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September 10, 2018

Taking Over

Keith Carradine talks movies, Madam Secretary, and the need for Alzheimer’s research.

Melissa Byers
  • TCM
  • Ben Mankiewicz, Keith Carradine

    TCM
  • TCM
  • Madam Secretary

    CBS
  • Madam Secretary

    CBS
  • Madam Secretary

    CBS

Two legendary names in Hollywood are Carradine and Mankiewicz. Leave it to TCM to put them together in a room talking movies.

On Monday, September 10, Keith Carradine will take over TCM's programming for a night, offering up four of his favorite films. Between movies, he and host Ben Mankiewicz will discuss the films, and anything else that comes up between these two scions of the industry.

"They invited me to come," Carradine says, "They invited me to come and host four films of my choice, so that was really fun to do. And Ben, he's so knowledgeable, he's such a congenial guy and he's a wonderful guy to talk with about movies in general. I had a really good time."

The eclectic mix of films spans nearly 40 years, from the 1937 film Captains Courageous to Robert Altman's 1974 film Thieves Like Us. In between are Random Harvest from 1943 and Performance from 1970.

Carradine explains his choices, "It's eclectic. I think it fairly accurately represents my catholic tastes, using that word in terms of the varietal sense. Captains Courageous, one of my all-time favorites, which my father is in and that movie has stood the test of time I think and it's been a part of my cinematic consciousness since I was a boy.

"And I've always adored that film and in fact it inspired me to learn to play the hurdy-gurdy. I actually found one at a little shop up in Northern California. And I have it to this day, it's a beautiful instrument.

"So there's that one and then of course Random Harvest because I am just a rank sentimentalist when it comes right down to it. I can go from sort of edgy, avant garde stuff to a wonderful romantic amnesia-based tale with Greer Garson and Ronald Coleman. Yeah, I just love that movie. It gets me every time, every time I watch it.

"I'm a huge Greer Garson fan. And in fact, I think it was a couple years ago, I actually did the narration for her month on TCM.

"And then there's Performance, which is a classic noir. But neo-noir I would call it. I coined a new term to describe that movie which is 'psychedelic noir.'

"Jagger's performance, I was completely bowled over by it. I thought it was an extraordinary piece of film-making. And co-directed by two guys, Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell. And Donald Cammell helped write the screenplay and Anthony Mazzola I think came in and sort of helped with the editing of the film.

"I know it sat for quite a while, it was such a controversial film even then. Warner Brothers was frightened of it and I think it sat for some time until it was finally released. But when I saw it, I thought it was kind of an astonishing movie and really an extraordinary look at the juxtaposition of two darker sides of human nature and society in general. And our society in particular, although it's a British film and it takes place in Britain.

"I've always been fascinated by the American predilection for accepting violence but finding sexual dicier, more dangerous. And I thought this film took a look at that in a really interesting way. So that was why I chose that.

"And then of course, Thieves Like Us, my last choice. They wanted me to pick something that I was in and that seemed appropriate. It's old enough now that maybe it's a semi-classic.

"You know, we shot the film in 1973. That was the second time I worked with Robert Altman and I have very, very deep, fond memories of that experience and of working with him over the years.

"But that was an amazing time making that film. We shot it in Mississippi in 1973 and it was truly a labor of love. I mean, Bob got United Artists to make the movie.

"There was a budget cutting session one night at the Lions Gate offices, at his offices in Westwood. They were trying to figure out how to get the movie made because UA had cold feet and they certainly didn't want to put any money into a movie starring me at that point in time. And Bob was absolutely committed to getting that film made and he wanted those two characters played by Shelley Duvall and myself.

"And the rest is other members of his repertory company: Bert Remsen and John Schuck and Tom Skerritt, and Louise Fletcher came out of retirement. That was her comeback movie."

A bonus for Carradine in working with TCM for this evening was the chance to spend some time with Ben Mankiewicz. The two had met before, but hadn't really had a chance to work together. Carradine says, "Well we had met. We were acquainted but we hadn't spent much time together. We had some mutual friends that we have seen on occasion at social events at their home.

"But apart from that I hadn't spent any time with Ben. I had met him when I came back to do a series of westerns for TCM. I hosted a whole series of western films. And I spent a day taping introductions for those. And Ben was around that day in Atlanta so we had a chance to shake hands and say hello. And I think we even sat and had lunch together that day. We chatted a bit but this was fun.

"He was very enthusiastic at the variety of my choices. We had fun talking about that stuff. And yes, he has absolutely his legacy. The Mankowicz name in this town, it's legend. And obviously my clan, my father was one of the stalwarts of the Golden Age of Hollywood. We had fun, we did have a good time.

"I'm just delighted with TCM, their commitment to preserving film, restoring old films and just preserving the legacy and making it available for people to see, especially for subsequent generations, if you're interested in cinema and the history of it and this extraordinary legacy, this amazing art form that came around the turn of the century.

"And, my gosh, what an amazing reflection of our culture. And I'm so happy to be a part of the TCM family in terms of participating in this and encouraging this continuing work of theirs."

Carradine's choice of films from an earlier era doesn't necessarily mean that there are no potential classics being made today, however. He says, "They're more rare now, certainly. They are out there, people do manage to get them made. I think that there are probably filmmakers who are outside of the mainstream system.

