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Stories About Mothers, Featuring Trevor Noah, Martin Scorsese And More

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, sitting in for Terry Gross. Sunday is Mother's Day. And we're going to listen back to some great stories about mothers. We begin with Trevor Noah, host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." He's South African, the son of a Black mother and white father. Their relationship was illegal under apartheid, which mandated separation of the races. Noah grew up during the apartheid and post-apartheid eras. He became famous in South Africa as a comic and TV personality and spent years traveling the world doing stand-up. He talked to Terry in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: So racial identity is a big part of your comedy when you're doing stand-up. Your father is white. Your mother is Black. Your father is, I think, of Swiss and German ancestry - do I have that right?

TREVOR NOAH: Yeah. He's Swiss. He's Swiss.

GROSS: And your mother is Xhosa?

NOAH: Xhosa.

GROSS: Thank you. I don't think I can do that.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And I know your mother was jailed - briefly, I hope - in South Africa, I assume for...

NOAH: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...For opposing apartheid, for doing some kind of dissenting action?

NOAH: Yes. Well, the dissenting action was being with a white person. And going into...

GROSS: Oh, that's why she was jailed?

NOAH: (Laughter) Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Was the white person your father?

NOAH: Yes, he was. Yeah. So - but that...

GROSS: Was he jailed for it, too?

NOAH: No, no, no. No. White people didn't get jailed for that. That was - white people were warned and asked not to do it again. But then if you were a Black person caught fraternizing across color boundaries, then you'd be arrested. But my mom opposed the system as a whole. So she never let that stand in her way, you know? And I think I pick up a lot of - I have a lot of my mom's demeanor is that she never even - even when she told me the story, she was never angry. She just went, it's a stupid thing. And so I refuse to listen to it. But she never came at it from a place of anger. If anything, she defied it. And she didn't give it the credibility that it was trying to create in the world. And so that's something that I inherited from my mom is that in my family, we just - we're not quick to anger. If anything - you know, I mean, obviously, there are moments where you find things ridiculous or ludicrous, but not quick to anger, rather find a way to laugh about it or to minimize it using humor.

GROSS: Were you born yet when she was jailed?

NOAH: Yeah. Yeah. I was. I was.

GROSS: How old were you?

NOAH: I was everything from 3 years old all the way through to 6 years old.

GROSS: She was jailed for three years?

NOAH: No, no, no, no, no, I'm saying during that time period. No, no, no. No. She was jailed for a month here and there and then, like, for a weekend and then for a week and so on. But I was so young, I didn't really notice it.

GROSS: So she had kept getting - she kept going in and out of jail for being with your father?

NOAH: Yes, yes, yes. But that wasn't just her. I mean, this was a common occurrence. This was the states of the nation at that time is that many people of color would get arrested for what today is not considered a crime in most places in the world. It was just randomly made up laws.

GROSS: So your parents couldn't live together. That would have been illegal. And they couldn't marry.

NOAH: Yes.

GROSS: That would have been illegal. So...

NOAH: That's correct.

GROSS: How were they able to have any kind of relationship?

NOAH: Well, I guess they just went for it, you know? I always joke and say that, you know, my mom was just crazy. And she said, I don't care about the law. She was like, I want a white man. And that's that. And my dad, you know - you know how the Swiss love chocolates. So (laughter) that's the two of them in a nutshell. They went for it. And that's really what the story was in South Africa. You know, as much as there was the people - there were the people on the forefront fighting, really, every movement is also - I guess it's also underwritten, to a certain extent, by the people who undermine the restriction or the laws that restrict people by just refusing to adhere to those laws. They just - in their own small way, everyone is opposing what is happening.

GROSS: So they couldn't live together. Where did they live? And where did you live?

NOAH: Well, I lived with my mom. So the way it works in South Africa is you were allowed to downgrade. So, you know, you could go - you could almost forfeit your rights and then go live in an area that was deemed inferior to the one that you were allowed to live in. So I was living with my mother in Soweto and my grandmother and the rest my family. And then my father lived - he lived in the city center. And so I guess there were times when my mom would sneak us in to go meet and hang out as a family when we could. But for the most part, that's where I spent most of my time.

GROSS: So describe what your neighborhood in Soweto was like when you were growing up.

