Brad Meltzer: Mr. 10,000

When you reach a life milestone, you want to celebrate it with someone who’s important to you.

Brad Meltzer was just 26 when his first published novel, The Tenth Justice, established his reputation as a thriller writer. In the years since then we’ve learned that he can thrill us in many different ways.

This gifted storyteller has become a modern American cultural icon.

I began interviewing authors three years before Brad Meltzer graduated from high school. And a few years ago when I watched the odometer rolling over, pulling me closer to an important milestone — my 10,000th interview — it really didni’t even occur to me to choose nayone else to talk to.

Mention his name, and people’s eyes light up. They know Brad Meltzer for his string of bestseling novels, for his comic books, for his work in television, for his inspiring nonfiction books of heroes. For his friendships with U.S. presidents.

Yet there is no one who is more loyal and generous with his time, none more genuinely interested in his fans and what they’re interested in, no one with greater respect from his peers.

BT: You and I go back a long way, back to your first book.

“We go back so long that I didn’t just have hair back then, I had a lion’s mane. I used to walk around and growl. But yes, you are one of the few people that, every single book I’ve done, we have an interview together.”

BT: How do you think your writing has evolved since then?

Every author, in our own insecure way, of course hopes that it’s better. You always hope that as you get older you get better. What I say about my own writing is, I feel like it’s gotten more honest. There are things I would just never share about myself in those early books, and it was simply out of fear. Look at any interview I did in those early books. It’s like, ‘How are you doing, Brad?’ I’m like, ‘It’s great, I’m great, everything’s great, I’m just great to be here.’ Because I’m just so anxious to not see it all go away, and you’re just so terrified that you never want to tell a stranger that something could be wrong in your life, or that something could be bad.

“I think it’s the same way with the writing itself. There were just thoughts I would have that I would never put down because I’d be scared to be judged for them. And I realize now, you know what? That’s how life is.

BT: You killed a narrartor once…

“I did! I won’t tell you which book because it would ruin it, but yeah, I one time wanted to see, could I kill the narrator of my book? And I remember the editor at one point saying, you can’t do that, and I was like, says who? And I thought, can I pull this off? I’d never seen it done before. And it is still one of the books that I get the most compliments on, because people are like, I never saw that coming.

BT: You know, I love what I do, being on the radio and being on the web. But every day I think to myself, wouldn’t my dad love to hear me now? But he’s gone. Did the loss of your father affect the way you write?

“You know, I could say I don’t think so, but I know it did. I couldn’t even tell you how, but It changed me as a person, and when it changes yourself as a person, it changes the way you write.

“And, of course, there’s so many things that happen where I wish I could tell my dad, and I think that, you know, when you’re younger, when you think about Batman losing his parents, it’s like, wow that seems sad. Or when Harry Potter loses his parents, that seems sad. But when you lose your own parents, boy does that hit you in a different way,.

BT: is there anything I’ve never asked you that you wish I had asked you?

“No, but here’s what I do want to ask you. In honor of our ten thousandth interview, I’m going to do the one thing that needs to be done, which is, I need to interview you now.

“Tell me .. you’ve interviewed everybody, at this point, right? I remember when I started, you were like ‘the’ person to go to, it was like coming to see the king. So you’ve interviewed everybody, then you got stuck with me. I want to know, who are the two or three people that just blew you away, that you’re like, okay, now this is the king?”

BT: A lot pf people grin when I say this: David Cassidy from ‘The Partridge Family.’; He gave me such a thoughtful interview, very introspective, very honest about what his life had been like with his father, very troubled, his fame — it was fascinating to listen to.

“What’ the greatest — and it may be something you stole, begged, borrowed, or someone just gave you — that you got as a souvenir? You know, did someone give you their monocle pr something like….”

BT: I have a Styrofoam cup locked away in a cabinet — it’s fading a little bit now, but I have Ann-Margret’s lip prints.

“Ann-Margret’s lip prints! I love it! I mean, it’s perfect. right on a Styrofoam cup.”

That interview with Brad Meltzer took place in 2013, and he has done nothing but add to his already world-class body of work since then.

And who knows? Maybe someday I’ll interview him for number twenty thousand.

Alan Alda, American Icon

Happy birthday, Alan Alda, who is 83 today, January 28th.

Alda was born into show business. His father Robert Alda was a well-known stage, film and vaudeville actor, and young “Allie” was out on stage himself by age nine.

His 2005 autobiography “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed” was a richly told story of his childhood, his youth, and about his evolution into a happy, well-adjusted human being.

And as I found when I first met and interviewed him in the fall of 2005, there are very few celebrities who have treated me more like an old friend than Alan Alda.

