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Lawrence Grobel - Master Interviewer

Interview by John Wisniewski

John Wisniewski: Larry, you have written about your conversations with Marlon Brando. How did you meet Marlon?

Larry Grobel: After my nine-month marathon Playboy interview with Barbra Streisand, the editors at Playboy recognized that I had a certain tenacity that they knew would be required to deal with the reclusive Brando, and I suspect they liked the fact that I wouldn’t be asking to be put on their payroll for the eventual seventeen months it took to finally get the interview done. I still remember the call from my editor, letting me know that Hugh Hefner got Marlon Brando to agree to sit for an interview. Apparently, Brando had asked Hefner to put up $50,000 to cover the bail to get the Indian activist Russell Means out of jail; in return, Brando agreed to do the Playboy Interview. It was a big deal because Brando stopped giving interviews after Truman Capote profiled him in The New Yorker twenty-odd years before. I was given Brando’s secretary’s number and eventually got to speak to Marlon on the phone. He wanted me to send him my questions, which I refused to do. He asked me about my background, and I told him that I had spent three years in the Peace Corps, in West Africa, and prior to that I had participated in the Mississippi Meredith March with Dr. Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael. I guess that made me interesting enough for him to invite me to do the interview on his private island (Tetiaroa) in Tahiti. It still took a while to get there, and when I finally arrived, there was Marlon, dressed all in white like an Indian sadhu, waiting to carry my duffel bag to a nearby bungalow. For the next ten days, we ate all our meals together, took long walks around the island, and talked.

John Wisniewski: How did the book come about?

The idea for the book came from Bloomsbury in the U.K. I agreed to restructure the interview for the book and add what it was like each day on the island, and some commentary afterward. Then I heard from Hyperion—Disney’s new publishing venture. They wanted to publish it as their first book, so that happened. And then other publishers around the world wanted it, so it’s had a long run, and I keep updating it when it’s time to renew contracts with these publishers. The most recent version that I put up on Amazon has photos I took of the island and of Brando that I’ve never previously published, and it covers the opening of The Brando resort on Tetiarora.

John Wisniewski: Al Pacino was a big fan of Brando’s. How did you meet Pacino?

After the Brando interview appeared in Playboy, Al Pacino read it and agreed to do his first in-depth interview, but only with “the guy who did Brando.” I was “the guy.” Pacino had just finished making And Justice for All and was starting Cruising. I met him at his apartment in Manhattan and once we started talking, we didn’t stop for months. We just connected, and after the interview was published, we continued talking and our talks finally wound up in a book of conversations that has been published in fourteen languages.

John Wisniewski: Didn’t you also appear in Pacino’s docudrama Wilde Salome?

Yes, that was a surprise. The day before he was going to start filming, he said to me, “I want you in my movie.” I said, “What?” It was about King Herod, Salome, John the Baptist…. what did he want of me? He said, “I want you to interrupt me whenever I’m talking to the actors or the play’s director. But don’t tell anybody about it, just do it.” A very strange direction. In the end, I wound up being his “biographer” in the film. We went to Dublin, London, and Paris together filming where Oscar Wilde lived, worked, was arrested, and died. I kept a journal and published it (Amazon) with the title: “I Want You in My Movie!” My Acting Debut and Other Misadventures Filming Al Pacino’s Wilde Salome.

John Wisniewski: You grew up in Brooklyn, what was that like?

I used to think that everyone came from Brooklyn and just moved out. Brooklyn was learning to navigate the streets. It was stickball and slap ball, mumblety-peg and cherry bombs, ash cans and sparklers, Creamsicles and fudgsicles, the Dodgers (boo) and the Yankees (yeah, though in the Bronx), Coney Island and Steeple Chase. Brooklyn was living on the sixth floor of an apartment building hearing my mother yell down when it was Howdy Doody time. Brooklyn was where I spent the first 9 ½ years of my life, and though I no longer have the accent, it’s never left me.

John Wisniewski: Barbra Streisand also grew up in Brooklyn. You interviewed her in 1977. What was that like?

There’s a 60-page chapter in my memoir, You Show Me Yours, that answers this question. She is, without doubt, one-of-a-kind.

John Wisniewski: Could you tell us about writing You Show Me Yours?

Because I was not only meeting a lot of very famous people but getting to know many of them on a personal level, I began keeping a journal. When it got to over 20,000 pages, I thought that I should publish something. But I remembered how Truman Capote suffered from writing about his rich and famous friends and I didn’t want to write a “kiss-and-tell” book. The only way I might get away with something like that was to make it my story—how this kid from Brooklyn wound up living in Africa for three years, returned to the States, and became close with people like Barbra Streisand, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Luciano Pavarotti, Elmore Leonard, Joyce Carol Oates, Diane Keaton, Elliott Gould, Dolly Parton, etc. So, I started it on the island with Brando, when he said to me that the best conversations often happen in silence, and it made me reflect on how the hell I got there. And that brought me back to Brooklyn, and once I began writing, I just couldn’t stop. By the time I had written 500 pages, I had covered my time with Streisand and was back on the island with Brando, my first child had just been born, and I was thirty years old. That was a good place to stop. Volume Two has yet to be written, though in a way my two books on interviewing (The Art of the Interview, and You, Talking to Me) can also pass as the celebrity part of my life.