NOAH: Oh, it was wonderful. It was electric. You know, it's a - even today, Soweto is a - it's a beautiful community, you know? Everyone knows everybody's names, you know? There's just a sense of togetherness. And I think because everyone was going through the same thing, it was a shared experience. It was - it didn't feel like it was suffering. You knew that there was a cloud hanging over a nation. But there were lots of moments of joy within that time period.

So, you know, the streets were dusty. There weren't many tarred streets. You know, the houses were very modest because the government would allocate land. And that's where you could live. So everyone found a way to make ends meet. I mean, there were seven or eight of us at one point living in a one-roomed house or two-roomed house at some point. And, you know, we had outdoor sanitation. It was like everyone - every four or five houses would share one toilet outdoors. And then you would have one faucet outdoors that you could go and get your water from. And so this is - but this is how everyone lived. And because everyone was doing it, then it's normal. So, you know, I'm very lucky in that I never look back at it as a tough upbringing because it was the only upbringing I knew. And everyone was doing it with me. So essentially, it's like being in a very stringent fitness class.

GROSS: (Laughter).

NOAH: If everyone's suffering together, it doesn't seem so bad.

GROSS: Were your parents still a couple when apartheid ended?

NOAH: No, no, no. They weren't. They weren't. Well, I think they were - let me think. Actually, they were probably until I was, maybe, 10 or 11 years old. But they remained friends, I guess, because they had been through so much that I always knew them the way they were. So I wouldn't call it a split because, essentially, they were never together. So they spent as much time together after apartheid as they did before.

GROSS: But there didn't need to be a charade anymore. Like, what was the charade that you would have to enact when the family got together under apartheid?

NOAH: Oh. Well, I wasn't enacting anything. I was a kid. So I was just - I was living my life. My mom would - she went to very elaborate - you know, through very elaborate schemes. I mean, she would disguise herself as a maid to act like she was working in my dad's apartment so that she wouldn't get caught. She would act like she was babysitting me for somebody else. And, you know, it was all these, I mean, very elaborate scams, I must admit. Very funny when you think about it because everyone - you know, everyone thinks of, like, a maid outfit as like a very sexual or interesting costume. And yet my mom, she was like, this is a functional thing I need to get to - to get my family together. So she was going through all of that. My dad didn't have to do much because he was on the - I guess, the right side of the law, as they would say. So yeah - so my mom was doing all the heavy lifting for all of us.

GROSS: So after your parents separated, your mother married a man who became the father of your two brothers. How old were you when you married?

NOAH: Yes. I think I was, maybe, 12 years old or 13. Yeah, maybe around there.

GROSS: So you've described him as becoming alcoholic and abusive. Did he abuse you?

NOAH: No, no, no. No. My mom was very protective of me. So I didn't suffer, you know, much of that, but, I mean, a home that is terrorized by an abusive drunk is terrorized all the same. You know, I feel like we were all in the same boat because we were. But physically, I was spared much of that torment.

GROSS: And what did he - did he hit her?

NOAH: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this is - you know, it's widely documented, and it's something my mom raised me not to be ashamed to speak about. Because that was always the biggest thing she said was, we live in a world where for some strange reason, women are taught to be ashamed of the fact that they have been abused, and then the victims are running around with the shame whereas we should be shaming those who are the abusers.

So yeah. So he hit my mom. And, you know, that was the craziest thing, is you're living in a world where it happens sporadically. Like, you know, it wasn't an everyday thing, but it was - once is enough, you know? But it was a very harrowing experience to go through. And so, you know, the combination of the alcohol and a bad temper led to that environment.

GROSS: She left him and then...

NOAH: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Went with another man. And when he found out about this other man after he and your mother were divorced, he shot her twice.

NOAH: Yeah. Well, my mom didn't leave to go to another man. So my mom completely left the home, moved out with my brothers. I was already out of the home at that time. And she went and set up a new life. And then at that point, one day they came home from church, and then he pitched up. And he was drunk, and then he threatened to kill the whole family, including himself. And then, he shot my mom twice.

GROSS: In the face and in the back?

NOAH: Yup, that's correct.

GROSS: But she survived.

NOAH: She did. She did.

GROSS: What kind of shape is she in now? Did she have a full recovery?