The young Alan Alda got a pretty sophisticated education pretty early on, as he followed his father’s show business career:

“I thought it was normal, at the age of two and three, to stand in the wings watching burlesque shows. Five times a day, I watched the strippers and the chorus girls and the comics — the comics were the only ones with their clothes on.”

BT: When did you first feel a kinship with the comics?

“Right away. They were my playmates. I didn’t have many friends, or any friends, my own age. My friends were burlesque comics who thought anything could be made funny, it didn’t matter how horrible it was. I wanted to be like that.

And I watched them from the wings, which is the best place to watch an actor, or any performance. A few years later, when I was about eleven, and my father was touring in vaudeville — he had graduated from burlesque — I would watch Blackstone the magician and I would watch him do his tricks. Now, he was doing them for the audience’s point of view. But I watched from the side, and I could see where he hid the pigeons in the card table. and the audience couldn’t see that, and that’s what you see when you watch actors perform. You see where they hide the pigeons.”

All that practical know-how that Alda picked up may have been more valuable than any formal acting classes.

“I never really had any training, other than studying improvising, which I think is excellent training, but I really didn’t have formal training as an actor. I wish I had, but two things got in the way of that. One, I was too poor to afford lessons, and the other thing was I thought that taking lessons would hurt my natural genius, which I thought I possessed. And what I didn’t realize is that .. it took me about fifteen years to get rid of a lot of annoying mannerisms, which turned out to be mostly what was involved in my natural genius.

BT: You made a great observation in the book. The people you called ‘civilians,’ they would tell each other jokes and maybe get the punchline right and maybe not, but they couldn’t originate something that would make each other laugh…

They couldn’t be funny. The burlesque comics could be funny. They could say things that, in themselves, weren’t funny, if you wrote them down wouldn’t be funny, but they could be funny about the way they did it. Steve Allen used to make the distinction between some comedians, some funny people. Some of them could say funny things, others could say things funny. And most of the comics I knew, knew how to say things funny.”

BT: Well, take ‘Slowly I turn…’

“Yeah, ‘slowly I turn.’ You just said, ‘Slowly I turn,’ who cares? But the way they said, ‘SLLLOWWLY I turrrrnn, step by step …’ and the other one’s going, ‘Oh, no, oh my …’ I mean, they were innately funny.

“And they called the people in the audience the ‘civilians,’ the people in regular life. I grew up with this crazy notion that we were somehow superior to the civilians, because we could be funny. They were good as an audience, because they could laugh.”

BT: Which is, perhaps, not a bad attitude to have until you go to elementary school.

“Well, yeah, because if you have that attitude when you go to elementary school they like to beat you up about it, which is what they offered to do to me frequently.”

In his 2005 book, Alan Alda wrote sensitively and poignantly about his mother, Joan Browne, who had her own unique influence on her son.

“Well, the poor woman was mentally ill, she was psychotic. And finally, when she was institutionalized for a while, they diagnosed her as schizophrenic and paranoid. She thought that people were trying to kill her, she thought I was trying to kill her, that my father was trying to kill her. She thought people were spying on her with cameras.

“It was very hard to grow up with a person like that as my mother, At first I couldn’t tell if she was telling me about reality or if this was her reality. I had to learn to separate those.

“It was actually good for me in a way because I learned to observe her, and you have to be a good observer if you’re going to write or act. And I wanted to write from the time I was eight and I wanted to act when I was nine. I did benefit, in a way, from that relationship, but I also had to get over my resentment, because as a little boy you don’t understand that she didn’t choose to be ill. You don’t even understand that it’s an illness. I just knew that she didn’t seem to be a mother to me.

“And then I realized, way later in my life, that she was a very loving mother and she actually gave me a lot. She was a generous person,and she passed on that generosity to me. I think I tend to be generous, and whatever generosity I have I got from her. She was a good-natured open-hearted person who loved to laugh. There was a lot of laughter in my family, and I think that I learned that from her.

You know, she was severely handicapped and yet she did her job, although I didn’t understand at the time that she was doing a great job.”

And then there was “MAS*H” a show that Alda says no one had very high expectations for, but which endured for eleven years and made Alda and the pther cast members major stars.

And Alda appreciates how different his career could have turned out:

Who knows what I would have .. I would have done something, but .. what if I had done, instead of “MASH”, a pilot that I did before “MASH” had become successful, even for a few years? It was called, ‘Where’s Everett?’ Everett was an invisible baby left on my doorstep by Martians, or somebody from another planet. The baby’s invisible, and I would bring up an invisible baby. This was the kind of idea they were selling in those days.