John Wisniewski: Did you like Hollywood when you first arrived there?

My first Hollywood assignment, for Newsday’s Sunday magazine, was to interview Mae West. What’s not to like?

John Wisniewski: How did you meet Madonna, to write Madonna Paints a Moustache?

When my daughters were six and nine, Al Pacino invited them to meet Madonna on the set of Dick Tracy. I brought them to the set, where Pacino, in Big Boy costume, met us, took the girls by their hands, and walked them over to Madonna, wearing her fur coat. She immediately picked up the younger one and put her on her lap, and my older daughter stood next to her, and I took the picture. Then my older daughter asked Madonna to sign a copy of American Film, with Madonna on the cover. She blacked out one of her teeth and drew a mustache above her lip. I wrote a short poem about that. Some years later I thought of publishing all the short poems I had written about my celebrity encounters. Madonna Paints a Mustache seemed like a good title.

John Wisniewski: You have also spoken with Truman Capote and James A. Michener, what were those experiences like?

You couldn’t find two more different writers than Capote and Michener. I liked both of them very much. Capote had a wicked tongue and was fearless; Michener was more restrained. Capote was the better literary writer; Michener had a great sense of narrative. Capote struggled to write the books he wrote; Michener turned out huge thousand-page novels year after year after he turned forty. I was very fortunate to have been able to write Conversation With books about each of them. And Michener was generous to have written the introduction to the Capote book.

John Wisniewski: What was it like, writing The Hustons?

This was my most researched book. I spent three years interviewing everyone who ever worked with or had stories about the Hustons, from Walter to John to Angelica, Tony, and Danny. John gave me over a hundred hours of his time, and I didn’t actually start writing the book until after he passed away. By then, I had two full file cabinets of folders filled with transcripts from the hundreds of people I had taped. It was an exhausting and daunting project that covered over a hundred years and four generations, but I was never bored writing it. A remarkable family story.

John Wisniewski: You wrote a book about Ava Gardner. She was a famous recluse when it came to journalists. How did you get to her?

Ava was unique. Some believe that in her prime she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was also a very difficult get. But since John Huston told everyone he ever worked with that it was all right to talk to me for my book on the Huston family, Ava agreed to see me in London. We spent a productive few hours together and then she invited me to play tennis with her the next day; but, alas, I had scheduled interviews with Edna O’Brien and two others who had worked closely with John Huston, so I had to decline. Some months later she called me and asked if I would work with her on her autobiography. I was in the middle of writing The Hustons, but couldn’t turn down such an offer, so when she came to L.A. I met with her for six weekends. Then she wanted me to go to London with her and work together for at least six months. But I couldn’t stop writing the Huston book, so in the end, I had to pass. What a Sophie’s Choice that was! But years after her death I published a small book about my time with her and, to my surprise, it continues to sell well on Amazon.

John Wisniewski: Commando X is about the travels and adventures of an Australian motorcycling his way around Africa, who believes that we only have one life to live, so it might as well be with gusto. Could you tell us about this one? What inspired it?

When I was in the Peace Corps, living in Accra, Ghana, I met this guy who had traveled through the Sahara Desert into West Africa, on his journey around the world on a Motoguzzi motorcycle. He told me he never read a book other than about Billy the Kid, that he was avoiding being drafted into the army, and that wherever he went, journalists came to write about him, so he was becoming some kind of legend. He took me for a ride on his bike, and we went down to the beach and rode along the water. I wound up writing this epic poem about him, calling it Commando Ex. Then I turned it into prose and published it as a novella. I always thought it would make a good rock album, like The Who’s Tommy.

John Wisniewski: Is there anyone that you wish you had a chance to interview?

The list is long, and for different reasons. What journalist wouldn’t want to have had a chance to spend time with Picasso, Garbo, J.D. Salinger, or Thomas Pynchon? I had assignments to do John Updike, Tom Wolfe, Andy Warhol, Fred Astaire, Alfred Hitchcock, Leonard Bernstein, and Russ Limbaugh, but all of them vacillated to the point where it just wasn’t going to happen. I would like to interview Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Jared Kushner, Rachel Maddow, and Vladimir Putin. For selfish purposes, Woody Harrelson, because I’d like to give him my screenplay about Marlon Brando and see if he would like to play Marlon.

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