'Studs Terkel: Listening to America' draws on his broadcasts and interviews, from early radio and TV appearances to his definitive books on race and work. This portrait of one of America's most memorable storytellers ultimately suggests that perhaps Terkel's greatest talent was not talking, but listening.
Terkel's gift as an interviewer had deep roots. His parents ran a hotel in Chicago, where Studs often listened to arguments and debates among guests. "I think that played a role in my interest in the life of people we call 'ordinary,' a word I don't like," he says in the film. Terkel started working in radio as a writer for the WPA Writers Project in Chicago and in the 1950s hosted the award-winning radio show "The Studs Terkel Program," and published his first book, "Giants of Jazz." His subsequent books included a succession of oral histories on the Great Depression, World War II, race relations, working, the American Dream and aging.
Disclosing the array of people he has interviewed over the years, Terkel says everyone is a celebrity, and everyone has insights. However, he believed the culture was "suffering from national Alzheimer's disease," which drove his desire to tell America's stories. Despite advancing age, he remained vitally active in his work and kept his sense of humor. Holding up an image of his much younger self in 'Studs Terkel: Listening to America,' the ninetysomething journalist looks straight into the camera and says emphatically, "It's not aging, it's not illness - it's too much Paris Hilton."
In addition to excerpts from his broadcasts and interviews, the film includes comments from TV producer-director Tom Weinberg; David Isay, founder of StoryCorps; Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Kogan; Andre Schiffrin, publisher of The New Press and an editor of Terkel's books; actor-director David Schwimmer, who adapted Terkel's "Race" for the stage; and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, among others.
Terkel continued to write, interview and make public appearances late in life until his death at age 96, just six months after his final interview for this film. The documentary was directed by Eric Simonson, whose other credits include the CINEMAX documentary "A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin," which won a Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar®, the HBO documentary "On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom," a Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar(r) nominee, and the Broadway production "The Song of Jacob Zulu," which received seven 1993 Tony nominations, including Best Play and Best Direction of a Play, winning for Outstanding Music in a Play. Acclaimed journalist Linda Ellerbee is one of the executive producers.
'Studs Terkel: Listening to America' was directed and edited by Eric Simonson; producer, Josh Veselka; executive producers, Linda Ellerbee and Rolfe Tessem; co-producer, Bonnie Nelson Schwartz; supervising producer, Wally Berger. For HBO: supervising producer, Lisa Heller; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.