“Now, I did the best I could, but it wasn’t a very good show. And if that had been successful, then I would only be able to act with invisible people after that. I’d be categorized. Here, this [
AS*H”] was such a quality show that there was no stereotyping. It gave me a chance to learn, because we did it for so long, to learn more about acting, more about writing and directing. It gave me a different kind of career

Madeleine Albright, Madame Secretary

She was a pioneer, the first woman to do what she did.

It was on this day some 22 years ago that Madeleine Albright took over as America’s Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton.

And she admitted, when I met her a few years later, that there were good days and bad, and some surprises.

On January 23, 1997 Madeleine Albright became America’s first female Secretary of State.

In 2003 she wrote a memoir called, “Madame Secretary,” and that’s when I met her.

“I really did do something, a ‘first’ in the women’s world, to become the first woman Secretary of State. And yet my career path was a little confused, a little zig-zaggy, quite characteristic of what is true of women my age. But I wanted to show that it was possible to get from here to there.

“And added to that, I was an immigrant. I came to this country when I was eleven years old. So it’s a good story in terms of the possibilities of this country.”

“At least, I was!”

Madeleine Albright told me that, without getting into any gender stereotypes, she believes women may be better attuned than men are to the subtleties of diplomatic relationships.

BT: Well, you seem to be a very careful observer….

“Well, I enjoyed .. I loved my job. I really did, every part of it, and I gave it everything I had. I enjoyed meeting various people that I did. I speak a number of languages, so I was able to use that, because I think that also opens people up.”

BT: Now, did I read somewhere that you said that in terms of your gender relationships, that sometimes men in other countries treated you with greater respect than men within your own administration.

“Right. There was a question, frankly: could a woman be Secretary of State .. especially in dealing with men in Arab countries? That was the ‘Can she do it?’ aspect of it. And what I found was that I had no problems abroad, mostly because I arrived in a very large plane that said United States of America. And if they wanted to talk to the U.S., I was the only way to do it at that time.

“And, I have to say, the men in our own government — most of whom are very nice people that I’ve known for years — I think couldn’t get over the fact that here they had known me for twenty years, and I’d been a staffer for Ed Muskie or for [Zbigniew] Brzezinski, or their wife’s friend or carpool mother or whatever, and all of a sudden here I had the number one job. So there was a little condescension and a few fireworks.”

BT: Well, you snuck in under the radar, and in Washington you just don’t do that.

“Well, I said I had a ‘stealth career.’ And as Senator [Barbara] Mikulski also said, ‘We were 25-year overnight successes.”

In her book Albright also wrote very frankly about a difficult period in her life, which occurred shortly after she became Secretary of State.

The Washington Post disclosed Albright’s Jewish heritage, reporting that her parents had converted from Judaism to Catholicism when Albright was a little girl.

The paper’s revelation stunned Madeleine Albright, and forced her to reconsider the most fundamental parts of her life.

“I think it’s really divided into two parts. It’s one thing about discovering that I was of Jewish background, which I think just me much more interesting and was a richness added to already a very rich story. And I was very proud to know that I was a part of a people that were so valiant through the years.

“The other part, which really was crushing, was to find out that three of my grandparents had died in the concentration camps. To find it out under the worst circumstances, which is publicly, just at the moment that I was supposed to begin being Secretary of State . when I knew people were watching to see if I could do the job.

“So the combination of finding out something so difficult personally and dealing with it publicly, at a time that was supposed to be the most exciting and best time in my life, was difficult.

And I also make very clear how deeply hurt I was that people blamed my father. and thought that he was a fraud or a liar. I could deal with criticisms against me, because I was here to defend myself, but I adored my father, so I found that very hard. And it’s something I’m still working my way through.”

BT: Do you feel Jewish?

“Uh, I don’t know, frankly. I feel that I’m a complicated human being. I was raised a Catholic, I became an Episcopalian when I got married. It’s very strange to be 66 years old and not be totally clear about something to basic as your religion.

So how does Madeleine Albright want to be remembered?

“I want to be remembered as somebody who paid back to the American people the generosity of having been allowed to grow up a free American, because it may sound hokey to some people but I really think this is an incredible country and for me, it was the most amazing honor to be able to sit behind a sign that said ‘United States’ and to represent the United States abroad.”

Tyler “Madea” Perry

Actor, filmmaker, comedian Tyler Perry will turn 50 next fall.

Meanwhile, Madea — the wildly popular character he created as part comic character, part social commentary — is 68 and holding, as Perry puts it.

In 2006 we talked about the origins of Madea, what Tyler Perry had in mind for her, and how he keeps her separate from him.

Tyler Perry has created an alter ego that has touched something in millions of families. In the seven Madea movies — the eighth is coming out in 2019 — Perry has made a lasting, if occasionally politically-incorrect, impact on the American culture.