"You know, culture has changed, people's tastes have changed. The nature of mass entertainment has evolved or maybe the better word would be devolved. Something that is less conducive to really detailed and intricate storytelling and explorations of character.

"Those are the things that have always interested me and I think those are the things that really interest actors and writers and directors. That's where we all really want to be, that's the stuff that we want to be exploring artistically.

"I think that's why you've seen this hey-day of, resurgence of the television medium as a place for people to go to do that. Long form storytelling, deep explorations of character, the best stuff, most of the best stuff is happening in television now really."

Carradine's part in that renaissance comes in the form of his performance as President Conrad Dalton on CBS's Madam Secretary. Carradine has called the show's take on America "aspirational."

He says, "This is certainly an extreme time and I have faith in our system and I have faith in us as a people. I just think that there are occasionally moments when the pressure needs to get released. There are certainly people whose lives, for whatever reason, that they're feeling frustrated with the system as it is and it needs constant massaging.

"It's what our founding fathers laid out and it's a work in progress and it always will be and I think just right now the work seems to be particularly trying.

"But I do believe we'll get through it and I love the fact that our show presents a reminder of how the system can work when people actually listen to one another and try to solve problems in a reasonable and rational way, with civility and tolerance and all of that. And it's a wonderful place to go to work.

"Téa Leoni is the best of the best. She is as good as it gets and she cares deeply about the show and about the quality of the work that we're all doing. She takes all of that very seriously. She doesn't take herself seriously, at all, which is delightful and it makes it just a wonderful place to go to work. It's a real pleasure to be a part of it."

Carradine also credits the writers and creator Barbara Hall for much of the success of the show. In terms of his own character, he says that after five seasons together, he and the writers have an understanding. "We're in our fifth season now, so [the writers] respond to my sensibilities and whatever the energy is that I bring the work and how I present.

"They are now very familiar with that and they know where they want me to go with those things and where they want the character to go based on the fact that I'm the guy playing it and I just think it's a wonderful kind of symbiosis of all of those elements. And that's the joy, that's the real plus of being a part of something that works, and that one can continue to do.

"I compare it to a long run in the theater. I've done plays that have run for a year or more and as an actor, when you have a chance to play that play over and over again for all of that time, to be a part of something that is successful and has a long run, you get into really wonderful, solid deep places in terms of the giving of that performance.

"I think it's the same thing in television, if you're lucky enough to be a part of something that has a lengthy run. People settle into their characters and at a certain point nobody knows the characters better than the actors playing them.

"And the writers, who are good at it, recognize that and they gear what they're writing to the actors playing the roles as well as to the points the creative team wants to make in terms of storytelling and addressing social views and in our case, political issues. It's just, it's a great thing to be a part of."

Something else close to Carradine's heart is the search for a cure for Alzheimer's disease. He says, "My family, we've been living with it for some time now. My father-in-law is in the late stages of the disease and so we've been a part of that for about 15 years now. He had early onset. I think he's 76 now and it started to show up when he was in his early 60s.

"It's one of the cruelest of diseases. We've been very fortunate in that the nature of our family structure is such that we have been able to keep him with us in the home. So my wife and her mother are his primary caregivers and I come and go. Our home base is here in California. I shoot the show in New York, so I'm back and forth to do that.

"It's a devastating illness and the people who live with it and are caregivers to it, it's an extraordinarily demanding thing. It takes its toll on everyone so we are big proponents of finding a cure for this and doing whatever we can to raise awareness and raise money. Not only to help find a cure, but also to support people who are dealing with it and living with it.

"Most people can't do what we're doing, either, because they have to go to work every day. Our circumstances are such because my mother-in-law and her husband were careful, they had a nest egg, so she's able to stay with him and care for him on a daily basis.

"I have to say being witness to that, in our household, it's one of the most inspiring things I've ever had occasion to see. So, yeah, we need to do everything we can to find a cure for this disease.

"I think that there is more and more public awareness of it. I think it's because it's touching more and more people's lives. Particularly people who are in positions of power in the government, who can have an effect on how resources get allotted and meted out to these different causes.

"And I think as more and more people in those positions are experiencing this first hand in their own families, in their own extended families and lives, I think that their commitment to guiding funding towards research and finding a cure, I think that's increasing. I don't think it's enough yet."

But, even though the disease is debilitating and difficult for everyone involved, Carradine notes that there are still moments of light. "You know, it's provided moments of extraordinary enlightenment and inspiration and at the same time, the grief is constant, but there are also moments of exquisite joy.

"It's such a weird disease. There are still moments where my father-in-law, I mean he's still with us, he's there. His ability to communicate is severely diminished, but he still knows us, he still knows who we are. He can't call us by name, but the recognition is there in his eyes and he laughs on occasion. And that helps us to help him.

"I mean, it's heartbreaking and beautiful in its own way at the same time, but boy we really need to find a cure for this one.

"If you haven't experienced it first hand, it's hard to describe, but those moments exist. They do happen. And wouldn't it be wonderful if there was some kind of a support system, funding, to enable more people to be cared for in their home, rather than be institutionalized. I know that so often people wind up in sort of institutional care and most people won't have a choice. Wouldn't it be nice if more people did."
 


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