The Oscar nominee and three-time Tony winner discusses his memoir, Dropped Names, why he decided to tell his story through his relations with people and why he’s been particularly selective in the roles he’s chosen throughout his career.
Actor Frank Langella
Tavis: Always pleased to have Frank Langella on this program. He last joined us back in 2009 following his Oscar-nominated role in the terrific film, “Frost/Nixon”. Just saw that again the other night on cable.
He’s out now with a much talked about new memoir about many of the people he’s met and worked with over the years in show business. The book is called – I love this – “Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them”. Frank Langella, sir, an honor to have you back on this set.
Frank Langella: Tavis, it’s a pleasure to be back. Thank you.
Tavis: Good to see you. I got to tell you a funny story. When you were here last, as I mentioned a moment ago, you were doing the media rounds for the “Frost/Nixon” project.
This won’t even ring a bell with you, but you were here and, as we do for all of our guests when they leave, we give them one of these mugs. You can’t really see this, but the mug has our show logo “Tavis Smiley” on the mug.
So Frank Langella leaves here and we give him this mug and a couple of other parting gifts as we do to all of our guests and he goes back to his hotel room, the hotel where he was staying at here in Los Angeles, one of the bungalows. I won’t say where. You recall this?
Langella: Yeah, I do.
Tavis: You were staying at one of the bungalows. You go back, you take our mug with you and “The New York Times” magazine comes in to do a photo shoot of the major nominees that year. It was a wonderful spread you may recall having seen on yourself and other nominees that year in “The New York Times” magazine.
Leave it to one of my people – I think, Neal Kendall, our exec producer – calls me at home on a Sunday morning and says, “Have you seen “The New York Times” magazine today?” I said I have not. I jumped out of bed, went downstairs and got it. He said, “We’re in it. You must see it. We’re in it.”
I go downstairs, I grab the newspaper, open up the magazine. He says, “Turn to the page where they’re featuring Frank Langella.” I turned to the page and there’s a picture of you sitting in your room photographed for “The New York Times” and my mug in the shot [laugh].
Langella: Do you know how unimportant that is to me [laugh]?
Tavis: I know, I know [laugh]. But do you know how important it is to me [laugh]?
Langella: I know it is. The best part is that I looked at that picture a dozen times and I’ve never seen your mug.
Tavis: And you didn’t see my mug?
Langella: No, because I was looking at my mug.
Tavis: [Laugh] Well, when you go home tonight, you pull that magazine out.
Langella: I will find it.
Tavis: I want you to recognize my mug, man.
Langella: It’s amazing that I never noticed it.
Tavis: You got to recognize it.
Langella: It’s a very good actor story too. You know, an actor can die next to you in the Dailies and everybody else is going how sad and you’re going, “What? What? I didn’t see anything.”
Tavis: Anyway, thank you for taking my mug, even though you didn’t know what you were doing.
Langella: Okay. I’ll go look. I promise.
Tavis: Because of you, we made “The New York Times” magazine, so I want to thank you for that.
Langella: You’re more than welcome.
Tavis: Anyway, Jonathan, can you see this? You got a shot of the back of this book? I love the photo on the back of this book. There it is. Where is this? Who shot this?
Langella: That’s in La Pagerie, Puerto Rico about a year and a half ago. It was shot by my daughter. Literally I was looking down like this and she said, “Look up, dad.” I did that and she took it and I thought it was a nice, relaxed cover for the back of a book. I didn’t want to put “I am a serious author” picture, you know, one of these. There’s one like that inside the book.
Tavis: Speaking of this book, the first thing that I noticed, that I absolutely loved, aside from the title “Dropped Names”, is on the table of contents page. It says “Cast of Characters in Order of Disappearance”.
Tavis: Very creative.
Langella: Thank you, thank you. As it says, it begins with the passing away of the first iconic famous person, which was Marilyn Monroe. I couldn’t figure a way to order the book because it’s 66 disparate people and I thought, “Should I do it males, females, actors, politicians, socialites? What should I do?” Then I thought I’ll just do it in the order that they left the planet.
