An Interview with Cal Fussman
“I’ve always felt people are more apt to give good answers when they’re relaxed, and that they can become relaxed when they see that you’re relaxed.
My goal is always to make people forget they’re being interviewed.”
“Walk into an interview with 100 questions in your head. Do not bring in any notes. Notes remind people that they’re being interviewed. Use two tape recorders so you can relax and won’t have to look over and check that they’re running properly.”
“I rarely ask a question that can be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.”
Cal Fussman: Interviewed on January 13, 2010
Position: Writer at Large, Esquire
Born: 1956, Brooklyn, New York
Education: University of Missouri, 1978, BJ
Career: Freelance writer. Work has appeared in GQ, ESPN The Magazine, The Washington Post Sunday Magazine, Time, Life, Discover, Inside Sports, Sports Illustrated and numerous publications around the world. Worked briefly out of college for The Miami Herald and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Spent a couple of years at Newsday in the early ’90s.
Personal: Married, three kids
Favorite restaurant (home): Nate ’n Al Deli, Beverly Hills, “great breakfast vibe.”
Favorite restaurant (away): Le Bernardin, New York, “French seafood doesn’t get any better in America.”; Bartolotta, Las Vegas, “Italian seafood doesn’t get any better in America.”
Favorite hotel: La Mamounia, Marrakech, “made me feel like Winston Churchill”; The Gritti Palace, Venice, “made me feel like Somerset Maugham”; The spa at The Encore, LasVegas, “a very relaxing place to write”
Author of: MY REMARKABLE JOURNEY, the autobiography of Larry King; DOUBLE OR NOTHING, with Tom Breitling, the story of two guys who met over a veal parmigiana hero while in college and went on to make two one-hundred million dollar deals in Las Vegas; AFTER JACKIE, an oral history of the minority ballplayers who followed Jackie Robinson into the major leagues; THE GUEST WHO THREW TOMATOES, children’s book.
Excerpted from Cal Fussman profile of Muhammad Ali, Esquire, Oct. 1, 2003:
HIS RESPONSES to questions were always short and simple, and sometimes profound.
“What was more important, saying, ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong’ or not stepping forward when your name was called for draft induction?”
“The action,” he whispered.
“You’ve made a lot of people smile and laugh for a long time. But what makes you laugh?”
“Something that’s funny.”
“What is goodness?”
“What’s your definition of evil?”
“What did you learn from trying to come back from retirement at age thirty-eight, when you were badly beaten by Larry Holmes?”
“Stay around too long and you get whupped.”
“What makes you most proud?”
But sometimes there would be no response.
“Do fears diminish with time, or do they increase?”
“What are your biggest regrets?”
Q. What’s the short history of Esquire’s “What I’ve Learned” column?
A. For about a dozen years, Esquire has been running the wisdom of people who’ve lived extraordinary lives in their own words under the heading “What I’ve Learned.”
The column has given me a chance to sit down and ask any question to: Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Clint Eastwood, Johnny Depp, General Tommy Franks, Rudy Giuliani, Ted Kennedy, John Wooden, Bobby Bowden, Donald Trump, Larry King, Lauren Hutton, George Clooney and others including the father of open-heart surgery, the first man to break the sound barrier, and the founder of the Internet.
Q. What’s the difference between a great interview and a so-so interview?
A. After a great interview, I celebrate over a wonderful meal. After a so-so interview, I don’t feel like eating.
Q. What part of interviewing is perspiration and what part is inspiration?
A. To me, the key is relaxation.
I’ve always felt people are more apt to give good answers when they’re relaxed, and that they can become relaxed when they see that you’re relaxed.
My goal is always to make people forget they’re being interviewed. This would obviously be a little more difficult if I was working with a camera. But I recently experimented with a camera, and my experiences have only amplified my approach.
Sometimes I do a lot of homework before the interview to enable my subject to relax. But I’ve been placed in the exact opposite situation. Esquire recently asked me to go out and interview a guy named Gerry. All I knew about Gerry was his name and his address. I didn’t recognize him when he came to the front door. Which is exactly what the editors at Esquire were counting on.
Gerry was Gerry Butler, an actor who’d starred in 300 and a few other recent successes. The editors wanted to see what would happen when an interviewer showed up at a movie star’s house with no idea who he was.
