Guillermo del Toro, with Ron Perlman in background.

Guillermo del Toro, with Ron Perlman in background.

Kurt Vonnegut
Russell Crowe.

Russell Crowe.

In reading today’s March 21st Chicago Tribune, an interview caught my eye, with comments from television’s Giuliana Rancic. She relates that when she was conducting red carpet interviews and was fairly new at her job she encountered Russell Crowe.

Says Rancic: “Russell Crowe was so mean to me. I had been at ‘E!’ for a year, and I thought, ‘I’m going to go easy because he’s pretty tough.’” (Giuilana might have been referencing the telephone-throwing incident that has haunted Crowe since a New York City hotel stay.)

“Are you excited to be here? Your big movie premiere!”

Crowe: “I’m contractually obligated to be here. What’s your next question?”

Rancic: “OK—um—isn’t it so wonderful to see all the fans?”

: “’That’s your second question? One, two, you’re through.’ And then he walked away, says Rancic.

The retelling of a bad interview brought back memories of some, good and bad, that I’ve conducted over the years. Perhaps among the worst was the interview of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., I conducted when a college sophomore at the University of Iowa.

I needed 2 more hours to transfer from Iowa to Berkeley and it was too late in the semester to sign up for an additional class, so I talked my instructor in “American Humor & Satire” into allowing me to do a special paper interviewing the notoriously crotchety author, who was then teaching on campus at the Writers’ Workshop. I had to get at least a “B” in order to transfer to Berkeley from Iowa. That didn’t happen when the interview subject clammed up and became monosyllabic.

I had been interviewing adults since I was ten, so I had 8 or 9 years of experience interviewing others, but I had never interviewed a celebrity as prominent as Vonnegut.

Nor, as it turns out, as difficult as Kurt Vonnegut turned out to be.

Many years later, I was told that he hated, on sight, “little blonde girls from Minnesota.”

I wasn’t from Minnesota, but I qualified on the other counts.

I had read every book Vonnegut had ever written and was a huge fan. I was also immersed in the writing of other humorists and satirists as part of my “American Humor & Satire” class. We had just completed discussing “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller.

When I asked Vonnegut how he would compare his worldview with Heller he looked very irritated. It was late on a cold, wintry night. At that time, writing classes met in Quonset huts left over from World War II. He looked tired, haggard, cold, impatient, and like he’d rather be anywhere than where he currently found himself. Still, he had agreed to the interview, and I was trying to be properly respectful and had done my research on the Great Man.

Vonnegut fixed me with a tired, baleful glare and said, “There is no basis for any comparison.”

Welllllllllll. If you know anything about the work(s) of these two men, you might say that, at the very least, they deserve comparison because they were of the school of humorists then being dubbed “the black humorists” and were contemporaries.

After that, the interview quickly descended into Vonnegut acting like a bad guest on an old Johnny Carson show, and me beating a hasty retreat to try to make a paper out of few, if any, quotes. No longer could I plug in the author’s Words of Wisdom to the paper I had been working on for weeks, because he had offered no usable quotes of any kind.

The only thing I can say is that later Edie Vonnegut (Kurt’s daughter) ended up in my University Lab School class, never attended, and, therefore, flunked, so maybe there is some sort of Divine Justice.

As I read of Giuiliana’s experience(s) with Russell Crowe, I thought back to other famous celebrities I’ve been placed on the Red Carpet to interview, and how they have treated me as a print interviewer.

First, the good ones: Guillermo del Toro was a dream and so was Ron Perlman, who accompanied him. When I gave del Toro a copy of my book It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, he actually stopped so long that his handlers had to come urge him to move along. While standing in front of me browsing the book (in which he seemed genuinely interested), he noticed that his shoe was untied and said, with a laugh, “Oh! Oh! Fat man with shoe untied! Not good.”

Ed Burns
(“The Brothers McMahon”) was also very nice, posing with people in a friendly fashion. He was very charismatic. Likewise, Gary Cole was a good guy, but his companion that night (Dennis Farina), who I thought would be friendly and welcoming to any journalist in the Chicago crowd, was not, which surprised me. I expected him to give all of us a moment of his time, but the late Farina headed straight for the TV cameras and gave everyone else short shrift. Likewise, Forest Whitaker was kind and giving (when he finally arrived—quite late).

Among the worst experiences (after Vonnegut) was that of Alan Cumming (Eli Gold on “The Good Wife”). It wasn’t so much that Mr. Cumming was actively rude but that he acted as though anyone who did not have a TV camera on their shoulder was beneath his dignity. The rest of us were invisible. His handlers were actively involved in keeping all print journalists at bay.

As for writers, I’ve yet to encounter one who was as actively rude as Vonnegut in 1965, and I’ve interviewed David Morrell, Jon Land, Joe Hill, Anne Perry, William F. Nolan and many, many others.

Maybe writers are just naturally inclined to act more like “real people” since, in a sense, they ARE real people, known to audiences only because of their fictional constructs. There may be a few who don’t fit that description, but, in general, a best-selling writer can be as much of a celebrity (or as little of one) as he or she wishes, which is one good