David Mamet: Turning his hand to TV

David Mamet has very particular views: about Israel (likes); about George W Bush (can't stand); and about television (oh boy...). So why, Cathy Pryor asks him, has he written a new TV series?

When David Mamet was asked in 1997 what he thought of television as a form of entertainment, he didn't mince his words. Watching TV was "a good way to get stupid very quickly", the playwright, scriptwriter and film director told the arts website Salon.com. "I don't think there's any information to be gotten from television," he said, adding that that includes documentaries and history programmes. "If there is any information it's purely accidental... an illusion. It's an interesting narcotic."

Leap forward 10 years and to a new CBS TV series, The Unit: a drama starring Dennis Haysbert about a group of soldiers in the US special forces created, co-written and co-executive produced by David Mamet, the second series of which is about to start on satellite channel Bravo and which he is in his Los Angeles office today to discuss. So, obviously, 1997 being a while ago, he's changed his mind about the virtues of television as a medium? As it turns out, the answer is "No".

"It is an interesting narcotic, but I've been known to have a drink or two, and perhaps you have too, and I'm not going to denounce alcohol," he says, a little defensively. "There are some interesting antecedents to television. One of them is the novel. If you look back at the evolution of the novel in a serialised form, and the short story, they came into existence to sell widgets. That's what they were for, to fill up the space between the widget advertisements, whether it was Blackwell's Magazine or Punch. And television also emerged from the travelling medicine show, where people would say, 'If you watch this I'm going to turn a chicken into an elephant, but first, are you having trouble with your bowels? Here's a pill that might help you.' So it's an advertising medium: but that's a legitimate human form. Art and mass entertainment and propaganda, they can all be plotted on the same graph, but there is a difference. And I'm proud of this show. Is it being used to sell stuff? Sure. But I'm going to hell in good company."

"Here's a pill that might help you"? It seems odd that a writer with Mamet's standing should become involved in a TV series, given that this is his opinion. Then again, those who purvey snake oil obviously fascinate him, given the regularity with which they crop up in his work. The 1984 play that won him the Pulitzer prize, Glengarry Glen Ross, made in 1992 into a film starring Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino, was a scarifying drama about desperate men wheeling and dealing in bad real estate. Three of the films he's directed - House of Games (1987), The Spanish Prisoner (1997) and Heist (2001) - are about con artists. The military obviously intrigues him, too: before The Unit he wrote and directed the 2004 film Spartan, about the special forces.

Now 59, Mamet - a lean, bearded, ebullient yet courteous man with a husky voice who speaks as tersely as one of his own scripts - is widely regarded as a great American playwright and a fine director and scriptwriter. He's been a public institution now for 30-odd years, first gaining attention with plays such as Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974) and American Buffalo (1975). Admired in particular for his rhythmic, oblique, profanity-laced dialogue, the cadences of which are so distinctive that it's generally referred to as Mametspeak, his style has always been energetic, his output prolific. Though he's so articulate that one critic said that he sounds as if he's "armed with a Scrabble dictionary" (note the word "armed"), he also writes as if he's wrestling, as if an intellectual argument has an animal life, like a brawl. A word often used in connection with Mamet is "muscular". You even find it coming from his rabbi, Mordecai Finley, whose Ohr HaTorah congregation in Los Angeles Mamet regularly attends: "Mamet is tough. He has a good fighter's mind," Finley writes. "My guess is that he could take 99 per cent of guys his age and 80 per cent of guys half his age." This remark might seem odd coming from a rabbi, until you find out that both practice ju-jitsu, sometimes sparring together ("in the courtyard after services, we show each other moves... he loves the sport, and fighting in general"). In fact, it still seems incongruous, though Finley doesn't see it as in any way contradictory with Mamet's spirituality, but rather as a part of it: "He is a good man with good, liberal values, but when he talks about Israel, the Jewish people, authentic Jewish spirituality... he gets the same look as when he fights, just more so. Intense focus. Everything is at stake in that moment."