I think that’s because this character .. was a staple in the African-American household a few years ago, and now she’s no longer around, because grandmothers are much younger and working harder and raising another generation of children.”

“You are making a social point through your comedy, aren’t you?” I asked.

“Yeah. yeah, totally, totally. “

“And I gather this was purposeful, “I continued. “She wasn’t just a funny character you decided would be funny, and then you added some social commentary to it. This was, I gather, based very much on your own experiences growing up.”

“Yeah, from day one she’s been there for me. She’s modeled after my mother and my aunt, which are the NC-17 version of this character . But the great thing about it is, there’s always a lot of love and wisdom in what they were saying, even though the way they chose to say it was pretty awkward and sometimes even hilarious.”

I said, “That is what is so funny about it, is that you’re not just .. she’s not just saying things for effect. There is love, and there is respect at the core of this.”

“Yeah, totally, totally.:”

“And discipline!”

“She believed in discipline!”

I then said to Perry, “You are a very careful craftsman with your words, and your character. You put an awful lot of work into creating this. She’s not just a cranky old lady. I mean, that’s kind of a stereotype in comedy, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,. it can be a stereotype,” he said. “But she’s actually very happy, but she takes no prisoners when something’s wrong.”

“Like road rage or rap music .. wait a minute, does rap music cause road rage?”

“Yeah. according to Madea, of course, it’s one and the same. All the accidents caused by road rage are somebody’s listening to rap music, every time.”

“You gotta admit sometimes she’s got a point, doesn’t she?”

“Yeah, she has her own way of saying things .. you gotta love this woman just for tellin’ it the way that she sees it, the world through her eyes.

So, I wondered, does Madea say a lot of things Tyler Perry could not get away with?

“Absolutely! Sometimes I’m shocked at the things that come out of her mouth, and that she gets away with. so yeah, absolutely.”

“I gather that at least some of these things are things you’re dying to say, but you can’t.”

“Could not say even if I wanted to, “Perry said, “but the costume and the character and the wig ,it’s a whole different thing.”

Tyler Perry knows the hazard of being too closely identified with a very popular character, He told me in 2006 that he’s tried to be very careful to make sure America knows Madea is not who he is, that they are two very separate people.

You ever get tired of her?”

“Actually, playing the character, yes, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve become pretty exhausted with it. But as long as audiences want to see it, I’ll continue to do it.”

“I would guess the makeup and the prosthetics alone must be …

“That’s what the real pain is, makeup, and the fat suit, just being in the fat suit for a couple of hours every day.”

Tyler Perry’s life is a true American success story

“It’s truly that, yeah, and I’m truly grateful to God for every moment of it. It’s something that I’ve truly been celebrating lately ,and learning how to come into the moment and appreciate it.”

“How do you make sure you don’t forget where you came from?>”

“That’s really, really not hard to do when you’ve been through as many things as I have because you appreciate everything else .. you have such a level of higher esteem for everything else that .. if I didn’t have the low, I wouldn’t understand how great the highs are.”

Andrew Young, Side By Side With MLK

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I wanted to share with you some moving, firsthand recollections of Dr. King by one of those brash but courageous young preachers who worked with King to achieve civil rights for all Americans.

Andrew Young was, indeed, young when he joined Dr. King, and was with him the day he was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis.

Later Young became mayor of Atlanta, a U.S. Congressman from Georgia, and the United States ambassador to the United Nations.

“We were not great men, and there was nothing special about us. We were ordinary, 30ish-something preachers who got together, realized that race was a burden breaking down the fabric of our total society, and we decided to do something about it. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, we developed a method borrowing form Gandhi in India.”

Speaking with me in the mid 1990s, Andrew Young was eager to share his friendship with Martin Luther King with the young leaders of today — including a dose of reality.

I describe him as a great man but not a plastic saint, a man who really didn’t want to be a leader, who was afraid of going to jail in many ways.”

As Young tells it, Dr, King had grave doubts about whether he should travel to Birmingham Alabama in 1963, privately believing that Birmingham may be too tough for him:

We had an organization then with less than ten people,. we had a budget of about $200,000 a year, and we were going to take on the citadel of segregation in the South. He was a reasonable man, he was an intelligent man. He had to doubt and question that.But he was willing to go, and fail. And he went to Birmingham, did everything he knew how to do, and then failed. As a matter of desperation he decided the only thing he could do, since there were hundreds of people in jail and he couldn’t get them out, was go to jail with them.

When he went to jail with them, the preachers — mostly white preachers, all white preachers — wrote an ad in the paper condemning him for stirring up the trouble. And he wrote an answer, around the margins of the New York Times and on toilet tissue, and smuggled it out of the jail. It became ‘The Letter From the Birmingham Jail,’ which explained to the whole world what segregation was all about. And it created a moral outrage.

