Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 3/9/21 –
Jimmy Steinfeldt: What writers influenced you?
Lawrence Grobel: T. S. Eliot.: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Four Quartets, The Waste Land. Norman Mailer: His pieces in Esquire and his novels. Hermann Hesse: When I was a sophomore in high school my sister gave me Siddhartha. When I got to college Bernard Wolfe, a novelist, suggested that I read. J.P. Donleavy. I liked The Gingerman, A Fairy Tale of New York, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. Eventually I got to know Donleavy, who lived in Ireland, and I wrote a novel in his style. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye. Gertrude Stein: I kinda like surrealism. I like to read her out loud. Perhaps my greatest influence was James Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake. I was fascinated by how far he was able to take writing. I don’t think anyone’s gone any further.
JS: What interviewers influenced you?
LG: I wouldn’t say I was influenced by other interviewers. I would say, however, that I’ve been impressed by some. Paul Carroll’s interview of Allen Ginsberg in Playboy. That was a deep and revealing interview. Oriana Fallaci is an interviewer whose work I teach in my college classes. She was able to confront people. She told Alfred Hitchcock he seemed to be a really mean man. She got Kissinger to say he was like the lone gunslinger bringing China into the fold. You had the feeling that she was a participant, not just an interviewer, and that’s how I see myself, too. On TV I liked Charlie Rose when he did his show Signature on CBS. You never saw him. They had three cameras on the guest in closeup. On PBS’s Charlie Rose show he often asked too many questions at the same time. I was on his show for my book The Hustons and found him informed and easy to talk to. I think Diane Sawyer is a good interviewer. I liked Oprah’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. I think her follow-up questions were what I would have asked. Ted Koppel was very good when he did Nightline. I interviewed Barbara Walters once. I thought her interviews were a little too fawning over celebrities, but she was much better with politicians. Mike Wallace and Ed Bradley at 60 Minutes were good. Their job was to pursue until they reached an ‘I gotcha’ moment. They made that show very watchable.
JS: What do you like about teaching?
LG: I love teaching. However I didn’t take a course in teaching, I learned on the job. I was in the Peace Corps and taught Literature, Creative Writing, and Current Events at the Institute of Journalism in Ghana. It was during the Vietnam War, and I asked the students how many of them thought the U.S. should be in Vietnam. They all raised their hands, they all loved America. I said, ‘You’re going to have a hard time convincing me in your essays because the reason I’m here is that I don’t believe in that war.’ For the first three weeks of the class, I couldn’t get much of a response from the students. Finally, one of the students got brave enough to stand up and say to me that no one could understand what I was saying because of my New York accent and how fast I talked. They were used to an English accent and slower speech. At first, they were too polite, they all stood up when I came in. I told them not to do that, it was too distracting. I calmed down and I learned to understand what they needed. I stayed three years. I really enjoyed it and I probably got back more than I gave them.
When I returned from the Peace Corps, I substitute taught English and Literature at my old high school in Jericho on Long Island. I was also writing for Newsday. An old friend of mine offered me a job as the Assistant Director at Antioch College Los Angeles. I agreed if I could do it part-time, so I could continue writing. I left New York and went to L.A. I created the Master’s Program in Professional Writing for Antioch and became the director for four years. I brought in some very famous writers: Ted Sturgeon taught science fiction. Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison were guests. Barry Farrell taught nonfiction. Bernie Wolfe and John Espy taught fiction. Then I decided I just wanted to write full time. 20 years later, UCLA called. The chairman of the English Department told me, “There are 1400 English majors here. It’s the largest such program in the country and other than teaching, I don’t know what the students are going to do when they graduate. You graduated from here and you’ve survived. Do you think you could teach a course in survival?” I had known Al Pacino and we played a lot of paddle tennis together and I told him about this offer and he said: “You gotta do it and I’ll be your first guest.”
So, I came up with the idea of teaching a class on interviewing, and Al became my first guest. UCLA was the perfect place for me because I had nobody looking over my shoulder. They gave me a free hand. I came up with another idea for a class when I realized that every time I’d mention nonfiction writers like Joan Didion, Capote, Mailer, or Ron Rosenbaum to the students, they didn’t know who they were. The only journalist they knew was Hunter Thompson. So I then taught two classes, The Art of the Interview and The Literature of Journalism. I gave everyone 70 articles to read and asked each of them to teach three of them. That way they all got a chance to stand in front of the class and teach the class, something I hadn’t learned to do when I was in college.
