TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. When filmmaker Jonathan Demme died April 26, our TV critic David Bianculli was reminded of one of Demme's earliest works that was made for television. Like other vintage TV productions that have become forgotten or hard to find, David says this one deserves to be remembered and watched.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Salutes to Jonathan Demme right after his death recently at age 73 prominently and rightly featured his biggest movie successes and triumphs - "Silence Of The Lambs," "Philadelphia," "Married To The Mob," "Stop Making Sense," "Something Wild." But almost no one celebrating his life and works mentioned an early effort directed for television that I consider among his very best work. It was an hour-long comedy drama made in 1982 for the inaugural season of a brilliant new PBS anthology series called "American Playhouse." It was based on a short story by Kurt Vonnegut.
Its title was "Who Am I This Time?" And for 35 years now, I've kept and treasured a copy of it I originally recorded the night it aired on PBS on my Sony Betamax. Yes, it's that old. I was shocked to learn doing research after Demme died that "Who Am I This Time?" was released on DVD 11 years ago by a small distribution company that never even bothered to mention "American Playhouse" on its front or back cover. But it's out there to be purchased on Amazon and elsewhere.
And like many TV treasures that have become harder to find and trickier to remember, it's well worth seeking out. Vonnegut's short story, originally published in 1961 in the Saturday Evening Post, is about a small town hardware store clerk named Harry Nash. He's as shy and unremarkable as a young man can be. But whenever he plays the leading role at the local community theater production, he becomes as magnetic and talented an actor and as charismatic a man as you could imagine.
One day, the theater company's director meets Helene, a new young woman in town assigned as a temp for two months by the phone company, and he invites her to try out for their next play, a production of "A Streetcar Named Desire." She does, but she's awful, as shy as Harry but with no discernible talent. Not, that is, until she's paired at an early tryout with Harry, who does what he always has. The second he gets a role, he inhabits it completely. And this time, as Stanley, he sweeps along Helene, his Stella, right with him.
It's one thing for Vonnegut to write on the page that these two shy people suddenly erupt into volcanically emotional performances, it's another to make it work for television. And that's where Jonathan Demme, working from a script adaptation by producer Morton Neal Miller, was so brilliant. He threw his cameras up close and very personal to catch the remarkable work by two amazingly talented young actors. Susan Sarandon plays Helene, whose passion is awakened slowly but very surely as she starts reading Stella's lines opposite Harry's Stanley. And Stanley, that is, Harry, is played by none other than Christopher Walken.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHO AM I THIS TIME?")
CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: (As Harry) What is this? A solid gold dress, I believe. And this - what is this here, fox pieces? Genuine fox fur pieces a half a mile long.
SUSAN SARANDON: (As Helene) Those are inexpensive summer furs that Blanche has had a long time.
WALKEN: (As Harry) I got an acquaintance that deals in this sort of merchandise. I'll have him to appraise it. I'm willing to bet you there's thousands of dollars invested in this stuff here.
SARANDON: (As Helene) Don't be such an idiot, Stanley.
WALKEN: (As Harry) And this - what is this, the treasure chest of a pirate?
SARANDON: (As Helene) Stanley.
WALKEN: (As Harry) Pearls, ropes of them. What is this sister of yours, a deep sea diver?
SARANDON: (As Helene) Be still, Stanley.
WALKEN: (As Harry) And diamonds, a crown for an empress.
SARANDON: (As Helene) It's a rhinestone tiara. She wore it to a costume ball.
WALKEN: (As Harry) Are you kidding? I got an acquaintance works in a jewelry store. I'll have him in here to appraise this. Here's our plantation or what's left of it, here.
SARANDON: (As Helene) You have no idea how stupid and hard you're being. Now close that trunk before she comes out of the bathroom. Now I'm going to go outside, and I want you to come with me while Blanche is getting dressed.
WALKEN: (As Harry) Since when do you give me orders?
SARANDON: (As Helene) Are you going to stay here and insult her?
WALKEN: (As Harry) You're damn tootin' I'm going to stay here.
SARANDON: (As Helene) You are not, you - you - animal.
WALKEN: (As Harry) Animal?
SARANDON: (As Helene) Yes.
WALKEN: (As Harry) I'll teach you.
(SOUNDBITE OF THUDS)
WALKEN: (As Harry) Animal, you.
SARANDON: (As Helene) Don't you dare call me names.
WALKEN: (As Harry) I'll call you what I like.
SARANDON: (As Helene) No you won't. And you just take your hands off of me...
WALKEN: (As Harry) Stupid.
SARANDON: (As Helene, screaming) Don't you drag me either.
BIANCULLI: "Who Am I This Time" is a beautiful love story. And the characters, like the actors, get to portray several classic stage couples. Demme directs it as lightly as a fable with a very low budget but a very high level of skill and taste. "American Playhouse," from 1981 to 1993, presented some of the best dramas ever created for, rather than imported by, PBS. Other superb early efforts included John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in Sam Shepard's "True West" and Blair Brown in a live production of Thornton Wilder's "Skin Of Our Teeth," two other shows I preserved on video but which have come out subsequently on DVD, packaged without much credit to "American Playhouse." And that's too bad. TV history is rich with old and rare treasures.
But despite what you may think, not everything is available for streaming, released on DVD or easy to find - or even easy to know of its existence. And even streaming sites, like Netflix or Hulu, aren't permanent archives. They show what they make deals to present, and those deals expire. And some great series, like "St. Elsewhere" and "Brooklyn Bridge" and "The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd," have never been released on DVD in their entirety. You have to look for them in syndication on local TV stations - if you can find them at all.
Last year, Turner Classic Movies restored and presented a 50-year-old TV production of "The Glass Menagerie." It's precisely the sort of respectful and thoughtful archiving of TV's past that we need a lot more of in this confusing, cluttered TV present. The great TV, old as well as new, is out there. But it seems to get harder to identify as well as find. "Who Am I This Time" is a wonderful place to start.
GROSS: David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University and is the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From 'I Love Lucy' To 'The Walking Dead,' How TV Became Terrific."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about why some Congress members, psychiatrists, ethicists and scholars are questioning President Trump's competency. Our guests will be Evan Osnos who has written a new piece in The New Yorker about paths being considered to impeach the president or use the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. Osnos has been writing about Trump since his candidacy. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE DOUGLAS' "ON OUR WAY HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.