More of that later. In his earlier life, Mamet wasn't so committed to Judaism (I have read that it is partly the influence of his second wife, actress Rebecca Pidgeon, whom he married in 1991 and who appears in many of his productions, including The Unit). Nor, until he was 20, did he show much promise as a writer. In fact, when he was young he claims he didn't show much promise at anything. Born on 30 November 1947, his childhood wasn't easy: his parents divorced when he was young and before that the family life was turbulent. He told the American critic John Lahr in 1997: "In my family, in the days prior to television, we liked to while away the evenings by making ourselves miserable, solely based on our ability to speak the language viciously. That's probably where my ability was honed." Predictably, he reacted badly to the family's troubles. "I was a complete fuck-up," he tells me, with what seems to be characteristic bluntness. "I didn't understand anything and the things I did understand I didn't want to do. I had no capacity to be bored. I just could not overcome my loathing of boredom. I loved reading, I'd read all the time, but I never did any schoolwork. So people thought I was stupid, and I lived up to their expectations."

He and his only sibling, his sister, Lynn - who now writes for The Unit - were both rebels, he says: "We were the co-black sheep of the family." What did his mother and father think of it all? "Those were very different times. Parents, for better or worse, just didn't pay attention to kids as they do now. They never knew where we were. We'd go away all weekend and if we were back in bed by the morning they didn't worry about us." Nowadays parents are very involved with schools, he says (he has four children, two with his first wife, Lindsay Crouse, also an actress, and two with Pidgeon). "No one's parents ever went to school then. It was the end of the 18th-century idea of the absence of childhood. The idea of your parents taking you somewhere to do something would have been looked on as psychotic."

As a result of his disruptive childhood and inability to conform to the requirements of schooling, Mamet concluded that he lacked "this bugaboo called discipline", but it happily turned out later that he was wrong - as long as he was doing things he liked to do. These included a variety of jobs, including one backstage at the Hull House Theatre in Chicago, before he went on to do a BA in English Literature at Goddard College in Vermont, where he started writing the plays Sexual Perversity in Chicago, The Duck Variations and Reunion. At that time, he also studied acting at the Neighborhood Theatre in New York. Afterwards, he worked briefly as an office manager in a Chicago real estate office - the basis for Glengarry Glen Ross - before returning to Vermont to become an acting instructor. There, he formed the St Nicholas Theatre Company with two students, William H Macy and Steven Schachter, who now directs for TV. They had no budget to employ writers and so Mamet filled in, completing Duck Variations and Sexual Perversity in Chicago, which were duly performed. In 1972, Mamet moved back to Chicago, taking the St Nicholas Theatre Company, which still included Macy and Schacter, with him. From this point, his trajectory went steadily upward: he won critical acclaim and awards for his plays and the theatre troupe grew in strength and loyalty (it's the basis for the troupe of actors he still works with regularly today, including Macy and Joe Mantegna). In 1981, he wrote the screenplay for Bob Rafelson's film adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice; then The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982), for which he was nominated for an Oscar. In 1987, he branched into directing with House of Games (starring Lindsay Crouse).

In 1992, his incendiary play, Oleanna, about a student who accuses her university tutor of sexual impropriety, premiered in New York starring Macy and Pidgeon. Its British premiere, starring David Suchet and Lia Williams, was directed by none other than Harold Pinter, whom Mamet had always acknowledged as a strong and early influence: Pinter, he has said previously, "sounded real to me in a way that no drama ever had", while other dramas "bored the bloomers off me. People talking too much. I didn't understand those people. They weren't like anybody I knew. The people I knew washed dishes or drove cabs". Pinter returned the compliment, saying: "There can be no tougher or more unflinching play than Oleanna." A recent revival at the Garrick in London in 2004, with Aaron Eckhart and Julia Stiles in the two roles, proved it has lost none of its ability to shock.

Since then, Mamet has juggled plays, screenwriting and directing, also finding the time to write a clutch of novels and non-fiction books. While he has subjects that recur often in his work, such as the con artists already mentioned, it would be wrong to underestimate his versatility: he has, for instance, written an arch comedy of errors about two lesbian ladies of fashion set in the late 19th century (Boston Marriage, 1999), children's books, and several adaptations of Chekhov, one of which, Uncle Vanya, is currently running at Wilton's Music Hall in London.