NOAH: Oh, yeah. My mom is a soldier. And now, I mean, we joke that she's bulletproof because it was - I mean, it really was a miracle. And the doctors hated using that term, and they were the ones who said it, you know? My mom is deeply, deeply religious. And her and I have always fought about religion over the years. I challenge her on it, and she completely immerses herself in it. But then, I mean, when someone gets shot in the head and suffers no brain damage and is alive and needs to go through no surgery and a bullet completely passes through the head, then you almost have to concede. I mean, who was I to say I don't believe in miracles when I've seen this happen in my life.

So, you know, we laughed about it, we joked. I mean, that's really the hallmark of my family is, I mean, a few days afterwards in the hospital, my mom was the person who cracked the first joke. You know, we've overcome a lot because of laughter. I think that's why I love comedy so much. It's because it's the thing that has kept my family going through every single type of adversity.

BIANCULLI: Trevor Noah speaking with Terry Gross in 2016. Let's hear an excerpt from Noah's stand-up routine about the time his mother got shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S MY CULTURE")

NOAH: And to show you what a crazy family we have - my mom's in the recovery ward. She got those tubes in her and everything and the I.V. And, you know, my brother's in the corner, bored out of his mind.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: And my grandmother's in the other corner reading the Bible. And I'm holding my mom's hand, and I'm crying, still crying. This is a week later, I'm still crying. (Babbling incoherently). I've been crying the whole week. But I've also been using this time to cry for other things in my life.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: No, 'cause as a man, you need to know when to cry. You loop it all together, and you just cry it one time. It was like - like, we cry in bulk. You got to understand. You cry - you don't just cry one, one, one, one. Nu uh, you cry in bulk. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: So I'm crying for everything. (Babbling incoherently). And my mom looks at me, and she goes, shh, Trevor. Trevor, shh. Don't cry, baby. I said, no, mom. I'm going to cry. You were shot in the head. She says, no, no, no, no. Look on the bright side. I said, what bright side? She says, no. At least now because of my nose, you're officially the best-looking person in the family.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: I was like, (crying) by default (crying).

BIANCULLI: Coming up, Lorna Luft remembers her mother, Judy Garland. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARY BARILLEAU AND THE LATIN JAZZ COLLECTIVE'S "CARMEN'S MAMBO")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Lorna Luft is a singer and actress and the daughter of Judy Garland and Sidney Luft. Lorna Luft starred on Broadway in "Promises, Promises" and in the national tours of "Grease," "They're Playing Our Song," "Guys And Dolls" and Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." Luft has written two books about her mother - "A Star Is Born: Judy Garland And The Film That Got Away" and "Me And My Shadows." Terry spoke to her in 1998.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: How old were you the first time you saw "The Wizard Of Oz" and what impression did it make on you?

LORNA LUFT: I was about 4. Actually, I was a little bit older. Maybe I was about 5. And we were in our house in Holmby Hills. My brother Joe was about 2. And the movie was on television. And our nanny at the time thought it would be just wonderful to make the impression on us that that was our mother. And she kept telling us that that was our mother. Now, my mom was in New York at the time. And when she realized that, of course, the movie was going to be on television, she called the house to hear two children just hysterical, crying. And she said, what's happened? What's the matter? And we said, the monkeys took you to New York.

And we were sobbing and - because it's a frightening movie for little kids. And, of course, to be told that's your mother, well, just scared the hell out of us. So my first time watching "The Wizard Of Oz" wasn't exactly thrilling. But then, she never let us watch it without her. And she would always sit there with us and watch it with us so that we never were frightened again.

GROSS: So did your mother sing around the house when you were growing up?

LUFT: Yeah, she would. I mean, she wouldn't - you know, everybody would - you know, she didn't constantly wake up and burst into song or open the refrigerator door and the light would go on and she would sing. She used to sing in the car when we would have the radio on, or she would teach us songs. But she didn't constantly - you know, that was her work. And she loved to sing. And she loved, you know, putting on records that she had just recorded and all of that. But she didn't just constantly, you know, sing around the house.

GROSS: What advice did your mother give you about singing when you were young?

LUFT: What she gave me about singing was, basically, I mean, when she would hear me sing, she, basically, would never - she would never criticize me. But she would say things just very, very tenderly. Try to make this sound. Try to - she would encourage me. She would never, ever put me down or say, you know, that's not right or whatever. I didn't realize, as I've said before, that Judy Garland was giving me singing lessons. It was my mother.

GROSS: Right. On one of her TV shows, she sang a song called "Lorna," with a lyric, I think, written by Johnny Mercer, for you. How did the lyric go?