I had no idea that they were expecting a cover story (August, 2009). But I just treated the experience as if I’d met Gerry on a train. We had a great time. Because I was relaxed, he could laugh. It’s much easier to open up when you’re laughing.
Q. What kind of questions work best?
A. Why? How? I rarely ask a question that can be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’
Q. How do athletes compare with non-athletes as interview subjects?
A. Depends on the setting. I would never want to interview an athlete in the locker room. There is something about a locker room that makes people think in clichés. In a relaxed setting, one-on-one, an athlete should be just as interesting as any other human being on the planet.
Q. What makes you cringe when you hear other interviewers?
A. When they turn the interview into a combat zone in order to look important.
Q. How would you coach a young sports media person to be a good interviewer?
A. Walk into an interview with 100 questions in your head. Do not bring in any notes. Notes remind people that they’re being interviewed. Use two tape recorders so you can relax and won’t have to look over and check that they’re running properly. Oh, and make sure they’re always loaded with fresh batteries.
Q. What would you have written about the Jim Brown interview that could not be conveyed in your format?
A. I don’t think the Jim Brown interview would’ve been better in narrative prose. But it would’ve had more impact if it had been on film. His expressions and the tone of his voice would’ve added a lot.
Q. Did you actually ask Yao Ming about fortune cookies?
A. I first met Yao in China back in 2000. I noticed at the time that there were no fortune cookies in China, and that Chinese people were intrigued to hear about them. So it made sense to get Yao’s impression nine years later.
Q. What did you ask Sting to get him on the subject of tantric sex?
A. Working without a camera gives me many advantages. Many of my questions start out with stories. I told Sting about a time when I went to a tantric sex seminar. So I wasn’t interrogating him about a subject that might make him suspicious or uncomfortable. I was asking him about a common experience.
Q. Leslie Nielsen gave you this: “There are many lessons my father gave me. But there was one that always stuck with me: He said to me, “Just remember, never say ‘That is.’ Say ‘That’s.'” What did it feel like to receive wisdom from Leslie Nielsen?
A. People who make me laugh are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Their minds move very quickly. You have to be smart to be funny, and smarter still to pretend to be dumb and funny. So I expect wisdom from people who make me laugh.
Q. You are posed with Nelson Mandela in your Facebook photo. What’s the story behind that?
A. I met Nelson in Ireland at the Special Olympics while working on a profile about Muhammad Ali. Ali was a hero of mine growing up, and it can be scary to meet your heroes because they can disappoint you. But Ali went beyond my expectations. When we met with Nelson, it was as relaxed as hanging around with an old friend.
Q. What sports media do you consume and why?
A. I find myself more and more gravitating to ESPN.com. I read everything that Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated writes. And it’s great to come across a book like Andre Agassi’s OPEN.
Excerpted from Cal Fussman “What I’ve Learned” interview with Leslie Nielsen, Esquire, March 18, 2008:
It was a boy’s name first.
One thing a person won’t do when he’s laughing is try to beat you up.
When I was a boy, I delivered newspapers on my bicycle at 64 below. The worst part is, I wanted to impress the girls, so I had to look good. I couldn’t wear a hat with earflaps. I had to sport the wave. So I’d put some water through my hair and push that wave up over my forehead. Then I’d step outside and splicccchhh — it would freeze.
On the Arctic Circle, where I grew up, laughter is part of the food of the day. Nobody wants to hear you say, “Gee, it’s really cold.”
There are many lessons my father gave me. But there was one that always stuck with me: He said to me, “Just remember, never say ‘That is.’ Say ‘That’s.'”
If you’re going fishing, make sure you don’t bring your sperm-whale line with you. A sperm whale goes down to twenty-five hundred feet and can hold its breath for eighty minutes.
Even if you did catch a sperm whale, when you put it in the boat, he’d sink it.
It took me a long time to realize that I came from a dysfunctional family. But, you know, at least I had the revelation.
I remember as a young man seeing Death of a Salesman, with Lee J. Cobb. When the play was over, nobody in the audience moved. All you could hear was a little sniffling. The silence was just overwhelming. It was a remarkable demonstration of the power of the theater. I’ll never forget that. Never.
Yes, it’s true, I’ve been called the Laurence Olivier of spoofs. I guess that would make Laurence Olivier the Leslie Nielsen of Shakespeare.
(SMG thanks Cal Fussman for his cooperation)