Diane Keaton cut her interview with Patricia Sheridan short.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Author Maya Angelou was one of Patricia Sheridan's most interesting interviews.
AP Photo/John Locher
Donald Trump was interviewed before he decided to run for president.
Jimmy Fallon was a great interview.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
Former first lady Laura Bush agreed to an interview, but it had to be in person.
Michael Keaton sent flowers to Patricia Sheridan after she interviewed him.
COSTA MESA, CA - MAY 10: Former US first lady Laura Bush signs books at a Barnes and Noble store during her book tour on May 10, 2010 in Costa Mesa, California. The first lady is promoting her new memoir, Spoken From the Heart. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
By Patricia Sheridan / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Diane Keaton hung up on me, and Michael Keaton sent me flowers. Henry Winkler once called at 2 in the morning to do an interview, forgetting about the time difference between the East and West coasts.
The Breakfast With column began in 1997 as part of the Seen page in the Post-Gazette. I took over 13 years ago. While doing more than 650 interviews, I made it my mission to never miss a Monday. It’s been a thrill and a challenge. Getting interesting people on the phone or in person has always been the toughest part. Some people took years to get, including Jane Goodall, Rudy Giuliani, Madeleine Albright and Walter Cronkite. The column has been a staple in the paper long enough that some participants have passed away.
But all people and things eventually come to an end. This will be last serving of Breakfast With. The column has been discontinued.
I have thoroughly enjoyed interviewing people from all walks of life, including athletes, authors, activists, artists, academics, actors, scientists, celebrities, soldiers, politicians, pundits and more. Most of them had been interviewed hundreds of times. They were media savvy, sometimes defensive and usually prepared with canned answers. I found the best way to peel away the facade to get to the person behind the persona was to ask questions that were painless but not pointless. Their answers were sometimes surprising.
As concussions in pro football were becoming an issue in 2010, I asked Troy Polamalu if he would let his sons play football. He said he honestly didn’t care.
That same year, I talked to Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania and head of homeland security. Cyber warfare was not yet part of the national debate, but I asked him if we were prepared.
“I don’t believe America as a population understands the severity of the challenge. Cyber warfare is not in the future. It is going on right now. To give you an example, the Department of Defense had 55,000 attacks in 2008, and by halfway through ’09 they had 45,000. While we are starting to pay a little more attention, there is no national strategy.”
One of the most exciting and nerve-wracking gets was first lady Laura Bush. It was October 2004, and her husband was running for a second term. After months of polite persistence, my phone rang. Her young press assistant said she would do the interview in Upper Darby, Pa., the next day. It had to be in person. So the rest of that day and into the night, I listened to and read every interview I could find.
I never liked asking the same questions everyone else asked, which is why I loved it when they would say, “I have never been asked that before.” I wanted to know what she was really like. I drove to Upper Darby, just outside Philadelphia, the next morning and joined the White House press corps. They were not welcoming. The best part of the day was the look on the other reporters’ faces when a man called my name, saying, “The first lady is ready for you.” I was nervous, but she was delightful while answering questions that were both personal and political.
Hillary Clinton also insisted on an in person interview. After she was ushered into the room by two or three young handlers, she took my measure and asked where I got my shoes. They were Stubbs & Wootton velvet slippers from Palm Beach. She asked about my Chanel watch, also from Palm Beach.
She seemed to like my taste, but that took time, and after only two questions her handlers said, “OK, that’s enough. We have to go.” Luckily, she overruled them and let me get a few more in. No one ever got the questions ahead of time, because I wanted the conversations to be natural.
I interviewed Donald Trump (I remember he used the word great a lot) and Ben Carson before they were running for president, and they are as they appear. Jimmy Fallon was the same way: What you see is who he is — just a nice guy.
There were others who were not as they appear to be. I thought for sure Diane Keaton would be charming. When I finally got her on the phone, she was rather clipped. I began to ask her a question about the powerful men in her life, and before I could finish, she said, “I’m not doing this,” and hung up.
As an aside, when I asked Anjelica Huston a similar question, she gave a thoughtful answer and wasn’t bothered by the question at all.
There are so many backstories to these interviews. Courteney Cox of “Friends” fame sounded like she was on a treadmill during the interview, and filmmaker Sydney Pollack seemed to be getting dressed. I could hear him zipping up.
After the recorder was off, many people told me how much they enjoyed the questions, which, I have to say, made my heart soar. Others were not amused. Actress Angie Harmon stopped the interview and said, “Are you my psychiatrist?”
I apologized and said: “I thought your publicist told you this was about you. The idea is people get to know you a little bit and think, ‘She’s interesting. I will watch her show.’ ” Once I explained the premise, she was OK.
Patty Duke liked the line of questioning so much she called me back to say, “I am going to call my psychiatrist and ask why he never asked me the questions you did!” I hung up and did the happy dance.
I had to go to a suite in the Duquesne Club to interview former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. As I remember it, he sat in a velour style track suit, answering questions about his life and legacy for nearly an hour. It was fascinating.
My interview with Maya Angelou was one I really loved. Her people told me to refer to myself as Miss Patricia and to her as Miss Angelou. The unnatural formality was odd, but I began the interview as instructed. It was terrific. She was so candid, so willing to answer from the heart. It was around Christmas, so I asked her if she believed in Santa. Simple question, stunning answer:
“Yes, for a while, quite a long time. But I couldn't really make the Santa other people were talking about and the Santa I wanted ... they wouldn’t jibe. In Arkansas when I was growing up, it was impossible to think that some white person was being kind to a black child. So I could think of Santa Claus the way I saw Jesus, a little like Dr. W.E.B. DuBois. If Martin Luther King had come along before that, I would have [Santa] looking like Martin Luther King.”
Another question I asked drew a wistful response.
“You have married a few times, but how many times have you really been in love?”
After a long silence, she responded.
“That’s a wonderful question. I don’t know ... I have loved a number of men, a number of people. It’s my blessing. I’m not taking it lightly. ... However, I’ve also walked away from a number whenever the relationship appeared to be onerous, when it wasn’t what we’d set out to make it. I’ve built a lot of homes and walked away from a lot of houses.”
She was amazing because she responded as if I had known her forever. I will miss the opportunity to introduce people like her to readers. You are the reason I did this for so long. So thank you, readers. Please continue to follow me in the Post-Gazette and at http://pasheridan.tumblr.com/ Reporter on the Run.
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com, 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at @pasheridan and instagram at pasheridanpgh.
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