I also thought about how these students were going to earn a living since it’s not easy being a freelance writer. I came up with a class based on magazine articles that were turned into movies. Saturday Night Fever started as an article, as did films like Dog Day Afternoon, The Last American Hero, Almost Famous, Adaptation, The Insider, Shattered Glass, and Proof of Life. I pitched the idea to UCLA: to give students the articles, then show the films, then show them some movie reviews. Then the students would be required to write papers comparing and contrasting the original articles that had been made into films. UCLA said yes, and that became my third class.
The last class I taught was Autobiography and the Memoir for the Honors Program open to any student, not just English majors. That became my favorite class to teach. Students got to write about their feelings and emotions. We’d workshop it, so they would read their work out loud. These were three-hour classes. Sometimes they would really open up. This would challenge the other students. I stay in touch with many of my former students and write letters of recommendation whenever they ask.
JS: Who would you like to interview now?
LG: Bob Dylan would be at the top of my list. Love that guy. But I lean towards the darker characters, like Donald Trump, though he would probably end up kicking me out. If I ever interviewed him I’d let him go on and on, puffing himself up, and then try to put him in the proper perspective. He reminds me of basketball coach Bob Knight, who threatened to kick me out twice, and when I refused to give him my tapes, he punched me in the stomach. I include that encounter as an appendix to The Art of the Interview, as it’s one of the most harrowing interviews I’ve ever done. I wanted to do Rush Limbaugh. Playboy said yes but Rush said no. I wanted to do Idi Amin, then President of Uganda. Playboy thought he was crazy, supposedly he had syphilis, and that the interview could be dangerous, so they wouldn’t give me the assignment. Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, Jim Jordan, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz…. I despise all these Republicans who will not compromise on anything the Democrats are trying to do. They’re just bad, selfish politicians, and I would like to interview some of them because I don’t understand them.
I’d also like to do the great novelists of today like Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. I tried to do John Updike, but he turned me down. I think it was because he stuttered. I would like to do Woody Harrelson because I have a screenplay based on my Marlon Brando book and I think he’d make a good Brando. So would James Spader, who I once interviewed for Playboy. I had the luxury of time with all my Playboy interviews. Ten hours, twenty hours. Ten days with Brando on his island. Nine months with Barbra Streisand. I followed Pavarotti from the New York opera to the Chicago opera to the San Francisco opera to L.A. when he made the movie Yes, Giorgio. You don’t get to do that very much anymore.
I then asked Lawrence Grobel about several significant figures he’d interviewed.
LG: Brando was a very significant interview in my life. I had done Barbra Streisand, my first interview for Playboy, and it showed my editor that I was willing to work for nine months without getting paid. I only got paid after I finished the interview. The magazine saw I had perseverance. When Playboy gave me the Brando interview, I couldn’t believe it. I had only done Streisand, Henry Winkler, and Dolly Parton at the time, but Playboy understood that interviewing Brando could take a year and they felt I could stick it out and wouldn’t require being paid until the end. Brando was a great challenge. He was considered our greatest actor who was able to interpret people. He had an acute shit detector. He could tell when you were being phony. So, I spent months preparing for him. I knew the Indians were a big subject for him and I read every book I could on the Indians and everything I could about Brando. When it came out, Arthur Kretchmer, the executive director of Playboy, said it was the best interview Playboy had ever published. Wow! They had published interviews with Albert Schweitzer, Miles Davis, Allen Ginsburg, and other greats. It opened the doors to the rest of my career. After that, Al Pacino, who was then making the movie Cruising, said “I’ll do the Playboy interview but only with the guy who interviewed Brando.” For years, that’s who I became: The Guy Who Did Brando.
I wrote a book You, Talking To Me. It’s 120 lessons I learned from people. One of those lessons is about Brando. During our time together, the first three days he wouldn’t allow me to turn on my tape recorder. We would just talk. I would say “Can I turn on the recorder?” and he’d say he’d tell the story again later when the recorder was on. I knew that the second telling of a story is never as good as the first, so I did a lot of talking to keep him from offering up his stories. I wanted to have those stories fresh when we were recording. He loved hearing my stories about when I was a kid and when I lived in Ghana. He’d listen and laugh. On the fourth day, we were sitting by his hut, looking out over the coral reef. I took out the recorder and put it between us, letting him see it, and I turned it on. We started talking but then he said “Sometimes the most profound communication happens in silence.” We sat there and I didn’t say anything. And he didn’t say anything! We sat there in silence for half an hour. Eventually, Brando said “Lunch?” So we had lunch. That was a memorable moment, that half-hour when we communicated in silence. Later, of course, we continued the actual interview.