LUFT: The lyric was - it's a wonderful - well, first, the melody was written by Mort Lindsey. And it was the melody to her television show. It was the theme song to her television show. And, of course, there had never been a song called "Lorna." And she was doing a segment on the show dedicated to the three of us. And, of course, you know, "Liza" was written by the Gershwins. And then "Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe" is a wonderful song. And then it came to my song, and there wasn't one, so she had this song especially written for me. And she never told me about it until the night of the show. And it was at the taping. And we watched. We were sitting there. And all of a sudden, she asked me if I would stand up in the audience. And she came right down to the footlights. And she sang the song to me. And I was so touched. And it was just - what was really wonderful was it - I didn't realize where I was. It was just mom and myself. And I was so enraptured. And I was so proud of this moment. You know, all - I can't remember the audience. I don't remember cameras. I don't remember anything. I just remember that it was her and I.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW")

JUDY GARLAND: We have a lovely theme that was written on our show by Mr. Mort Lindsey, our musical conductor. Mort, darling, play just a bar of your song, will you?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARLAND: See? Well, it's such a pretty melody. And we thought it would be nice to put some words to it? So we thought of asking one of the finest lyricists in the country if he could come and help us out. And I'm pretty sure because his name is Johnny Mercer. And you can't do better than that.

(APPLAUSE)

GARLAND: I want to thank Johnny for writing such a beautiful lyric and for making Lorna a very happy little girl. Let's do your song now, Lorna, OK?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORNA")

GARLAND: (Singing) Lorna, I can't believe what I see. What I see astounds me. Mirrors of love are your eyes to me. Stars up above must alight and see them. Lorna, you won't believe what I say. What I say, I almost pray, pray for the day I can shout from the rooftop, Lorna, loves me, too.

BIANCULLI: That's from a 1964 TV broadcast of "The Judy Garland Show." Lorna Luft spoke to Terry Gross in 1998. Coming up, Martin Scorsese tells us about his mother, who appeared in several of his films and also cooked for his film crew. And I'll review a new TV special about Sir David Attenborough, presented on the occasion of his 95th birthday. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "I CAN'T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. Mother's Day is Sunday, and today, we're listening to stories about mothers. Though he had his pick of actors for his movies, director Martin Scorsese often cast his mother, Catherine Scorsese, in the role of an older mother. One of his early films was a documentary about his mother and his father called "Italianamerican."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ITALIANAMERICAN")

MARTIN SCORSESE: I wanted to start - I wanted to - you were going to tell us about the sauce. You were going to show us how to do the sauce.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: Well, what should I say?

M SCORSESE: Well, you can - you're going to get up and show it to us. But I wanted to know who - you know, how did you learn it?

CATHERINE SCORSESE: Well, what are you asking?

M SCORSESE: About the sauce. Who - how did you learn how to make sauce?

CATHERINE SCORSESE: Well, I'm supposed to be talking to you?

M SCORSESE: You could talk to me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

M SCORSESE: You could talk to them. It doesn't matter. I'll be over here. I'll be over here.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: Should I mention your name?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No.

M SCORSESE: Doesn't matter. Yeah, you mention my name. Yeah.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: You want - what should I say? You want me to - do you want me to tell you how...

M SCORSESE: (Laughter) I love it.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: ...How I learned how to make...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How did you learn how to make the sauce?

CATHERINE SCORSESE: Well, why don't you ask me the question? Don't you hear that then?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No.

M SCORSESE: (Laughter).

CATHERINE SCORSESE: I mean, if you would ask me a question, I would answer it.

M SCORSESE: I'm going to say it now.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: Right?

M SCORSESE: I want to know how you learned how to make sauce. Who taught you - who taught it to you, how long - how many years you've been doing it and I want to see you do it.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: Well, you know, when you first get married, you're really not much of a cook. I watched my mother make sauce. I watched my mother-in-law. I got a lot from my mother-in-law, a lot from the family.

CHARLES SCORSESE: She got more than my mother - from my mother (inaudible).

CATHERINE SCORSESE: See? There he goes putting his mother in again.

(LAUGHTER)

M SCORSESE: All right. Let's go inside and see.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: So now if you want me to...

M SCORSESE: Yeah, come on.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: ...Show you, I'll come and show you how I make the sauce.