It was all part of a vision, but not a plan, Young says. There’s no way any of them, including Martin Luther King, could have planned what would happen in the 1960s.

“Martin Luther King’s dream was simply that men would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners would one day sit down at the table of brotherhood.

“If you had told Martin Luther King after the speech at the March on Washington, what do you think of Andy Young being the ambassador to the United Nations? He’d have laughed, and he would’ve said, Well, if we can ever get the right to vote, maybe some of those things will happen.

“But we weren’t sure that we would get the right to vote in our lifetime.”

And let’s talk for a moment about death.

King laughed about it, Young says. King had a great sense of humor, and laughed more than anybody he’s ever been around. And managed to even turn his sufferings and his trials into sermons — and good jokes.

I asked him,”It did occur to me there would be some who might be on some level a little troubled to learn that you and he and your colleagues would actually make jokes about who might lose their life at some point.”

Yeah, well., it was a way of dealing with death. Rather than fear death he mocked death. And he mocked death in our lives as a way of dealing with it in his own.

He was a preacher, and he was in the tradition of the old, prophetic Baptist preachers like his father, and Vernon Johns, who had been his predecessor at the Dexter Avenue Church. And they were all known for being very capable of great sarcasm and wit. And he could turn on that sarcasm and wit and charm.

He’d do preacher imitations, and sound like Eddie Murphy doing a preacher imitation of an old country preacher. It was fun! But at a time when people normally would have been cringing in fear, of the possibility of dying the next day, we were cracking up laughing.”

Galaxy Hitchhiker Douglas Adams

How do you interview a genius?

Well, for one thing, you don’t try to keep up with him, you just toss him what you hope are good questions .. then just sit back and enjoy the answers.

Such describes my first interview with the great Douglas Adams.

His fans dubbed him DNA — Douglas Noel Adams.

Born in 1952 in Cambridge, England, Adams became a radio and television writer after studying at St. John’s College.

But when his book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” was published in 1979, his career skyrocketed.

I first spoke with Douglas Adams in 1987 about his book “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.”

Photo: Michael Hughes – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,

I decided one day I was going to write a detective story, then I thought, no actually what I want to do is write a ghost story, and I particularly wanted to do the ghost story because I wanted to tell a ghost story from the point of view of the ghost, who always gets the bad press. Then I thought, no actually what I want to write is a computer thriller.

And so it went on, and in the end I thought, well, I’ll put it all together — yes, it’s a ghost horror detective whodunit time travel romantic musical comedy epic. It’s a new genre, and this is the first and so far only book in the genre.

“You see, my previous books .. ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ once or twice I would find it in bookstores in the travel section. And then ‘Restaurant at the End of the Universe’ you’d find sort of amongst the restaurant and hotel guides. ‘So Long and Thanks For All the Fish’ would end up in the cookery section.

So I thought, well, if you do a ghost horror detective whodunit time travel romantic musical comedy epic, it can go in any part of the bookstore. They can put it where they like.”

I asked, “Have you ever stopped to think why your work is so popular?”

“If I did know, then I probably wouldn’t be able to do it anymore, so, no!” was his answer.

“It’s like trying to explain why a joke is funny,” I said.

Yeah, right, yes!”

“To those who don’t know you, by reputation or by your work, or by having heard you or read you, who is Douglas Adams?”

“I don’t know, I’ve never met him,” Adams quipped. “Well, I suppose he’s the person who wrote ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. He’s spent ten years doing it, which I think he probably thinks is too long.”

But indeed, whether Adams could explain it or not, the Hitchhikers stories have become part of the culture.

There were so many different version of it. People sort of kept saying, will you do a play version? We even did a bath towel in the end, so .. it started out as a radio show, then it became a book, a series of books, four books altogether. It was a four-book trilogy a trilogy for innumerates.

“There was a television series — I did the television series actually because I was told, and was astonished and horrified to learn, as I’m sure you will be when I tell you this, that there are people out there who neither read books nor listen to the radio.”

So I was curious: “What is one of your average days like, assuming your not on a book tour or doing interviews or giving lectures?”

Well, I have a routine,” Adams replied. “The routine is, I wake up and try to think of a routine. And after a while I realize I’m not going to achieve a routine, or rather. by the time I’ve decided on what the routine for the day will be, I’m already two hours late in starting it. So it gets very confusing.

By then I usually have to go out to lunch and think, well, I’ll spend the afternoon working out tomorrow’s routine.

