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Eat Your Spinach

by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

Terry Gross, NPR: “My guest today is one of the all-time bad guys of history. He’s been a womanizer and he’s mostly known for picking on people half his size. I’m referring to that well known character actor, Bluto. Welcome to National Public Radio.”

Bluto: “Thank you for inviting me. I thought Juan Williams was going to be interviewing me.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “I guess you hadn’t heard. He won’t be available for this interview.”

Bluto: “Maybe it’s just as well. I always wanted to meet you, Terry. I’ve listened to your show for years.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “Thanks. You know I thought about having you here as guest two years ago when Popeye died.”

Bluto: “That was a real sad day for everyone who knew or worked with him.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “Did you associate with him outside of work?”

Bluto: “Not very much... Not really... By now everyone knows how reclusive he was. I always said it was easier to make friends with J. D. Salinger than get to know my co-star. It was said, if you didn’t shine a light on him it was like he wasn’t there.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “There are still some lingering questions about his death. Do you have an opinion?”

Bluto: “Unlike the general public, I don’t blame his physician. Being animated, Popeye always had trouble sleeping. In the end, I just think he gave up on life. I think he didn’t understand what’s been happening to his art. I know for a fact he hated that show Beavis and Butthead. I know he hated Aqua team Aquaforce. And then he did that cameo on South Park and felt used when he found out how they portrayed him.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “I understand they implied he was addicted to green leafy plants. South Park implied he had plants in his attic under grow lamps.”

Bluto: “He hated to be seen like that.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “If my information is correct, your career actually predates Popeye’s by a few years. I understand the first time you two worked together was in 1933. You were in a Betty Boop cartoon.”

Bluto: “You’re right, 1933 I believe it was. We were both in a Betty Boop cartoon; that’s right. Popeye got to dance a “hula dance” with Betty and then later I got to tie Olive Oyl to a railroad track.

Terry Gross, NPR: “You did that a lot. You tied everyone to the railroad tracks.” (Both laugh.) “You know, just a moment ago the audience didn’t see when you used quotes around that “hula dance” statement. Were you trying to say something about Betty Boop and Popeye? Is it true he slept with a lot of his co-stars?”

Bluto: “I don’t want to besmirch the man... He’s dead... But his nephews are still alive so I don’t want to say anything detrimental or accusatory... Let’s just all remember he was a sailor and leave it at that.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “You both started out as equals. You and Popeye started out with your own set of fans... I think it was Roger Ebert who said he thought you carried Popeye through most of his career. Roger Ebert used to say he never understood how Popeye even had a career... because Popeye was always mumbling or delivering his lines down towards the floor or back at the scenery...”

Bluto: “But that was...”

Terry Gross, NPR: “He was sometimes just barely audible.”

Bluto: “But that was part of his genius. I could bellow my lines or shout things or a train whistle could blow real loud or a load of bricks could fall on us and then he’d say something real soft and the audience would have to lean forward in their seats. He was like Chaplin, or maybe Buster Keaton trying new things until he found what was right for him.

“I mean, it was always funny. Like, he’d get hit by a train and then he pulled himself up and hitched up his chest and then under his breath he’d say, “At least it wasn’t two trains” and right then a second train would come barreling down the tracks and nail him. It was hilarious.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “I remember that one. Wasn’t that one called, “I am what I Amtrac”? You compare him to other great comedians; did you ever feel yourself in his shadow? Like you were walking in his shadow?”

Bluto: “What I do remember is walking onto the set late in August 1933. I’d worked in other cartoons before, lifting weights or wrestling a dinosaur, never hurting anyone.

“But then I came onto this new set, working with a new star and a new director and the first script I get... the script called for me to hit Popeye right in the head with a lamppost. A huge metal lamppost.

“So here I am, a newcomer. For me it was like getting to work with Newman or Brando, and the first thing I’m expected to do is hit him with a lamp post. So I wind up and smash him one, right on his head. He got squished into the sidewalk right up to his shoulder blades.

“Well, I dropped the lamppost and knelt down and I was saying things like, ‘Oh, Mr. Popeye, I’m so sorry’ ’cause right then I thought I was about to get fired. But he just pulled himself out of the hole and he put his hand on my shoulder and then he leaned back and laughed.

“He said, ‘Cut’ while he laughed and he said something I remember to this very day. He said, ‘Don’t hold back.’ He said, ‘Never hold back. If you’re going to hit me with an oar or a rock or a safe or you’re going to smash me with an elephant, just do it.’

“I used to think about that every time I saw that T-shirt that said, “Just Do It.” And he was right of course, the audience will know if you pull your punches.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “Wasn’t he injured a few times?”

Bluto: “We both got hurt a number of times. Slapstick isn’t easy. You should try diving off a ten-story building into a tub of wet cement if you think this stuff was easy. I remember he hurt his foot one time and we just changed the ending of the story so he could finish out in a wheelchair. It’s the cartoon where we both end up in wheelchairs chasing each other down the highway. True story.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “Jackie Chan had a similar incident, if I’m not mistaken. Can you tell us a little about Olive Oyl? An awful lot of people are confused about her being such an object of — should we say — inconsolable desire?”

Bluto: “Trying to keep it clean for young listeners?”

(Both laugh.)