CHARLES SCORSESE: They were two different cooks anyway.

BIANCULLI: It's hard to tell in that scene who's directing whom. As for the sauce recipe, it was published in 1996 in Catherine Scorsese's book "Italianamerican: The Scorsese Family Cookbook." It was her last project before she died that year at the age of 84. Terry Gross spoke to Martin Scorsese in 1997. He spoke to her by phone from his office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, I know your mother cooked for some of your films. Was her cooking for the onscreen food or for the meals for the actors or both?

M SCORSESE: I think it was both, really. I think very often it was food for the actors off camera when she would show up on the set. And then particularly "Goodfellas," certain scenes she cooked for, and I'm trying to think of how many. There were several scenes in the film which there was food, and particularly the one with Joe Pesci and De Niro after killing the fellow in the bar.

GROSS: Well, in fact, there's a still from that scene on the cover of your mother's...

M SCORSESE: Yes.

GROSS: ...Book, "Italianamerican."

M SCORSESE: Yes.

GROSS: It's a great scene. I mean, in "Goodfellas," your mother played Joe Pesci's mother.

M SCORSESE: Right.

GROSS: And in the scene that we're talking about, he and some of the boys are having dinner at his mother's house. And what she doesn't know is that they've just beaten up a guy, and he's sitting in the trunk of their car, which is parked just outside her house.

M SCORSESE: Well, they have to dispose of the body. They think he's dead, but he isn't. They don't know that yet. And yeah, they stop off to get some food. Well, first they stop off to get a shovel to bury him. So while they were there, the mother woke up, and she fed them not knowing, of course, what's going on. And - but the thing about it is that she - it's interesting in that it's a mother's love for her son. She doesn't - you know, she doesn't - she would never believe any of the stories about him. And she's just glad to have him home, even if it's in the middle of the night, and along with his friends, whom she treats as if they were her sons, you know?

GROSS: Now, what did you tell your mother about this scene? How much did she know about what was really happening in the larger movie?

M SCORSESE: Oh, I wouldn't tell her that there was a body in the trunk. No, we just - we - I just said, you know, your son's come home, and you haven't seen him in two or three days. He tells you he's working, you know, but you have no proof of that. But still, you believe him. Why should he lie? And you have - you know, you want to make sure - the first thing when he comes home, you want to make sure, even if it's 3 o'clock in the morning, has he had anything to eat? And especially if he has friends, you might as well feed them something.

GROSS: Let's hear an excerpt of the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOODFELLAS")

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Tommy's mother) So tell me, tell me. Where have you been? I haven't seen you. I haven't even - you haven't even called or anything. Where have you been?

JOE PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) Mom, I've been working nights.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Tommy's mother) And?

PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) And well, tonight we were out late. We took a ride out to the country, and we hit one of those deers. That's where all the blood came from. I told you. Jimmy told you before. Anyway, you know, that reminds me, Ma. I need this knife. I'm going to take this. It's OK?

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Tommy's mother) OK, yeah.

PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) I just need it for a little while.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Tommy's mother) Bring it back, though, you know.

PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) Well, the poor thing, you know, it got - I hit him in his - we hit the deer in his paw - what do you call it?

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Tommy's mother) A paw.

PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) The paw.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Tommy's mother) His foot.

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As James Conway) The hoof.

PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) The hoof got caught in our grill.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Tommy's mother) Oh, oh.

PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) I got to hack it off.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Tommy's mother) Oh.

PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) Ma, it's a sin. You going to leave it there? You know, so anyway, I'll bring your knife back after I do that. Anyway...

DE NIRO: (As James Conway) Delicious. Delicious.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Tommy's mother) Thank you. Why don't you get yourself a nice girl?

PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) I get a nice one almost every night, Ma.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Tommy's mother) Yeah, but get yourself a girl so you could settle down.

PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) I settle down almost every night, but then in the morning I'm free. I love you.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Tommy's mother) (Laughter).

PESCI: (As Tommy DeVito) I want to be with you.

DE NIRO: (As James Conway) Why don't you settle down?

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Tommy's mother) (Laughter).

GROSS: Now, you used your mother as an actress in several of your films. You use her voice in "King Of Comedy," a great film about a loser named Rupert Pupkin, who fancies himself a brilliant comic in need of a big break. And he spends his time sitting alone in his basement imagining...

M SCORSESE: Right.