But to The Unit, which is based on the book Inside Delta Force by Eric Haney and on which Mamet shares executive producer duties with Shawn Ryan, the man behind the hit TV cop series The Shield. The idea for the series was cooked up by Mamet and Haney between them: Ryan was apparently brought on because Mamet, who had directed an episode of The Shield, realised that Ryan could help with negotiating the jungles of the television networks. The Unit is about a special forces group so elite and secret that it doesn't have a name, which is called on to go into situations of extreme trickiness. These have a very post 9/11 feel about them: in an early episode, for instance, the unit defused a situation where a group of terrorists had hijacked a plane. Does Mamet not feel that US soldiers tackling terrorists and charging into other countries on military errands is a bit of a delicate topic at the moment, given the war in Iraq? "The show is not pro-war or anti-war," he says. "It's pro-military. These are men who put their lives on the line for their country, and I hope that The Unit honours that."

I ask him why he was drawn to Inside Delta Force (quite apart from the fact that it's presumably a rattling good yarn about the human side of warfare and also full of exciting stuff like explosions and high-tech gadgetry, which is, if you like those things, a good reason to watch The Unit). Mamet points out that he's written action adventures before. "I love all insider memoirs," he adds. "It doesn't matter whether it's truck-drivers or doctors. I think everybody likes to go backstage, find out what people think and what they talk about and what specialised job they have. So this was the ultimate going backstage."

Using a theatrical metaphor to describe Inside Delta Force is revealing. In Mamet's 1997 book, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, he writes that the essence of acting is to forget about yourself and direct your attention outwards. "The simple performance of a great deed, onstage or off, is called 'heroism'," he writes. "We are moved by heroism. We are not moved by the self-proclaimed emotions of the manipulative, or of the famous... The actor who tells the truth simply because the circumstances require it is like the postman who saves the invalid, the bicycle messenger who rides in the Olympics... the actor is given the opportunity to be brave and simple under difficult circumstances." Acting is about committing yourself utterly, forgetting about a safety net - "The cops say, 'I'm on the corner'" - and a physical art which, like sport, depends on the ability of the human mind to react quickly to external circumstances, requiring the actor to be "watchful, inventive, wary, cunning, brash... It requires not tidiness, but immediacy and courage, capacity for bravery, grace under pressure."

All of these things Mamet would, I'm sure, say are also true of the soldiers in The Unit. In fact, their little group isn't unlike a theatrical troupe, similar to the one that Mamet loves and has cultivated throughout his career. They work toward a common purpose; they need each other, and need to play off each other, or their entire enterprise collapses. They do not fulfil their purpose by looking inward but outward; not by striving to create belief or emotion in themselves, but simply by action (which, interestingly, is also the difference between Christianity and Judaism, Mamet has said: "Judaism is not a religion or a culture based on faith. You don't have to have faith. You don't have to believe anything: you just have to do it.") You can also apply all of the above to Mamet's beloved con-artists, too, who are, in essence, actors, but don't bother with all that "what's my motivation" stuff either. They're very clear and direct on what that is. "Everybody needs money. That's why it's called Money" (Danny deVito in Heist).

I ask Mamet if The Unit was inspired by the current war on Iraq and what his opinions of that war are, but, perhaps surprisingly, it's a subject on which he refuses to be drawn. "I have very strong feelings but I don't think it's appropriate to air them," he says. "The Western powers - I started reading a lot of military and political history lately - have many hundreds of years' history of colonialism. Britain too, apparently," he adds (is he being disingenuous? He doesn't look as if he is). "This is something that the Western powers are, to their credit, trying to expiate, and there are many interesting ramifications of that... that's all I've got to say on the subject." Asked again for his opinions on Bush, he says: "It would be impolite of me to subject your readership to my thoughts on politics. It's like a kid asking for a bedtime story and my explaining that once there were three bears, and then going on about bears down through history."