Terry Gross, NPR: “But really, what was her hold on you guys?”

Bluto: It was something that just didn’t translate well to the screen. If you’d have seen her in person, you’d have a better understanding of what she had. She was captivating in person. Something indefinable.

“I will tell your listeners this: if they want to see an inkling of what she really was, they have to watch the cartoon called, ‘Olive for President.’ In that cartoon she gets to wear a pants suit and she has more to do than just run around screaming. She gets to sing a song written especially for her and she does an incredible job. And just to set the record straight, neither Popeye nor myself ever got near her after hours. She was a true lady.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “You mention a song Olive Oyl sang; speaking of that, your shows won a number of awards for your music. Do you think that helps account for the fact that a lot of your cartoons were so memorable?”

Bluto: “Oh yes. Right on. We had excellent songs written by some of the best in the business. We had a full orchestra right there at final production. My favorite song came out of the story about Popeye meeting the forty thieves.

“One thing about ‘The Pop’ — we called him that behind his back — we all called him, ‘The Pop.’ Wimpy started it and it just stuck.

“But one thing about Popeye was that he was willing to share screen time. I remember the opening song on the Ali Baba cartoon and the producer wanted to cut it off after a few stanzas but Popeye said it was too good a song to trim back and the whole song stayed in. I was especially grateful for that ’cause I had a hand in the final few stanzas, though I didn’t get a writing credit.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “Do you remember that song?”

Bluto: “Oh yeah.” (Singing)

You better lock up your doors today
’Cause Ali Baba is on his way
Hide your women and your money too
’Cause Ali Baba is riding through
Da dad a da da

“I remember it ends with:

You’ve got to hand it
To this old bandit
‘Cause I’m a terrible guy

Terry Gross, NPR: “Did you receive money from merchandising? I read recently that the animated movie Cars has made almost a billion dollars from merchandising alone.”

Bluto: “There was a board game and there were lunchboxes. And for a short while we were sponsored by the spinach industry. But let’s face it, there’s not much money in pushing spinach. We even tried a spinach-filled Twinkie, but it didn’t get off the ground.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “Is it true Eugene the Jeep sued to get some of the merchandising money?”

Bluto: “Why would he need money? Being a fourth-dimension creature he didn’t need money. As we all know, he owned his own island and I understand he’s made lots of money off the orchids he grows.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “I hate to bring this up, but recently it looked like you were up to your old tricks again. It looked like you were being a terrible guy, all over again. There was a posting on You Tube and Bill O’Reilly used it on his program.

“Bill O’Reilly says you’re a Muslim. He shows pictures of you wearing a turban and he says you were at that mosque dispute in New York. He says you were there to push your extreme position on faith. He says it was you who hit that college student.”

Bluto: “It’s Bill O’Reily. Are you going to believe Bill O’Reilly? That wasn’t me and I’m pretty sure Bill O’Reilly knows it. He just wants to stir up some kind of controversy.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “I just thought you’d like to clear things up.”

Bluto: “That wasn’t me. And that’s about all I’d like to say about that.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “Will you answer the question about your religion? Bill O’Reilly says you attended the same Madras as the President. He says you don’t have a birth certificate. He says you’re secretly an Imam. He points out that you never once wore a lapel pin with the American flag on it. It would go a long way in your behalf if people knew you weren’t a Muslim. I mean, it would mean you had no real reason to be at the Mosque, no reason to hit anybody.”

Bluto: “Are you asking this question because OTHERS wish to know... or because YOU wish to know? If you care what my religion is, you can go join Fox like your friend Juan. Terry, I know I have this image as a mean guy. Fact is, I don’t think I’ve ever hit anyone when I wasn’t on a movie set. I once had a talk with Ernest Borgnine. I met him at some awards show. He is — was — one of the most cultured men I’ve ever met.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “I think he’s still alive. I just saw him in a movie. The one with Bruce Willis.”

Bluto: “Point is, he played dozens of bad guys. We were joking about our careers and I said at least I never hit a guy what didn’t have both arms. In a movie with Spencer Tracy, Ernie has to fight a man who only has one arm, and for his troubles Ernie gets thrown through a screen door. The way Ernie tells it, the door was supposed to fling open but somebody had accidentally locked it.

“But getting back to your question, a lot of people think I’m Muslim, but they base that on pictures where I’m wearing a turban. I don’t know how many times I played Ali Baba or some Eastern potentate. I can thank Bill O’Reily for the whole misunderstanding.

“But to answer you, I have yet to meet a person who knows all the tenets of his religion, nor have I met a man who follows every moral guideline. Each man is his own, to make his own morals... to envision his God as he pictures Him. Or Her. Or I suppose to picture no God at all.”

(Both are quiet for a moment.)

Terry Gross, NPR: “There’s been a lot of renewed interest in your career.”

Bluto: “If it gets coupled with the truth. If people just watch the work and remember it’s acting; if they appreciate the genius of the ensemble and the genius of the men behind the scenes; if they remember Popeye as a gentleman, then all we worked for has meaning.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “And your religion?”

Bluto: “That’s my business.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “I want to thank you for coming on with me.”

Bluto: “Thank you, Terry.”

Terry Gross, NPR: “Now if you’ll untie me from these railroad tracks...”

(Both laugh.)

Copyright © 2011 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

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