GROSS: ...That he's on late-night TV schmoozing with the stars.

M SCORSESE: Right.

GROSS: And in this scene, Pupkin, played by De Niro, is in the basement, and his mother, played by your mother, is yelling down to him to come upstairs. Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KING OF COMEDY")

ED HERLIHY: (As self) And now from New York, it's the Jerry Langford Show, with Jerry's guests Richard Pryor, Ben Gazzara, Elizabeth Ashley, Carol Burnett...

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) ...And the comedy find of the year, making his television debut, Rupert Pupkin, the new...

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Rupert's mother) Rupert.

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) ...King of comedy.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Rupert's mother) Rupert.

HERLIHY: (As self) And now...

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Rupert's mother) Are you crazy?

HERLIHY: (As self) ...Say hello to...

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Rupert's mother) What's the matter with you?

HERLIHY: (As self) ...Jerry (unintelligible).

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) Come on, Ma.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Rupert's mother) People are sleeping - lower it.

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) Aw.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV CLICKING OFF)

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Rupert's mother) What's the matter with you?

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) Mom.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Rupert's mother) Take it easy - lower it.

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) I'm not going to lower it. I have to do this now.

CATHERINE SCORSESE: (As Rupert's mother) I don't mind you playing it, but lower it.

GROSS: Now, what did you tell her about this scene and how did you decide to use her as De Niro's mother?

M SCORSESE: Well, that's a good example of the kind of work that she did. She was so open and free, you know? It's interesting because I just said that Bob's character, he was given his - he was still living with his mother, but in order to have some freedom, she gave him the basement to be - to use as his own. And very much the same way, I think he was living in Union City, N.J., but the mother never went down to the basement. He - it was his own private domain. But at his age, he should have been out of the house, but he's still living in the house so that he carries on his fantasy life in that basement.

And she hears video. She hears audiotape. She hears him talking. She hears him doing monologues. And there's a constant running monologue with his mother that he has throughout all this because he's making too much noise in the basement. She's wondering what he's doing.

GROSS: Now, did your mother ever worry or wonder (laughter) about you? Were you up to strange things, imagining movies or making movies?

M SCORSESE: (Laughter) Well, not - there we were - I mean, considering the house setup in "King Of Comedy" where a person had a basement to himself, that was, like, a luxury. And what we had, we had, like, 3 1/2 rooms in the Lower East Side on Elizabeth Street, in which my mother, my father, myself, my elder brother lived all together so that the only time I had for myself was between 3:30 and 5 o'clock after grammar school, in which I would come home and spend some time myself - do my homework and do my own drawings and that sort of thing. So everything else had to be done kind of - I don't know. The drawings I was doing and stuff like that - we'd done as much as possible in a very small room that I was sharing with my brother.

GROSS: No privacy at all?

M SCORSESE: None. No.

(LAUGHTER)

M SCORSESE: Not at all.

BIANCULLI: Martin Scorsese speaking with Terry Gross in 1997. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BLUME'S "THEME FROM TAXI DRIVER")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our Mother's Day show and our interview with Martin Scorsese. His mother, Katherine, often cooked for his film crews, acted in the films and published a cookbook, as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: The back of your mother's cookbook has a list of all the roles that she had in your films and in other people's films, as well, including scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor. And you apparently cast her in a small role in "Taxi Driver," but that scene never made it into the film. What was the scene? I'd love to hear about it.

M SCORSESE: It was a very small scene in which it was his first fare and basically consisted of her trying to get in the back of a cab with two big shopping bags, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

M SCORSESE: And it just - I mean, we didn't need it, actually, so...

(LAUGHTER)

M SCORSESE: ...We took it out of the picture. But she was in "Mean Streets." She was in a lot of the films. I think a lot of the - really, the bigger, the more interesting things were that, for example, her in "King Of Comedy," where she treated - it was really interesting because we just needed the woman to be a mother, you know, and it didn't matter that it was Robert De Niro that she was improvising with. She was given the premise. Her son is in the basement. That's his room. He's making noise. She has to go to sleep. And what is she going to tell him? And she just went on. It didn't matter that it was De Niro, didn't matter that it's making a movie. She just took the reality of it and treated him like a child, which was very funny, actually. And you can see in some of the scenes he's starting to laugh. We had to cut around it, actually, because he was starting to laugh, not meaning to laugh. But his shoulders were shaking a few times laughing because it didn't matter who it was. She was just going to tell him what she had to tell him.