“It’s funny — in England there was a regular magazine feature called, ‘A Life in the Day Of…’
A lot of people were asked just to say what their day is. And I remember reading a whole sequence of different writers, and each of them said, well, I wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning, get up, write a couple of chapters in my novel, then the post arrives and I deal with all the correspondence, then I take my wife or husband his or her breakfast, then I get down to do another couple of chapters of the novel, take the dog for a walk. then I sort of have a meeting with so-and-so…

And this is absolutely terrifying, to think that people are actually able to do that! And I really thought I’m just not going to be able to make it as a writer, because I cannot do this. And after a while, I suddenly realized what was going on: the people who were writing this column were writers. They were making it up! It was complete fantasy.’

Douglas Noel Adams died of a heart attack in 2001.

Stargazer Neil deGrasse Tyson

Look up the stars tonight. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the difference between the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, or if you can’t see Venus. Maybe you’re not even sure where the moon is.

Doesn’t matter, says renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

As long as you understand that when you look into the sky, you’re essentially looking into a cosmic mirror.

Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t exactly grow up with a boyhood fascination with the stars:

“I grew up in the city, and my first ‘night sky’ was the Hayden Planetarium. In fact, I thought it was a hoax. ‘I know how many stars there are, I saw them from the roof of my apartment in the Bronx!’ But I later learned, of course, that it was conveyed accurately. Thousands, countless thousands of stars in the sky.”

And it was when he realized how connected everything in the universe is that Tyson knew his life’s work.

Photo: NASA/Goddard/Rebecca Roth.

“I’d like to believe that the universe is actually accessible at almost any level. There are things to know and understand that no matter your background, no matter your age, there are elements of it that you can extract and carry with you through the day and become enlightened for having done so.

“I’ll give you a perfect example: in the universe there are stars that forge heavy elements in in their core, elements such as carbon and nitrogen an d oxygen. These same stars blow up spread their guts first through interstellar space and occasionally through intergalactic space. But these guts, these enriched elements, enriched gas clouds, then make next-generation solar systems. Our solar system is just such a place, where we are enriched in these heavy elements — carbon, nitrogen, oxygen — and this is the stuff of life.

“In fact, we are not only of the universe, the universe is in us and you could justifiably declare us to be stardust. So the next time you’re walking your dog, you can tell your dog, or whoever might listen to you in the middle of the night, we are of the stars.”

I said, “It seems to confirm what all the touchy-feely New Age people have told us, that we are connected to everything.”

“Yeah, it does sound a little New Age-y, doesn’t it? I’ll concede that,”

As he told me nearly two decades ago, the universe is actually all around us. even in your home

“Remember when you’re sitting around the fireplace in the cold, and you look at the embers at the base of the flames and they’re glowing red hot? Well, they’re glowing for the same reason that ‘red super-giant’ stars glow red,

“And by the way, in the field of astronomy, of astrophysics, our whole vocabulary is quite transparent compared with other disciplines. For example, big red stars are ‘Red Giants.’ Little white stars are ‘White Dwarves.’ There are regions of space where, if you fall in, you don’t come out, and light doesn’t .. ‘black holes.’ Beginning of the universe? ‘Big Bang.’ This is official nomenclature. So I’d like to believe that to get close to the universe, at least the nomenclature’s not in your way. In fact, it’s even kind of fun.”

“There’s nothing, surprisingly, Latin there,” I suggested.

“Exactly! We didn’t go out of our way to put extras Latin roots to say something that could have been said in fewer syllables.”

But whether you think about it or not, says Neil deGrasse Tyson, science and the universe are, indeed, all around you.

“Every day that you’re alive, when you wake up and look at the world around you, there are reminders of how the universe works. If it’s not the fireplace poker poking at the red embers, it’s the bubbling oatmeal in your morning pot, that resembles the surface of the sun. The surface of the sun boils, just the same way oatmeal does — without the oatmeal.”

“It’d be a little overdone by now,” I said.

“Yeah, it’d be vaporized, actually. But there are so many common phenomena between what you experience in everyday life and the universe.”

If only we take the time to understand it, he says. Even then, back in 2000, Tyson was worried about Americans’ scientific literacy.

“Science literacy, in the era in which we live,the last thing we need is a scientifically illiterate public. There are too many issues, too many problems, too many things you’re going to have to vote on that relate to science and technology a d how it affects our lives.”

Oh, and today, Neil deGrasse Tyson is Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York where his first exposure to the stars took place all those years ago.

Jerry Mathers, Cold Warrior

“Leave it to Beaver” is a piece of American culture. It’s been around for over sixty years, still seen daily in reruns on this channel or that network.

But you may not know how groundbreaking that innocent black and white sitcom actually was.

In 1983 Jerry Mathers — The Beaver — was one of the first celebrity interviews I ever did. And he did not disappoint this very happy Baby Boomer.

