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Remembering Character Actor Ned Beatty


This is FRESH AIR. Actor Ned Beatty, who appeared in more than 150 movies and TV shows, died Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 83. Beatty spent 15 years acting in theater before landing his first film role, one of his most memorable, in "Deliverance," where he was raped by a Georgia backwoodsman on a canoe trip. He earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in the 1976 film "Network." In this scene, Beatty plays a TV executive reading the riot act to a network commentator, Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, who's been telling audiences not to trust what they see on TV networks run by corporations. Beatty warns him he'd better cut it out.


NED BEATTY: (As Arthur Jensen) You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone. Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little 21-inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state - Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, min-and-max solutions and compute the price/cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a businessman, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.

DAVIES: Terry spoke with Ned Beatty in 1987.


TERRY GROSS: Your first film role was in the movie "Deliverance." Did you have any reservations about making your screen debut in a role where the character is raped by a man?

BEATTY: No. As far as I can recall, it never occurred to me. As a matter of fact, I was sort of, in a way, shocked by how people reacted to that. I was shocked, as a matter of fact, even when we filmed it, how difficult it was for the crew. There were people who didn't want to do the scene. At that point, my feeling about my work, my craft, my art, if you will, was the fact that I simply serve the story. So it wasn't in my lexicon of thinking about acting whether or not I was going to be identified with this character and what happened to him.

GROSS: You mentioned how surprised you were at the cameraman's horrified reaction to the rape scene in "Deliverance." And do you think it's a combination of two things - one, the humiliation of rape, but, two, a certain amount of homophobia?

BEATTY: I really think it had to do with how well we did the scene.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

BEN BRADLEE: I - that's a...

GROSS: Yeah.

BRADLEE: ...Terribly egotistical answer. I think we did it well. The actor who played the rapist, Bill McKinney, is a wonderful actor. And I think it's a scene that would bother anyone. I don't know that it has anything to do with homophobia at all. I think it has to do with seeing - any time we act out violence and we do it anywhere near how it might actually happen, that's frightening. Because what we've seen is we've seen a lot of violence in films and television over the years which has no reality to it. And when you do a scene that does have some reality to it, it can be very, very riveting.

GROSS: I think your career proves that it's not the size of the role, but what the role is and how you play it that counts. And I'm thinking specifically of your role in "Network," for which you got nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor. Now, how many minutes were you actually on the screen in that movie?

BEATTY: Well, it must have been less than three, I would think. Well, let's say between three and four minutes at the outset - outside.

GROSS: Well, I think it's pretty amazing to get nominated for an Academy Award for a role that lasts under three minutes.

BEATTY: It is. But I must tell you, any time you read a play or a film's script and they talk about your character for pages and pages and pages before you appear (laughter)...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BEATTY: ...That's like a license to steal. It's wonderful when they talk about you for a long time before you get there. That's like having been on screen all that time. And this particular character was focused on a lot by a wonderful actor named Robert Duvall, who talked about me all the time and his fear of me. And you can't get a better setup in the world than having Robert Duvall's character talk about your character before you come on. That's the best.

GROSS: Do you think that people in Hollywood talk about such a thing as a Ned Beatty type?

BEATTY: Oh, I suspect they do. You know, there's that old saw about, you know, who's Ned Beatty? You know, how's it go? Who's Ned Beatty? Get me Ned Beatty. Get me a Ned Beatty type. You know, I suspect I'm at the get me a Ned Beatty type stage, yes.

GROSS: So what do you think a Ned Beatty type is?

BEATTY: Oh, I don't know. I hope they're thinking in terms of an actor. I've always liked to think that one of the reasons I've been very fortunate is because I have been typecast as an actor rather than as a particular type of character. And I would hope that if they're looking for a Ned Beatty type, they're looking for someone who can do a few different turns, which I think all actors can do. I wish actors had - all of us had more of an opportunity to show different sides of what we can do as performers. But I would hope that's what - I suspect a Ned Beatty type is a guy who's, you know, gone past middle age and is overweight, I suspect.

GROSS: Did you ever go to drama school?

BEATTY: No, I didn't. I don't know whether it would have done me a great deal of good. I wasn't a very good student ever of anything.

GROSS: Do you think you have a different acting style from people who you've worked with who are graduates of the Yale School of Drama or who studied the method?

BEATTY: Well, I don't think so. Luckily enough, my university was - you know, was the theater. And I got to work with actors who worked all kinds of different styles, with directors who worked in all sorts of different ways. I think I picked up on - through reading and through working, picked up on most of the ideas and thoughts about my trade in those years. What most actors do when they have some experience and have a chance to work around a bit is they pick what works for them. And, you know, one of the nice things about being an actor is it's never the same. You're never playing exactly the same scene or exactly the same character. And you get to try out different techniques from time to time. I know sometimes I'll pull something out of the sack that maybe I haven't used in 20 years and dust it off and see if this will work.

So there's a little trick about music. Stanislavski talked about it, and some other acting teachers talked about it. Music can have such a strong, almost kinetic attachment to our emotional system. Sometimes you can just think of a little phrase of a song, and it'll get a whole thing going inside you. And every once in a while, when I'm having trouble, you know, getting the right feeling for a scene, I'll look around for that little piece of melody.

GROSS: Is there a specific song you've used in certain roles?

BEATTY: There's one that always comes to my mind because I got so tickled when it worked for me. And I will tell you what it is, and you may take from it what you will. But I used to be able to become immediately and violently angry when I would hum a little ditty that we haven't heard so much in recent years called "Ain't She Sweet."

GROSS: Why would that make you angry?


BEATTY: I don't know why it works.

GROSS: It's a little pop confection.

BEATTY: Yeah. I don't want to analyze it too deeply, but something about ba-ba-ba da-da-da-da-da-da-da da-da-da ba-mm-ba (ph) - it just turns - I can get every hair on my head standing on end, practically, by humming that to myself.

GROSS: I think that's really funny.

BEATTY: Yeah, it is.


GROSS: I'll always think of you when I hear that song. You were telling us a little bit about your performance in "Deliverance." You're - one of your latest roles was in "The Big Easy."


GROSS: Did you prepare for that role differently than you did for "Deliverance"? - because by the time you were cast in "The Big Easy," you were a seasoned veteran. "Deliverance" was your very first film role. Had you changed a lot in terms of your acting style?

BEATTY: Well, I don't know. I felt very strong as an actor when I did "Deliverance." Some of the stories that I could tell myself about the filming of that movie sort of make my own hair curl. It's curly already, but it makes it curl worse. I had a great deal of hubris as an actor at that point. I really felt like, after 15 years in the theater and having been lucky enough to play a lot of different kind of parts, that I could do just about anything as an actor that I chose to do. So I didn't have any doubts about myself. I hopefully nowadays have few more doubts about what I can do and what I can't do.

GROSS: Ned Beatty, thank you very much for talking with us.

BEATTY: Thank you, Terry.

DAVIES: Actor Ned Beatty speaking with Terry Gross in 1987. Beatty died Sunday. He was 83.


BORDERLAND DIXIEBAND AUSTRIA: (Singing) I repeat, don't you think that's kind of neat? Now, I ask you very confidently, ain't she sweet?

DAVIES: Coming up, our TV critic David Bianculli reviews the new dark comedy series "Physical" starring Rose Byrne. This is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.