Tavis: I’m gonna jump – the fun part of this conversation with you is all I got to do is throw names at you and you can tell stories and we’ll have fun for 30 minutes here.
Before I jump into the fun part, though, or that part at least of the conversation, let me ask why the decision to tell us your life story through your relationships with other people.
Langella: Because I think my life story is more interesting told that way and it’s only a piece of my life. I’m the supporting player.
When I tried to do a biography of my own life, I fell asleep over the pen because I would say, “And then I was in this play and then I didn’t win this award or I did, then I had difficulty playing this role” and I was disinterested in it because I’d live through it myself and I wasn’t sure the reader would want to know. I thought someone else could write that.
But whenever an extraordinary person walked into the rehearsal hall or into my life or into any number of ways in which I interacted with these people, I found I couldn’t stop writing about them.
I was so interested in telling you about George C. Scott or Princess Diana or Jackie O. and all the people who are in the book. I was much more interested in communicating to the reader what they were like, so then this idea came.
Tavis: You know, what’s fascinating for me, Frank, when I got it and started going through it – and it actually circles back to the joke you told earlier about being concerned about your own mug as opposed to my mug – there is this notion oftentimes that stars are narcissistic and it’s all about them and it’s all about ego.
The truth of the matter is that we are who we are because somebody else loved us. We are who we are because of encounters that we’ve had with other people.
Langella: We also are who we are because someone didn’t love us at a very important time.
Tavis: That’s very true. I take that. Your story is a story of bouncing into people all throughout your life who had all kinds of impacts on you, which I think is a fascinating way to tell the story. I just want to have some fun if I can and just jump in.
Tavis: So I’m just gonna throw some names at you because the stories are so great. I can’t do justice, but in the time I have, we’ll cover some of them. Since we mentioned Marilyn Monroe already, your encounter with Marilyn Monroe?
Langella: I was 15 years old. I was born in the little town of Bayonne, New Jersey. I wanted desperately to do something other than what my background sort of was laying down for me. It was a middle class life in a small little town.
I sort of felt something was brewing in me, so I saved money, got on a bus, went to New York and looked around not knowing what I was looking for, but I wanted lightning to strike that day. I wanted to be told at 15, “Yes, my son, you are going to be” and, of course, that didn’t happen.
But I was on my way back disappointed and a limousine pulled up and out of it stepped Miss Monroe. Her driver did that, put up his hand, like stop and, of course, when you’re 15 years old and out of a limousine comes this magnificently beautiful woman who in my opinion no one has come near, she stopped and arranged her white fox coat and her beautiful hair and diamonds and looked at me and said, “Hi” and went up the steps.
Well, that was what I needed. You know, one little, tiny sign that there was someone outside my small little world who had done something different that I couldn’t comprehend, but I knew it meant that I could go somewhere in my life.
It’s difficult to explain, but remember when you were 15 and remember how much you yearned for something that you couldn’t express.
Tavis: But this wasn’t just somebody. This was Marilyn Monroe.
Langella: Yes, exactly.
Tavis: And you’re trying to move into this field anyway.
Langella: Yeah. I was trying to make a better life for myself. One of the things about the book that I learned in writing it was how extraordinary happenstance is in your life.
Had I turned that corner 30 seconds later, had her limousine been stopped by a light, I wouldn’t have had that encounter. Every one of the people in this book, many of them I met because I was going to work with them or I was going to have a personal relationship.
But so many of them were happenstance as a result of a film role like Rita Hayworth and Robert Mitchum or going to a race because the girl I was going with’s parents were running a horse in England and all of a sudden the horse won and I was in the Queen’s private box. Those are happenstance, you know.
Tavis: You mentioned Rita Hayworth ahead of me. I was going to mention it, but before I get to Rita Hayworth and a number of other beautiful women who you’ve had encounters with, Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor.
But since you mentioned Rita Hayworth, you said a moment ago that Marilyn Monroe – and I’m paraphrasing. I can’t give an exact quote – “no one has come close to her since”, did you mean aesthetically? You mean in terms of her beauty? Because you’ve had some relationships with some beautiful women yourself.