GROSS: So you didn't write the lines for your mother? You just had her improvise?

M SCORSESE: No, not at all. That was totally improvised.

GROSS: She's - the impression I get from the documentary that you made about your parents, "Italianamerican," is that she was a really good talker.

M SCORSESE: Yeah. You see - the thing about her is my - her and my father - I learned about storytelling, I think. They told - she had a way of telling stories with a great sense of humor and good timing. And my father had another sense of storytelling which was more somber and more dealing with the moral aspect of the story. But she had more of a - had the humor and the human touch in another way. And they sort of complemented each other very well in the storytelling. And I guess that's what I grew up with, that combined with seeing lots of movies and films in the theaters and on television because, as I said, they were working-class people, and they never had much of an education, barely made it through grammar school and didn't really read. My father read the newspaper - the Daily News, the Daily Mirror. And my mother didn't read. You know, I mean, they could read, but they didn't read books. So there were no books in the house until I started to go to high school.

GROSS: You cast your father in some roles in your films, as well.

M SCORSESE: Yes.

GROSS: How did you first start casting your parents? Was it an effort to just save money on extras? Or did you see something in them that you thought would really work on screen?

M SCORSESE: Well, what was really interesting was the - I learned it when I did the documentary on them, "Italianamerican," where I learned about the storytelling and immediately crystallized it for me and made me able to make a picture like "Raging Bull" a few years down the line. And because of that, because I thought of the honesty and the truthful way in which they talked, which they spoke, I - quite honestly, you just - you know, I wanted to go for the real thing in the movies. So particularly in "Raging Bull," I wanted my father and that because of the nature of the people in the film and the world that he came from and that he knew. And just his movement, just his presence is - feels right for me and would equalize everyone else in the scenes with him. It made it seem very comfortable and very real to me rather than having actors do it.

GROSS: Did your parents disapprove of anything in your films or try to parent you while they were on your set?

M SCORSESE: Well, I think "Mean Streets," when it was shown at the New York Film Festival, was a pretty grueling experience. My mother and father and myself - I was sitting in a different part of the part of the auditorium - but Alice Tully Hall. It was the first real public presentation of a film of mine. And it was kind of the acid test in a way. And we were all sitting there. And it was excruciating. And the film was received fairly well. There were some boos in the audience, too, some people booing us, which was interesting, kind of balanced it out. I thought it was kind of nice. And so I preferred the applause, of course, but still, that kind of - because the film was - I didn't think it was a film that was going to be shown very much. It was a film I sort of had to make, and I'm just glad to have gotten the money to make it. I didn't even think it was going to be shown at New York Film Festival. It was a dream of mine, but - and so as the people filed out of the auditorium, my mother and father came up, and they were kind of shaking a little bit. And my father said, first, you know, I'll never go through that again.

(LAUGHTER)

M SCORSESE: You know, I don't need to. Never again. And my mother - when people went up to her and said, what do you think of the film? You know, what'd you think of your son's - the reaction to your son's film? She said, I just want you to understand one thing. We never use that language in the house.

GROSS: (Laughter).

M SCORSESE: And that's all she kept telling people.

GROSS: (Laughter) Did you not want your relatives, your aunts and uncles to see it?

M SCORSESE: Well, yes, she wanted to see it, but she was - they were very concerned about the language. It was street language. It wasn't - certainly was not used in my house. I can tell you that because it would have been an insult to use that language in front of your mother, in the house, that sort of thing. And so it was a very delicate issue about that language. But that language was used in the street. And I wanted to be as truthful as possible. And I think it was the first film to use that language in total throughout the picture anyway. In any event, it constantly - constantly, I was told by her to - why does it have to be such dirty language? - particularly in "Goodfellas II" a little bit. But they enjoyed "Goodfellas." They liked the humor of it. And so finally in "Casino," I had to play her scene in which she could comment on the language.

BIANCULLI: Martin Scorsese speaking to Terry Gross in 1997.

And for our final segment on mothers, we turn to Albert Brooks. He started his career as a stand-up comic, but he's better known for writing, directing and starring in such films as "Real Life," "Modern Romance," "Lost In America" and "Defending Your Life." When Terry Gross spoke to him in 1997, his film "Mother" had just been released on video. He stars as a middle-aged man in the early stages of divorce. He knows he screwed up and blames his insecurities on his hypercritical mother, played by Debbie Reynolds. In an attempt to understand what went wrong in his relationship with his mother, he moves back in with her. As soon as he walks in the door, he knows he's in trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOTHER")

DEBBIE REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice) Want something to eat?

