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Great Americans of our time, and minds

NPR gets 'In Character' with probing profiles of influential but imaginary people.

May 21, 2008|Marc Fisher | Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Bugs Bunny is "the coolest kid in the class." Holden Caulfield is the guy who defined "that in-between place when you're unhappy but not devastated and it's just really hard to sort through." Willy Loman is seen anew, on a cellphone, at the airport, a salesman who "sits up to tap out a new number, and snap open a new smile."

In the middle of the news from Iraq and the latest from the presidential race, National Public Radio's programs have been slipping in profiles of some influential but imaginary characters -- fictional figures who have had a deep and lasting effect on Americans' lives.

"In Character," a series of more than 50 pieces that began in January and will continue into the summer, is the latest outgrowth of the NPR 100, a compendium of radio profiles that in 2000 examined the influence of the most important American musical works of the 20th century. Listeners couldn't get enough of those stories, and the producer of the series, Elizabeth Blair, wondered whether the next step might be to take on the great fictional characters who define the nation's sense of its dreams and realities.

NPR reporters leaped at the chance to put their journalism skills to work on people who don't actually exist. That new version of Arthur Miller's salesman, transferred to an airport lounge, is the work of Scott Simon, the longtime host of "Weekend Edition Saturday." Simon not only spoke to actors and directors who had worked on "Death of a Salesman" and know Loman intimately, but he also took the character a step closer to reality, interviewing a salesman of today about what Loman means.

The quotation about Caulfield, the antihero of J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," comes from a University of Pennsylvania student, one of several interviewed about the character for a piece on NPR's "All Things Considered" in which the power of the always-questioning teenager to shape and capture adolescent angst is shown to endure through the generations.

But some of the 35 characters profiled so far are hardly universal in their appeal. Blair explains how a segment on a movie cult figure of the 1980s came to happen: "Alison MacAdam, who's a thirtysomething producer, came to me, a fortysomething, and said, 'We have to do Long Duk Dong,' and I said, 'Who?' "

Blair nearly rejected the idea of featuring a character from the 1984 John Hughes teen movie "Sixteen Candles" but eventually yielded to those at NPR who had grown up strangely fascinated by the Asian doofus whose every appearance is introduced by the sounding of a gong. The resulting profile examined the stereotyping of Asians in the movies and the tension between ethnic humor's cathartic appeal and the cringe-making offense of a character who uses his fork and spoon as chopsticks and speaks in a ludicrous pidgin English. Gedde Watanabe, the Japanese American actor from Utah who played the role, tells MacAdam in an interview that he loved playing the role but has come to believe that "I was quite naive about it."

From the start, "In Character" was intended to cover culture both high and low, and the series features 29 figures from movies and TV, 16 from books, five from plays and a few from other media, such as comic books and radio. Blair convened a panel of culture and arts experts to sift through nominations for the series, and NPR reporters lobbied for their favorite figures. "All Things Considered" anchor Robert Siegel got to do the Lone Ranger, the beloved radio hero of his youth, and Baghdad correspondent Jamie Tarabay is working on a story about how Buffy the Vampire Slayer saved her life, providing just the relief NPR's war reporters needed after long days covering the tragedies of human conflict.

Many of the profiles are saturated in nostalgia yet ask probing questions about our history and culture. The better pieces avoid being overly academic even as they pose serious questions that usually boil down to this: "What does this character mean? What does he tell us about who we are?"

That broad, open approach is a respite from the narrow focus that dominates much of academia these days, the emphasis on gender, race and identity as the only acceptable prism through which to analyze culture. The "In Character" profiles instead tend to zoom in on who these people are as individuals, and what it is about them that makes audiences want to adopt them as fantasy buddies.

"We definitely go after these characters as we would go after a nonfiction character, reporting the story and interviewing people," Blair says.

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