Langella: Yeah, I did. But in terms of Miss Monroe, remember, I met her at 15, but then I watched all of her movies and I’ve watched them recently. She was the most extraordinary combination of innocence and sexual in any movie star I’ve ever seen.
She was lusciously beautiful, tremendously sexual, but the way her face was put together, the way her demeanor was, there’s no actress that I can think of who’s ever done that combination.
Rita had straightforward, incredible eroticism as an actress and as a female performer. She was a much better actress than people gave her credit for. Robert Mitchum, Rita Hayworth and I were making a terrible movie, maybe one of the worst of my life. It was aptly titled “The Wrath of God” and I think it was God’s vengeance.
Not that I think He pays any attention to actors, but it always makes me laugh when people who win awards say, “I want to thank God” as if He’s sitting there going, “You know, I think I’ll give it to this one today.”
Anyway, it was 1972. Rita was going to play my mother, Robert was going to play my priest and we were making a terrible movie in which in Guanajuato, Mexico where everybody sort of went to their own rooms and locked themselves in.
It was a very unhappy cast and she and I sort of found each other and began a relationship that was many things, chief among them was the sadness of watching someone begin to lose her mind from Alzheimer’s. Not quite yet, but soon after that, she would be totally gone which no one knew then.
Tavis: What do you take away from that particular part of the experience, being that close to someone who was…
Langella: I took away something that I didn’t know when I was writing this book. I took away how important the lack of parenting is and how much it affects the people we envy so much, the rich, the famous, the successful, that how their images that I say Rita was as far from her image as any famous person I’ve ever known.
So much of that goes back to the fact that she wasn’t parented and so many of the people in the book were parented. By parented, I mean that moment when you get imprimatur.
You know, a baby should be brought out of its mother and put on the mother’s chest immediately the way animals do and looked into the eyes of its mother. It gets an imprimatur that most of us don’t. You know, that thing about the cub that never got licked and cuddled by its mother, so it went into show business.
So many people in show business are damaged and a great many of them, unfortunately, give in in the later years of their lives to whatever damage it was they were trying to cover for most of their lives, either with their image or their looks or sex appeal or whatever the fame was.
All of those toys become important and then one day, as is natural, the light fades from you and it goes to the next beautiful thing or the next current thing. Most people are lost out in this jungle, this wilderness of who am I.
It’s why you see so many really incredibly talented people with their mug shots, speaking of mugs, in the police station and you go, “How could that actor possibly do that? He has all the success in the world.” It’s because he doesn’t know who he is.
Tavis: What’s the link between the damage and the gift?
Langella: None, I don’t think.
Tavis: There’s got to be some link. If you’re saying that so many of these great actors end up being damaged, end up not being parented…
Langella: Yeah, but we know about them because they got famous because they were beautiful or talented or something. But there are as many people watching us right now who are as damaged that we will never know about.
It’s a myth, in my opinion, that the more damaged you are, the more gifted you are, or the more gifted you are, the more you need to be damaged. You need to be healthy.
You need to be strong, healthy, sensible. You need to act in spite of your neurosis, not because of your neurosis. And you need to get healthier as you get older to keep on doing what you do well.
It’s sort of romantic to think you should be up in a garret drinking too much or smoking a lot of dope and stuff. It isn’t. The healthier you are, the better an artist you are, in my opinion.
Tavis: I’ll come back to these persons in just a moment. Given that you’ve been in the business long enough to have been around these people and around all of those distractions that you mentioned a moment ago, whether it be drugs or alcohol or whatever the case may be, for that matter, narcissism and et cetera, how have you survived and appear to be as healthy as you are?
Langella: I don’t know, I don’t know, because I don’t hold myself higher or lower than any of my subjects or in fact anyone on the planet. I don’t know because I am as vain, as narcissistic, as damaged in many ways and as self-destructive in many ways as the next actor or, for that matter, the next person.