JS: Truman Capote?
LG: When Playboy asked me to do their cable TV show the first person I suggested was Capote. They said OK and I got in touch with Truman and he said agreed. He was an interesting character. He had only written six books yet every book is magical. He doesn’t write a bad sentence. We met at the Drake hotel for the interview and I asked him if he wanted a drink. He said no, just water. After the first hour, he began drinking the vodka I had brought. He drank ¾ of the bottle. I got a four-hour videotaped interview for the TV show. I told him I felt I had just scratched the surface and could I come back to do a full interview for the magazine. He agreed, and over the next year I went out to the end of Long Island where he had a house, and we continued the interview. I was convinced it would be one of the most talked-about interviews when it got published, but the managing editor at the time didn’t agree. He actually hated it. Thought it was “too gay.” I knew he was wrong, and I asked to buy it back and they agreed. About a month later Capote died. My agent called me and said that New American Library publishes all Capote’s paperbacks and they wanted to do a quick biography on him. I sold them my interview for ten times what I would have gotten from Playboy. It came out four months after I gave it to them, and Conversations with Capote wound up at the top of numerous bestseller lists.
JS: Hugh Hefner?
LG: He was a complex person. He asked me after my Huston book came out if I wanted to write his autobiography. He had a warehouse in Chicago where he had 100’s of boxes of materials. He kept everything he ever had about his life. Scrapbooks, photographs, etc. He already had two people working on it, including a former interview editor. They had been working on it for over a year. I didn’t want to turn it down but I knew I couldn’t work with anybody. I went to the Playboy mansion every day for three weeks. I looked through boxes of material while sitting by the tennis court eating M&Ms and drinking beer. I would have loved to have written it but I finally told him I couldn’t work with anybody else and I certainly wasn’t going to insist anybody is fired from the project. Hefner was cool with my decision. Years later I wrote to Hefner and invited him to my house for dinner. I told him all my books had their origins with Playboy. I often have dinners at my house. I told Hefner if he’d come I’d invite some people that he would enjoy dining with, like Al Pacino or Diane Keaton. He sent me back a note that he didn’t do dinners out, that he ate at home and sometimes in bed, but he thanked me and my wife for the invitation. A week later I got a call from his secretary saying Hefner would like us to come to Movie Night at the mansion. So, because of my inviting him to dinner, we ended up going to Sunday movie night at the mansion, including dinner and hanging out with everybody, for seven years.
When my book The Huston’s came out Hefner called me and said “I’ve read the book and it’s magnificent, but it jumps from pages 230 to 430. There are 200 pages missing in the middle.” Apparently, there was one printing where they messed up the pages and Hefner got one of those early copies. Hefner helped me stop more incorrect copies going out. When I was doing the Playboy cable TV shows the interviews included stars like Shelley Winters, Joan Collins, Pavarotti, Norman Mailer, and Miles Davis. One of the shows they wanted me to do was with the porn star Marilyn Chambers from the movie Behind the Green Door. I thought that’s who Playboy should be interviewing! So I met with Marilyn and asked her the most intimate sexual questions I could think of. I would have never asked these questions of anybody else. She answered every question I had about being a porn star, after all this was for the Playboy cable channel. I worked for hours in the editing room putting it together for the show. Hefner saw every interview before it was shown on TV and he watched this one. He said “Larry has interviewed senators, great writers, famous people, and he did this! This is pornographic!” That surprised me, but after all, Hefner was a bit of a puritan. He never did the kind of stuff Penthouse and Hustler did. So, I toned it down.
JS: Christie Hefner?
LG: My contact at Playboy told me Christie was going to start working at the company and would I like to interview her. I was interested but I didn’t know what we would talk about. She had just graduated from Brandeis and what was I going to discuss with her? We met for dinner and we became friends. We played backgammon at the mansion at 2:00 a.m. Hefner would come down having just gotten up and sometimes there was James Cann or Warren Beatty hanging out there. Christie became a big champion for me at Playboy and we remain close.
