

GROSS: So what'd you do to cover it up - anything?

PLUMMER: No. We just valiantly went on. But her face was something extraordinary.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PLUMMER: She didn't dream I was going to come through that thing. But...

GROSS: That sounds like such a nightmare, though. You know, it's, like, live TV, and you can't find the entrance to the stage.

PLUMMER: Oh, it's awful. But the cameramen were so great in those days because if you were - I was on a long soap opera once, and I - it was so bad, I can't remember its name and refuse to remember its name (laughter). But they were so great. There were only four of them, you know, four cameras. And then we never knew our lines. So then when we forgot a line, we wink at the cameraman, and the cameraman would then go and shoot a vase or something on a table...

GROSS: (Laughter).

PLUMMER: ...Or a grand piano while we quickly looked at the script and nodded. And then he came back, and we finished the scene. That happened all the time (laughter). But it was beautiful. They'd mastered it so smoothly, these cameramen. They were heroes.

GROSS: Did stuff like that make you more fearless on stage because you'd experienced such...


GROSS: ...Traumatic things on TV?

PLUMMER: Well, of course. If you put yourself in disaster, that's the best training of all; isn't it? You know how to get yourself out of trouble. I've never been frightened on the stage, though. It's always - for some crazy reason, I felt very much at home on the stage.

GROSS: Now, you've performed Shakespeare as a young man. You've performed Shakespeare as an older man, most recently as King Lear on Broadway. Does Shakespeare read differently to you now than it did when you were young? Are there things you see in it now that you didn't then or interpretations that are different?

PLUMMER: Well, of course there are. But the poet himself remains as magical and as extraordinary and as simple and as human as he did when I was young because that's what strikes you right away - is the humanity of the plays when you're - and the simplicity of them when you're a young person. That's why he's head and shoulders above all the other writers that wrote at his time particularly - because they're much more florid and grandiloquent, and Shakespeare is so extraordinarily simple. And that stays with you always.

Of course, as you grow older and you have some experience of life, you see more into the depth of each character. "King Lear," for instance, which is an extraordinary play - it's so very modern. And it's a dysfunctional family, and it's - and all the trappings of power that are disappearing from them - I mean, it's so modern. It's so human. It's a great piece of work, I must say.

GROSS: So - yeah, go ahead.

PLUMMER: You need to be much older to understand the depths of a part like that.

GROSS: I never think of Shakespeare as being simple.

PLUMMER: Oh, yes. I mean, oh, no. Come on. When he picks the great moments, the key moments in plays, his language becomes terribly simple. You notice that.

GROSS: Give me an example.

PLUMMER: Well, nothing could be simpler than, the rest is silence. That's as modern a statement as there ever was.

GROSS: You said at the beginning of the interview - the character that you play in your new movie, "Man In The Chair" - that you used to drink a lot.

PLUMMER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: That was a very enthusiastic yes. Was this mostly, like, in the 1950s and '60s?

PLUMMER: Yeah, that was the drinking era. Then the '60s sort of became more of a drug era; didn't it? And then the '70s were so boring I can't remember them. But the '50s was a very communicative era. Everybody loved their drink. New York was wide open. So was Montreal. In fact, Montreal stayed open 24 hours a day. There wasn't a joint in town that closed. And I used to, you know, commute shuttle back from both.

It was a glorious time. And we were - all us young actors, my friends, Jason Robards - were all big drinkers. Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole - oh, all of us were good, hard-fisted drinkers. And our intention was that we should be. If we were to be called men, we must be - drink as much as we can. And if we can still get through "Hamlet" the next day without a hitch, that made you a man, my son. You weren't worth anything unless you could - you'd do the test of time.

GROSS: Is it harder to do "Hamlet" with a hangover?

PLUMMER: Terrible. It's just a nightmare. And I have done it with a hangover, yeah. It was very fast, though. We did it very fast. We got off very quickly.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PLUMMER: It was no longer a 3-1/2-hour, four-hour play. It was something like two hours.

GROSS: What would you do to, like, make yourself feel better before having to do "Hamlet" or any kind of heavy lifting with a hangover?

PLUMMER: Fernet-Branca was my favorite pick-me-up - Fernet-Branca laced with a little creme de menthe. It goes down like silk, and, boy, does it wake you up. If you have another one, if you have two or three Fernet-Brancas, you're drunk again. So just stay to - stick to one, and you'll be OK.

GROSS: And it wouldn't - you wouldn't forget your lines with that?

PLUMMER: No. Somehow, "Hamlet" remained intact in my memory. So - it was such a glorious play that I wouldn't insult it by forgetting it.

GROSS: Well, Christopher Plummer, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

PLUMMER: Thank you.