Jerry Mathers was 35 when I met him. “Leave it to Beaver” had been off the air for twenty years. Mathers was, at that point, very active in doing public appearances, giving folks the chance to get up close and personal with The Beav — although some wanted a little more than Jerry Mathers was able to deliver:

“I’m an individual. I know a lot of people expect me to, you know, come up and be exactly like an eight- or a ten-year-old. And that’s just not me, that’s a character, and if they can’t cope with that. that’s their problem, not mine.”

Jerry Mathers made sure it wasn’t his problem. He took care to make sure he didn’t lose his own identity.

“Any time you take on a character that people remember, it’s a .. they may come up and say, hi Bever or whatever, but there’s always your own identity as an actor, you always keep that. There are very, very few characters — in fact, I can’t think of one — who have ever suffered from that particular phenomenon, where they lose their identity. Maybe Bozo the Clown or somebody like that…:”

Now, little Jerry Mathers may have been too young to realize it at the time, but the TV show in which he was starring was, as it turns out, a valuable U.S. national asset.

“Leave it to Beaver” was filmed during the Cold War years, and it was the first actual situation comedy to go outside the United States. Before that, things like ‘The Untouchables’ and all the westerns .. so the gangsters and the western pictures were all going .. because that’s the thing people would buy in, say, Japan and Europe and Africa. So the writers were very. very conscious that they were presenting an image of the United States to foreign lands that hadn’t seen it before.”

And that’s not the only way “Leave it to Beaver” was making television history:

“The very first show we ever did was banned by the censors. Those were the days, of course, 1957, when even married couples in beds three feet apart. The very first show has the boys getting an alligator, called ‘Captain Jack,’ and they want to hide it from their parents, and they put it in the toilet tank.

At that time you were not allowed to show bathrooms, let alone toilet tanks, on TV, so it was banned by the censors. But they fought it, and they won, and in fact ‘Leave it to Beaver’ was the first show to show a bathroom on commercial TV.”

Of course, when “Leave it to Beaver” first aired, most Americans had two or three or maybe four channels to choose from for their entertainment. By 1983, Jerry Mathers was among those beginning to lament 500 channels and nothing to watch:

“The problem is that we’re inundated right now with so much commercial television, through the use of the networks, and cable, and of course now the VCRs where you can go out and rent movies of any kind.

“So for the most part you have a much broader screen to view, and I think it’s just like anything else. When there’s only one or two books, and that’s the only thing available to you, you will read them, and no matter what they are, you’re a lot more appreciative. When you walk into a library, and there’s suddenly thousands of books, you become a lot more selective.

And today we’re more selective than ever — but somehow, when the Cleaver family appears on screen, millions still watch.

Super Bowl I MVP Bart Starr

Fifty-two years ago today, an American sports tradition was born.

Super Bowl One on January 15th, 1967 pitted the Green Bay Packers against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Packers won, as quarterback Bart Starr was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

But early on, it was anything but certain that Starr would even make it in the NFL.

Bart Starr was born in Alabama in 1934. He was good at ,many sports, including baseball as well as football, but his ambition was to someday be part of the NFL. But as he told me in 1987, there were big obstacles in his way:

Bart Starr with Bill Thompson, 1987

“I was injured my final two years of college, and quite frankly had some serious doubts as to whether I would be able to play professional football, which had been a dream of mine from the time I started in college. Believe it or not, I really wanted to play professional football. I wasn’t sure I could. I worked extremely hard to make it in the pros. I was a 17th-round draft choice, and the odds of making it are against you.:

But Bart Starr was well-trained in how to handle challenge and adversity.

I said, “You say that you were prepared for the hard-driving Vince Lombardi by your childhood.:

Bill, I was, because I had grown up under the very firm ‘iron hand,’ if you will, of a tough master sergeant. And when media people like you would ask me through the years if it were difficult to play for Coach Lombardi, I’d say, no, it was a piece of cake! And they’d look at me like I was nuts. And then I would quickly say, growing up and playing for a Ben Starr was tough! And that’s what I meant by it.

He was tough, he was extremely tough. And only after our first son arrived did he become more of a teddy bear. It was amazing what those grandchildren did to him, and for him.”

In spite of his upbringing under the master sergeant, Bart Starr had to probe himself in the NFL, and to Coach Vince Lombardi:

My first couple of years, Bill, were a struggle. He wasn’t convinced that I was his quarterback. I had to earn his trust and his respect and his confidence, and that was fine. I did all that. And I think that made the relationship even stronger.

“Plus, I stood up to him at a time when I felt that I needed to, and I believe that earned me even more respect from him. He had just blistered me in front of the team at a practice session one day, for an interception which really wasn’t a clean interception. The ball was tipped, which can happen, and was picked off, and he just leveled me, verbally.