She introduced me to Larry Kirshbaum of Amazon books. I showed him my novel Catch a Fallen Star. Amazon was starting their White Glove program which was where the writers could publish their books the way they wanted to. They wanted some established writers to help launch this. I agreed., Conversations with Ava Gardner was my first self-published book, and It continues to sell today. After that book, I gave them my memoir You Show Me Yours. Another dozen followed. That’s how I publish my books now.
JS: Jesse Ventura?
JG: When Jesse Ventura got elected governor of Minnesota it was big news because no one thought he could win. He was a professional wrestler who wore a feather boa around his neck. He said lots of outrageous stuff, so I suggested we do a Playboy interview and he agreed. His popularity was enormous. I went to Minnesota, met his wife, and we all got along very well. Jesse is a conspiracy buff. He was a big fan of Oliver Stone’s JFK and wanted to meet Oliver, who I knew. I asked Jesse something about prostitution and he thought it should be legalized. He then ad-libbed that the real problem in America was organized religion, which he felt was like a crutch for weak-minded people. He also said fat people don’t know how to push away from the dinner table. He was a terrific interview because he didn’t hold back on controversial issues. Before the interview was about to come out, Playboy released it early to the Associated Press. The story exploded, it was like there was no other news in the world that week. I got a call at 5:00 a.m. from a major TV network asking me about the interview and before I knew it, every news network had their big broadcast trucks coming to my house, up a narrow canyon road, to interview me! I couldn’t believe it. Newsweek made this their cover story. Jesse’s popularity in Minnesota went down from 70% to 39%. Jesse, however, defended the interview. He was straightforward forward and I liked him. There were so many outtakes from the Ventura interview that Playboy ran a second interview in another issue. That’s the first time that had ever happened.
A few months later, Jesse’s office called and said he was coming to L.A. and could I set up a meeting with Oliver Stone? I checked with Oliver and he agreed to meet for dinner at my house. I also invited Robert Towne, the screenwriter who wrote The Last Detail and Chinatown. Before the dinner, Jesse’s security detail came to check out my house. Jesse arrived with a bottle of wine but his wife said “I don’t know what we’re doing here I hated that fucking interview.” It was a great dinner and after dinner, the men went outside to smoke cigars and talk about conspiracies.
JS: Al Pacino?
LG: Al became my closest friend for 30 years. At first, he was very nervous about interviews. I really had to take him along on a journey. He introduced me to paddle tennis and when he was making Scarface that was the game we played to stay in shape. I wrote a book about our friendship and working with him on his docudrama, Wilde Salome, called I Want You In My Movie. I also collected all the interviews had done over the years for the book Al Pacino In Conversation With Lawrence Grobel. He came to my daughter’s bat mitzvah, he danced with my mother. The challenge was always how do I write about a major star who has become a friend? I also wrote a novel, Begin Again Finnegan, which some people think is based on my relationship with Al. I keep mum about that, let people use their imaginations.
JS: The Hustons?
LG: That 850-page book showed me I was a writer. I interviewed John Huston for Playboy in 1984. Scribner wanted to do a book on the Hustons so I contacted John and he said “I don’t need a book on myself but no one has really written about my father and I think he deserves that kind of attention. If you are interested, you should meet my children, Angelica and Tony, see what you think of them.” Of course, he really wanted them to judge me. I met Angelica the day after the show won the Academy Award for Prizzi’s Honor. She said to me “Many families have problems in their lives, but my family has more than most. It’s like an onion that’s going to be continually peeled and I don’t know if I want to show all of that.” I said, “That would be my job but if you don‘t want to do it just say so and I won’t.” She said, “If my father trusts you, I’ll go along with it.” Then John introduced me to his son Tony at Burgess Meredith’s house in Malibu. John went upstairs to take a nap and Tony said to me “When I was a teenager, I hated my father! I once came in wearing a jacket and he wanted me in a tuxedo. He was destroying my life…” I couldn’t believe how he was opening up, but I thought, There’s a book here. I made a list of everyone who knew Walter Huston and interviewed the oldest people first. I saw Nancy Reagan when she was First Lady; her father was Walter Huston’s doctor and she got to know ‘Uncle Walter’ well. John gave me his address books for Mexico, Europe, and the U.S. and I wound up interviewing hundreds of remarkable people. It was an amazing experience. I flew all over the world. Only two people wouldn’t talk to me. Gregory Peck, who did Moby Dick and was mad at John. And Ray Bradbury, because John had humiliated Ray during the making of Moby Dick. Ray did the screenplay and was afraid of flying. Ray went to Ireland by boat to be with John. John then said let’s all go down to London by plane and Ray said no, I don’t fly. John then said “You go to Mars in your mind, but you won’t fly to London?” Once John saw your weakness that was it.