What I think is, I think there’s some core of strength I didn’t know I had. In my worst times, I somehow survived the worst ones by going in like hibernating. I didn’t go out and act things out or do a lot of – I stayed away from as many bad experiences I could.
I made a minimal amount of terrible movies and I stayed away from bad television series and stuff and tried to stick with the theater and then tried to survive my own self-destructive behavior by looking at it, seeing it, facing it and not blaming anybody for it.
I think that’s probably the thing. Maybe that’s the answer to your question. I came to a moment when I thought whatever happens in my life, whatever is going to happen to me, I am responsible for it. Whatever’s sitting in this chair, good and bad, I did.
It’s up to me and it’s up to me not to blame. Well, if I had got that part, if only my father hadn’t this, if only I – you know, people do it all the time. They look for something outside themselves to blame and then they’re comfortable in their failure.
Tavis: I wonder when you look back on your career whether or not you’re not just grateful for the roles that you did take, but grateful for the ones that you absolutely said I’m not gonna do this.
Langella: Well, whatever I’ve achieved, I’m defined as much by what I didn’t do as what I did. I think that when I had highlights in my career, I noticed other actors who had had long periods of being parched dry and they got a hit and then all of a sudden they were ubiquitous everywhere.
They took commercials; they took whatever they could possibly. They were so anxious to be loved and to be validated once more and then they sort of used up that wonderful moment. I think if I did anything right, I thought, okay, this is a high. “Dracula” was a high; “Frost/Nixon” was a high.
This book is a high. I’m at the moment enjoying it, but don’t let me then go and go to the candy store and take every bit of sweet that’s offered me. Let me maintain somehow some sense of discernment about how I’d like to conduct my career.
Tavis: But this business breeds the exact opposite.
Tavis: When you have your moment, you’re supposed to go to the candy store and you’re supposed to put yourself in our faces everywhere you can.
Langella: Not only you think that, but the people who represent you think it. I have one agent. Most actors now have agents, managers, publicity people, people to powder their nose, people to choose their clothes for them. They have an army that they have to support.
I don’t have but one person to support, you know, and he’s got lots of other clients too. I just think it goes back to being responsible for yourself and only yourself.
Tavis: Lest the audience think that all these persons in here are actors, they are not, although politicians do a bit of acting themselves.
Langella: A bit.
Tavis: You played one on television, so you know.
Langella: I take lessons. I watch them very closely. Tip O’Neill was of a breed that no longer exists, you know. He was not a head of hair. He was not politically correct. He was not afraid to show tremendous hubris and strength and opinion. He said what he thought.
He said, “Clinton. I met Clinton when he was a young man. That guy’s gonna be a president.” The senior Bush, he said he thought was a man who felt the presidency was something he deserved.
He just told me all these things sitting around a table waiting to go on in a movie he was playing a small part in, “Dave”. I loved that guy. I really loved him. And like a whole bunch of those men, Harry Truman, Thurgood Marshall, Tip O’Neill, Lyndon Johnson, these were remarkably interesting, fabulously ugly in the best sense of the word, men.
You know, great looking guys with tremendous – and they were politicians, of course, and they had to dissemble. But there was something statesmanlike about them, which we don’t have much anymore.
Tavis: You may be onto something in the sense that our culture now puts a premium on anyone being on television being aesthetically pleasing.
Whether one likes or dislikes Mitt Romney, he’s not aesthetically unpleasing. Barack Obama, not aesthetically unpleasing. There are others who we could not say that about that.
I wonder whether or not even in our politics whether or not that aesthetic has crept in so that we can’t see a Tip O’Neill, we wouldn’t have a Lyndon Johnson anymore in the age of television.
Langella: I think our culture has started to change. You’re too young to know this, but our culture began to change the day that John F. Kennedy was shot and this nation lost its innocence, if you will, of a kind. And since that day to this, we have grown more vulgar, more bitter, more angry a nation, less discerning in all of the art forms.
If you notice any of the great shows of the 60’s or 70’s when a great singer got up to sing in black and white, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, my favorite, Judy Garland. She started a song, she sang it as written and the camera never left her face.