“So i asked to see him after the practice session, and went inside and said, Look, Coach, I can take the chewing if I have that coming, fine. But when you have seen later that it might have been a mistake, you apologize to me here in the privacy of your office, but you blistered me in front of my teammates. If you are asking me to be the kind of leader that you say you are, apologize to me out therein front of them. Or, don’t blister me in front of them, chew me out in here if I have it coming, but do it privately.

He did after that. He never berated me in front of the team ever again, and we developed a very strong longlasting relationship.”

Their partnership led to great things — and string of championship titles — for the Green Bay Packers.

“As you know, we won five in seven years. No one’s ever done that. And those bring back a lot of great memories.”

“You really had a dynasty,” I said.

“We did,” Starr replied. “I don’t like that term, but I guess in a sense we certainly did.”

But not all great things end well. Starr’s release by the Packers after a long career as player then head coach was something that still bothered him years later:

“It was not handled with class, and I regret that because it’s a good organization. I had a love affair with that organization for many, many years. Because of that incident, my relationship with the organization and the team is a damaged one, and it’s something I regret.”:

Now the NFL annually awards the Bart Starr Award, to a player of outstanding character.

Kat Von D on Depression, Death — and Beauty

Back in my parents’ day, men with a tattoo had probably been in World War Two. The only women with tattoos, you found only at the carnival.

But times have changed and now two decades into the 21st century it seems like everybody is getting some ink.

Many are getting tats from one of the country’s best-known artists, Kat Von D. And in two interviews with her about a decade ago, I learned so much about ink, and about Kat Von D.

“People now are coming to view tattooing as an art form, so it’s a lot easier just to get tattooed for more personal reasons versus being a carny or a sailor or all of the negative stigmas that are associated with tattooing, like criminal lifestyle, things like that,”

“Well, in your own case,” I asked her, “what prompts you? I mean, your entire body is art.”

I’m heavily influenced by music,” Von D said. “I think that hanging out with a lot of punk rock kids when I was really young, being around the tattoos, I guess that subculture was pretty influential.”

Today, Kat Von D is the one who’s “pretty influential.” Her own reality TV show on TLC, “L.A. Ink,” cemented her reputation as a top artist. But it also thrust her into a harsh spotlight. She kept a journal, which eventually she turned into a bestselling book:

“I’ve always been pretty open about, like, my struggles with depression and other issues that everybody else, a lot of people have. For me it was a form of therapy to be able to write about the people that I tattoo and the stories they bring along with their tattoos.

“At the time I was just doing it because I realized I was taking a lot of these stories home with me at the end of the day, and I wasn’t letting it go. I think it didn’t help with my depression.”

But she did deal with it, as she helped many of her clients with their own demons:

“There’s definitely like, I guess, I don’t want to say like a shamanistic-like therapeutic side to tattooing, but I figured it out: I know that people just want to be heard sometimes. I know, for me, I just need somebody to listen, to feel better, you know? When people come in to get tattoos, they’re not getting tattoos because they’re bored, they’re getting tattoos because it’s a monumental thing to them, and it’s a special moment.

If you’re in an intimate setting with another person who you can, like, let go of some of these demons and share .. I’m not a therapist, so I’m not going to judge you and I’m not going to diagnose you, so I think that’s why people feel a lot more comfortable. I think it makes perfect sense.”

There is a very common theme linking many of the tattoos Kat Von D has created: death/

That’s actually one thing that I’ve always said, is that I think death is the only thing we all have in common. Whether you’ve experienced it directly or indirectly, everybody knows what it feels like to lose something that you love.

“A lot of people have a hard time talking about it. I think the more that we talk about it and understand what death is, the better we’re actually able to live life. It’s not a negative thing. It’s not a Debbie Downer, I don’t think.”

Becoming a celebrity in her own right has forced her to make her inked skin a little thicker. All kinds of gossip gets written about her:

“I think it’s pretty hard to embarrass me. I don’t ever feel uncomfortable. I think my biggest battle is not feeling defeated, or killing my spirit over other people’s negativity. Without sounding too preachy, I just feel like we live in a world where we build a lot of people up in order to break them down to make ourselves feel better, when the answer’s inside you.

You don’t have to put other people down in order to do that. I think everybody’s a beautiful person. I wish people would just kind of leave me alone when it comes to that whole thing. Some days I do better at it than others, but in the end, I think the real fans see past the bullshit. Who I’m dating or who I’m not dating, and whether I’m pregnant with alien twins or not .. I’m probably not what they thought I was about.”

By the way, full disclosure: I have no tattoos, at least none that aren’t medical-related. And no, I’m not going to tell you or show you where THEY are.