ALBERT BROOKS: (As John) Um, no.

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice) I made you a salad, and I have some meatloaf.

BROOKS: (As John) I don't eat meat.

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice) Oh, that's right. That's Jeff who loves it.

BROOKS: (As John) I'll have some salad.

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice) Well, don't have salad just for my sake.

BROOKS: (As John) No, no, I'll have it.

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice) Are you sure you want salad?

BROOKS: (As John) Yes, I want salad.

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice) Not just for my sake?

BROOKS: (As John) Mother, don't get into this food stuff now, please. Just give me a little salad.

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice) Oh, I know what I could do. I could scrape the top off the meatloaf.

BROOKS: (As John) What would that do?

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice) Well, it wouldn't be as much meat then.

BROOKS: (As John) But it's still meat. What difference does it make how much you have?

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice) You really don't like meat, huh?

BROOKS: (As John) No, Mother, I don't like eating cows.

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice) Oh (laughter), honey, everything comes from a cow - everything.

BIANCULLI: Terry asked him about his own mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So was your mother really critical?

BROOKS: Well, she's, you know, loving. But she's - it's - and I wouldn't even call it critical. My mother has always sort of been puzzled why I'm who I am. And I think one of the reasons is, is that if my mother and I - if there was one thing we didn't share, it probably was she didn't get my sense of humor. You know, sense of humor is a very personal thing. And you can love a child and still have no idea why other people are laughing at them. So I think that my mother was always sort of - I mean, I know from doing - I must have done 50 "Tonight Shows" when, you know, Carson was hosting. And the audience would laugh their head off. And my mother and I would always have the same conversation after every show, which was basically, I would say, did you see it? And she would say, oh, honey, it was wonderful. What did Johnny think?

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROOKS: And I would say, well, he liked it. But did you like it? No, of course, honey. But Johnny liked it? You know - so that was going to be my autobiography title, "What Did Johnny Think?"

GROSS: (Laughter).

Now there's some very funny things about food in the new movie. You know, your character comes back to the mother's house, and she saves a lot of food in the freezer, where it's guaranteed to taste really bad after a while.

BROOKS: Yes.

GROSS: And she buys all those horrible store brands. In the movie, it's Sweet Tooth sherbet.

BROOKS: Yes, I made that up. But obviously...

GROSS: Oh - (unintelligible) perfect, though.

BROOKS: Yes.

GROSS: So is this - was this a problem at your home, too...

BROOKS: Yes, that part...

GROSS: ...That your mother would buy all the cheap brands?

BROOKS: That part is - my mother could - we could afford anything, but she just didn't believe that there was - you know, like Debbie says in the movie, honey, there's no difference. The man in the store told me it's just the label. I think that my mother probably has said that to me. I really think that somewhere in the back of her mind, she felt that all food came from the same vat in Chicago and they just, you know, put on a different label somewhere.

We had brands of food I never - they looked like the real thing. I mean, like the cookies, you know, they were black with white in the middle. But it was like, you know, Soreos (ph) - it was one letter off.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROOKS: And, you know, there's a thing that I love in this movie, this sherbet that's been in the freezer for about 16 years and you can't even see it anymore. And I say to, you know, my mother in the movie, I say, look at this crap that sits on the top. And she has named it. She says, oh, no, honey, you look under the protective ice.

GROSS: I love the protective ice, yes.

BROOKS: I said, you've named this stuff? I can't believe it. But my mother still - to this day, my mother has this Neapolitan ice cream. There aren't three colors anymore. It's just one color it's blended into. I don't know what that color is even, but the chocolate and vanilla and strawberry have long ago stopped being divided. They just are like a light yellow.

BIANCULLI: Albert Brooks recorded in 1997. And with that, we finish up our Mother's Day show of stories about moms, but with a nod to one final mother, Mother Nature. Coming up, I review a new BBC America special honoring Sir David Attenborough, who's been making breathtaking nature documentaries for almost 70 years. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACK AND FIELD'S "LEAVING FOR COSMOS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.