LG: I never interviewed Madonna, but when my friend Al Pacino made the movie Dick Tracy I got to meet her. Warren Beatty directed, produced, and starred in the film. Al invited me and my six and nine-year-old daughters, who loved Madonna, to the set at a warehouse in Glendale. To them, Pacino was Uncle Al. They had never seen any of his movies. I had never seen him in his makeup as Big Boy before. When we showed up, I saw a creepy little guy all hunched over standing outside the warehouse. The hunchback looked at us and in a very unnerving voice said “Bring those girls over here! Hey girls, girls come over here!” It was Al. He took their hands and walked them into the warehouse and said in his Big Boy voice “You wanna meet Madonna?” Madonna was wearing a black mink coat, dressed as her character Breathless. She picked up my six-year-old, took pictures with them, and gave them a visit to remember.
JS: Patty Hearst?
LG: This was the interview everyone wanted, just after she got out of jail. Christie Hefner called me and said Patty Hearst was coming with her husband to the mansion for breakfast. I should come along and see if we could talk her into a Playboy interview. After breakfast, Patty asked, “Are we going into the Jacuzzi?” We all went into the famous grotto and I asked Patty if she’d do the interview and she said yes. We began a long series of interviews. I asked her very hard questions and at first, she was sarcastic. For instance, I asked her if there was anyone she wanted to shoot and she said “Yeah, you!” It ended up being a very important interview. The most in-depth she has ever done to this day. She was on the cover of Newsweek 17 times, more than any other person at that time. I asked her to sign one of them. She said “I don’t sign them. People send them to me all the time and I just keep them.” When we finished the series of interviews she signed it. I may have the only signed copy.
JS: How was the transition from print to digital?
LG: It’s been good for publishing so many books. Publishers take about a year to publish one book. Many of my books would still be in the publisher’s hands if I had used them. The digital world has allowed me to express myself in many different forms. I published four of my screenplays, my poetry, various collections of my magazine work, my novels, and short stories. That’s all on the plus side. The negative side is that Amazon is ruining bookstores and publishing. I don’t know how you fight that. As far as magazines go digital killed them.
I am a print person. I did all my interviews for printed magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Movieline, Hollywood Life, Premiere. Other than Rolling Stone, they no longer exist. I was paid $3 per word from Rolling Stone and $10,000 for a Playboy interview. I was able to support myself. Today The Saturday Evening Post might pay $200 for an article. I just wrote something for AARP which will be out in June and they pay decently, but it’s tough to get an assignment.
JS: Where can readers find your books?
LG: All 29 of my books are available on Amazon. Anyone can take a look, and click on “Look Inside” to read the first 10% for free. Then, if you want to read more, you can get it in print or as an e-book. You can also see them on my website, along with photos of all the foreign book covers, and all the magazine cover stories I’ve written. Just have to go to www.lawrencegrobel.com.
JS: What advice would you have for a young person who wants to pursue writing/interviewing as a career?
LG: Don’t! But seriously, learning how to interview is a very important thing for young people to learn to do. It teaches you how to listen and how to move along a conversation. You will be better prepared for when you are interviewed, like for a job. You learn to sublimate your own ego. I have friends who have very large egos and no way can they do interviews. It’s all about them. Imagine Donald Trump interviewing someone? If you can become an influencer through Instagram and TikTok you might have a chance. Also, there are many streaming outlets like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and Hulu hungry for material. You just have to come up with good story ideas.
JS: Do you have an important cause you support that you’d like our readers to know about?
LG: Pancreatic cancer, I lost my brother-in-law to that. Also LCH, my grandson had that and is now doing great. That’s what my article in AARP is about.
JS: What’s next for Lawrence Grobel?
LG: I’m working on my third book of short stories. The first was called The Narcissist, the second Schemers, Dreamers, Cheaters, Believers. I’m hoping that my two Hollywood-based novels, Catch a Fallen Star, and Begin Again Finnegan can be turned into movies. And I’m still looking forward to having my Brando screenplay produced.