Now no singer stays on camera more than 30 seconds and the audience applauds the high note before the artist has had a chance to finish their presentation. So we’ve become a country in which the audience feels they have as much right to perform as the performer does.
As I’ve said, we’ve lost the discernment. We’ve sort of lost the ability to just sit back and be quiet. There’s like a conspiracy against silence, like we’re not supposed to.
You get into a taxicab and someone’s selling you something. My plane when I came in yesterday, you know, the stewardesses now doing commercials for the airline, asking if you want to sign something, get an extra 30,000 miles.
Everything has become selling. I suppose it always was, but the days of it having a limit and having some sense of – you know, you just don’t go there.
Even commercials, I’ve noticed, are more violent, people knocking each other down in the name of comedy and throwing each other off bridges. I wonder what do kids think when they see that.
Tavis: Every time you come on, you give me something to wrestle with and you give me a wonderful takeaway. I’m gonna hold onto that one, a conspiracy against silence. I like that. I may give you attribution for that.
Langella: Okay, take it.
Tavis: The first time I use it.
Langella: Now there’s two things you owe me. I got your mug.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, I owe you twice now.
Tavis: Since you mentioned John F. Kennedy, there are a couple of encounters. I don’t have time to let you tell both of them, but your encounters with Jackie Kennedy Onassis are interesting and funny.
Langella: Well, in 1961, I was a young boy in Cape Cod. I was seeing a young lady, several young ladies, because that’s what you did in 1961 when you were 23.
Tavis: I love your honesty [laugh].
Langella: And one of them invited me home and the lunch guests which she didn’t tell me about were John Kennedy, Jackie, Noel Coward and Adele Astaire was Fred’s sister and I had the privilege of four hours alone with that group of people watching Noel Coward sing his music to the President of the United States, dancing on a coffee table. Incredible thing for a 23-year-old.
Tavis: There’s some folk in this book who you have some – trying to find the right word here – interesting – let me put it this way. You weren’t their biggest fan.
Tavis: Paul Newman, one of them.
Langella: Oh, I loved Paul. You know, it’s interesting. Some of the people who have accused me of trashing other people who trash for a living, most of the bad newspapers.
In every one of these encounters, there were people in whom I saw flaws that were flaws I saw in myself, people whom I loved for lots of reasons, but who suffered from all the human failings.
I wrote about them because I was determined in two things. I was not gonna write a darling sweetie book. Aren’t we all wonderful and isn’t show business great and isn’t the world great and isn’t everybody perfect?
Then I decided that, if I was gonna do that, I was also gonna say here’s where I failed and here’s where I wasn’t so much fun to be around.
So, yes, I did point out peoples’ drawbacks as I perceived them. It doesn’t necessarily mean they would have been that with someone else or certainly that they would have thought that way about themselves.
Tavis: I take your correction. Maybe I overstated it.
Langella: With Paul, you did. But actually there are some people with whom I really mean.
Tavis: Fortunately for them, we’re out of time now [laugh].
Langella: And fortunately for them, they’re dead [laugh].
Tavis: Fortunately for the rest of us who are alive and remain, we can read the text. It’s a book – I teased Frank Langella when he walked in that he’s getting some great reviews and I have not seen one bad one yet.
Everybody loves this book and I think you will too. It’s from Frank Langella. It’s called “Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them”, a memoir. It’s a great book. I think you’re gonna like it.
Langella: I’m just holding up this mug one more time. This is called a two-shot in which I’d like to be featured, please.
Tavis: I’m going to give that to you to take, yeah.
Langella: Thank you.
Tavis: And wherever you’re going next to be photographed, just sit that on the table.
Langella: I’ll put it on the table. I will.
Tavis: That will be our regular…
Langella: Every time I come see you, I’ll get a mug and we’ll photograph it.
Tavis: Good to see you.
Langella: Don’t die on me [laugh].
Tavis: And don’t you go anywhere either.
Langella: I won’t, I won’t.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.