DAVIES: Christopher Plummer speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2007. Plummer died last Friday at his home in Connecticut. He was 91. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Judas And The Black Messiah," which revisits the events leading up to the 1969 death of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "Judas And The Black Messiah" revisits the events leading up to the 1969 death of Fred Hampton, leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Hampton is played by Daniel Kaluuya from "Get Out," who recently received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for his performance. Art critic Justin Chang has this review of the movie, which begins streaming today on HBO Max.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: There have been many strong documentaries over the years about the history of the Black Panther Party, but "Judas And The Black Messiah" is the first major Hollywood drama I've seen that puts the organization and its activism front and center. That speaks to the timidity of the American film industry, which often prefers simpler, more reassuring stories about racial justice and which is seldom comfortable with Black Panthers unless they're of the Marvel comic book variety. For this reason alone, "Judas And The Black Messiah," directed by Shaka King from a script he wrote with Will Berson, already feels like something of a cinematic breakthrough. That it's smart, powerful and well-acted almost feels like a bonus.

The movie focuses on the last year or so in the life of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Panthers' Illinois chapter. He was only 21 when he was killed in 1969 by Chicago police during a raid on his apartment that was planned with the FBI. One of the virtues of "Judas And The Black Messiah" is that it gives us such a captivating sense of who Hampton was. He's played here by an electrifying Daniel Kaluuya, who captures the young man's gift for inspiring other activists and his ferocious critique of the nation's white power structure.


DANIEL KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) It's not a question of violence or nonviolence. It's a question of resistance to fascism or nonexistence within fascism.


KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) You can murder a liberator, but you can't murder liberation. You can murder a revolutionary, but you can't murder revolution. And you can murder a freedom fighter, but you can't murder freedom.


KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) I said, I am...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) I am...

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) ...A revolutionary.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) ...A revolutionary.

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) I am...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) I am...

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) ...A revolutionary.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) ...A revolutionary.

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) I am...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) I am...

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) ...A revolutionary.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) ...A revolutionary.

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) I am...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) I am...

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) ...A revolutionary.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) ...A revolutionary.

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) Let me hear the people beat. Let me hear the people beat.


CHANG: Early on in the film, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, played by a scowling Martin Sheen, identifies Hampton as a dangerous threat, a potential Black messiah who will incite violence and empower other left-leaning political groups. And so the FBI enlists a young, petty crook named William O'Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield, to infiltrate the Black Panthers in Chicago and help bring Hampton down. O'Neal is, thus, the Judas of the title. And having the story unfold primarily from his perspective turns out to be a shrewd decision. As an outsider, O'Neal provides a natural point of entry. It's through his eyes that we witness the Panthers work in their Black communities through free medical clinics and kids' breakfast programs.

The more O'Neal learns about the organization, the more conflicted he feels about his mission. He knows better when his FBI contact, a very good Jesse Plemons, insists that the Panthers are as bad as the Ku Klux Klan. At the same time, the movie doesn't shy away from the Panthers' militancy, as they march about wearing berets and openly carrying firearms. They're certainly capable of swift, merciless violence, as we see during an intense shootout with police. And when O'Neal hears about the torture and murder of a suspected mole in the party, he becomes even more fearful that he might suffer the same fate if his cover is blown.

Stanfield's performance is remarkable. O'Neal starts off as an intriguing blank slate and, by the end, is all but drowning in guilt, sorrow and moral confusion. For roughly two hours, "Judas And The Black Messiah" sustains the pulse of a thriller with an atmosphere that harks back to Sidney Lumet's gritty, city crime pictures of the '70s and '80s. The director, Shaka King, has talked about the challenges of getting a Hollywood studio to greenlight a film about the Black Panthers. And framing the movie as a tense genre piece can only have helped. Some of the story beats can feel a little rote as a result. And many of the real-life Black Panthers we meet, like Mark Clark, who will die alongside Hampton in the 1969 raid, flash by too quickly to make an impression.

But that narrative rush is also what gives the movie such momentum. Things do slow down for a bit of romance between Hampton and another Panther, Deborah Johnson, who's played with aching delicacy by Dominique Fishback. In one of the most moving scenes, Johnson reads Hampton a poem she's written expressing both fear and acceptance of the fact that their life of protest will almost certainly end in tragedy. Like some other movies that have emerged this season, including "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "One Night In Miami," "Judas And The Black Messiah" is an ensemble drama in which Black characters continually ask themselves and each other what form their liberation should take.

You could call these movies timely, except that the issues they confront - from the exploitation of Black American culture to white supremacy in law enforcement - have never not been timely. As Hampton notes in a speech that seems to describe this fractious nation at any given moment, America's on fire right now. And until that fire is extinguished, don't nothing else mean a damn thing.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "Judas And The Black Messiah," which begins streaming today on HBO Max.


DAVIES: On Monday's show, Spike Lee. His latest film, "Da 5 Bloods," is nominated for three Screen Actors Guild Awards and was named Best Film of 2020 by the National Board of Review. Also, we remember Cloris Leachman, who died last month at the age of 94. She was part of Mel Brooks' ensemble of actors known for playing Frau Blucher in "Young Frankenstein." I hope you can join us.

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 Hertzfeld. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave.


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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