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The News On NPR's Fictional Characters

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 impact 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 if 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 leapt 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 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 30-something producer, came to me, a 40-something, 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 and winning laughs 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 rewarding because they 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 refreshing respite from the narrow focus that dominates much of academia these days, the tiresome 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 each person is as an individual, and what it is about that person that makes audiences want to adopt them as fantasy buddies. In a piece on Jack Bauer, the ruthless counterterrorism agent on the Fox TV show "24," reporter Pam Fessler finds common ground between Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Barry Steinhardt -- both are Bauer fans.

"He knows sometimes there's only bad choices, and you've got to make the least bad choice," Chertoff says in the profile. "And he does it, and he takes responsibility for it. And I think that's in many ways something that the public values, and frankly something that I think is great aspiration."

Steinhardt says he loves the show as "pure escapist entertainment," comparing "24" to the cowboy movies he watched when he was 5, half a century ago. "But the difference between being 5 and 55 is that, at 55, hopefully you learn that the lone-cowboy mode doesn't work. It doesn't protect us, and it certainly doesn't protect our civil liberties."

Still to come in the series: Pentagon correspondent Guy Raz on the Dude, the Coen brothers' iconic slacker from "The Big Lebowski"; "All Things Considered" anchor Michele Norris on Virgil Tibbs, the detective Sidney Poitier plays "In the Heat of the Night"; "Morning Edition" anchor Renee Montagne on Nancy Drew; as well as a summer addendum to the series looking at characters from famous songs, such as "Sweet Lorraine" and "Lovely Rita," the Beatles' meter maid.

"Sometimes you can learn more about a culture's values, concerns and aspirations by examining its great fictional characters," Blair says. "And since fiction writers can play loose with the facts, they can say things journalists can't."

But the best of the NPR profiles are those in which journalists apply their craft and find some essential truth. "We definitely go after these characters as we would go after a nonfiction character, reporting the story and interviewing people," Blair says. In reporter Eric Weiner's piece on Alexander Portnoy, the title character in Philip Roth's novel "Portnoy's Complaint," an editor at a Jewish newspaper and a Yale professor argue that Portnoy's neuroses are all around us even today -- and then Weiner interviews a real Jewish mother. His own.

"Why are you trading in stereotypes?" she challenges her son. "It's beneath you, Eric."

And then this, broadcast over 860 radio stations: "Don't forget to call."

An archive of the "In Character" pieces is available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17914370.

By Marc Fisher |  May 18, 2008; 6:55 AM ET
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