So make what you will of that. In fact, he's made his anti-Bush feelings very public in his blogs in The Huffington Post, which mainly consist of doodles and cartoons and which he has been publishing since May 2005; they can be found online at huffingtonpost.com. One, from March 2006, called Bush ponders adulthood: 'What shall I do when I get out of school?', shows Bush reflecting on the various options afforded by hereditary privilege - army general, religious leader, king - only to realise there might be "entrance requirements' and wail "Dad!" (Which, among other things, means Mamet sees Bush as an utter failure when it comes to the American ideal of the self-made man, the very thing that Mamet says he believes makes the US "the greatest country in the world".) Another doodle, called A slight misreading of the Constitution leads the President into Grievous Error, depicts Bush with a rake next to a sign that says "Weed the people of the United States" and a bin labelled "Refuse: use only for the poor, the gay, minorities, working-people, and residents of Louisiana". Not that Mamet's any fonder of Democrats: he's described them as "risible" and said that Bush is in power because of "Democrat weakness, passivity and smugness". He also has a go at Jimmy Carter in one of his cartoons, depicting him as a "Champion of Murder", based on what he sees as Carter's tolerance of Palestinian suicide bombers.

Indeed, not a few of the doodles are concerned with the issue of anti-Semitism. Mamet frequently suggests that belief in a Jewish conspiracy is alive and well, that racist hatred of Jews remains widespread. He recently posted in a blog about Mel Gibson (well, who else?): "Most of the Western Press, European and American, pictures Israel as somehow the aggressor, and the Israelis as somehow inhuman, and delighting in blood." But "Israel wants peace", he says. "There is no 'cycle of violence'... That the Western press characterises the Israeli actions consistently as immoral is anti-Semitism. What state does not have the right to defend itself - it is the central tenet of statehood... Europe has always been devoted to the destruction of the Jews. At times, again, it is acute, it is always chronic... Israel's Jews are no more the cause of Arab Fundamentalist rage than they were the cause of European Fascism. We, as always, are the miner's canary... the first victims of national or global unrest."

He's also recently written a book, The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews, available only in the US, which excoriates non-committal Jews, and has been described as a "frontal assault on secular Judaism". One reviewer wrote: "If you're one of those lapsed Jews who eats pepperoni pizza on Yom Kippur or who reflexively sides with the Palestinians, don't bother purchasing The Wicked Son... just walk out to the sidewalk, unlock the front door of your Toyota Prius, and slam it on your fingers. Repeatedly. It'll be cheaper, quicker and, in the end, a painfully similar experience." I haven't read the book, however, and cannot say if this strong reaction is fair. Mamet himself is quoted on Jewishjournal.com saying, "The underlying premise of the book is to all Jews: if you can't say of your fellow Jews, 'my people', get out of my way. I don't want to know you, because our people are getting murdered, and to posit an exemption because of intellectual differences... is insane."

What to make of Mamet's thoughts on anti-Semitism, and Israel? For starters, I suspect that Robert Fisk - if Mamet's ever read him - probably isn't his favourite journalist. I'd also be willing to assume that his thinking is more prevalent in the US than it is here, where opinions are less sharply divided. Though he's widely seen as a liberal left-winger in the US and here, in many ways his gung-ho approach - even his American-style patriotism - seem alien to the way liberals think in this country. Your average, cautious British liberal might well find his suggestion that Israel's actions in the Middle East are entirely in self-defence - and that to say otherwise is racist - unacceptable; even offensive.

But Mamet has always been willing to offend, as long as he makes his point. He doesn't mind controversy. It's all part of the same package, one of the qualities that has made him the acclaimed writer that he is. You can at least say this: right or wrong, he doesn't lack courage. His career has showed that from the start. Forceful, ferocious, and unwilling to compromise, Mamet disdains the bogus, the obedient and the polite. And plans to keep saying so. Along with those cops of his, he's on his corner.

The second series of 'The Unit' begins on Tuesday on Bravo at 10pm

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