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Eugene Levy gets out of his comfort zone in 'The Reluctant Traveler'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. My guest today, Eugene Levy, has appeared in more than 60 films and a host of television shows. He's known for his deadpan humor, thick eyebrows and countless characters he's developed over the years, many doing sketch comedy and improv for SCTV. Levy and both his children starred in the hit comedy series "Schitt's Creek" - that's S-C-H-I-T-T-S Creek, it's a name - about a wealthy family who lose their fortune and have to live in a rundown motel in a small town. Levy appeared in and co-wrote the Christopher Guest satirical films "Best In Show," "Waiting For Guffman," "A Mighty Wind," and "For Your Consideration."

His latest project is a travel show on Apple TV Plus titled "The Reluctant Traveler." Like other travel shows, it has beautiful shots of exotic places, delicious food and exhilarating experiences. But it's a little different from programs hosted by seasoned travelers who always relish their adventures. Here's some of the introduction to Levy's shows from Season 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE RELUCTANT TRAVELER")

EUGENE LEVY: I don't look forward to traveling for a number of reasons. When it's too cold, I'm not comfortable.

Ice swimming naked.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.

LEVY: Well, that's a terrific invitation. Whoa.

When it's too warm, guess what? I'm not comfortable.

I can't move that fast.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter).

LEVY: But I'm 75.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You need some help?

LEVY: No, I got it.

And maybe it's time to expand my horizons.

DAVIES: And expanding his horizons, the second season of "The Reluctant Traveler" premiered last Friday, March 8, on Apple TV Plus. Eugene Levy, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

LEVY: Fun to be here. How are you, Dave?

DAVIES: Good, good. Thank you. You know, as I understand it, when you were first approached about doing this travel show, you said, I'm really not your guy, but they still wanted to talk. Is this right? What happened?

LEVY: Yeah. Well, I - they approached me about a travel show. It wasn't this travel show. It was a travel show about luxury hotels around the world. And it was called "Room With A View." And they were coming to me to host it. And I couldn't understand why, 'cause I had never really done anything like this before. I'd never really performed on cameras myself. And I wasn't really crazy about traveling. So I said, I think they have the wrong person. And, you know, then one phone call led to another. They wanted to keep talking. And then I explained to them exactly why I was not the person for the show, and everything I was saying they kind of found very funny. And then they called back again saying, you know what? We figured out what the show is. It's about a guy traveling who doesn't love to travel. That should be the show. And I said, well, that kind of makes sense to me. You know, I can see myself being myself on camera for this.

DAVIES: You know, I mean, the show - it has all these beauty shots of these amazing places you visit. But the narrative, I guess you could call it, kind of rests on you working without a script and reacting to people. And they're - the experience - it - kind of like an endless improv. And it's pretty funny. I mean, was it exhausting to do that?

LEVY: Well, it was - initially it was kind of taxing for me because I'd never done anything like that before. I'd never been on camera as myself. And, you know, I'm not a - I don't have a gregarious personality. So, I don't really initiate a lot of conversation with people in my real life. So I was a little nervous about these encounters with people, and I kind of, you know, really kind of grew into it a lot quicker than I thought I would.

DAVIES: Were there any things they asked you to do that you just took a pass on, or any food that you got that you either didn't eat or regretted when you did?

LEVY: Well, I've got a thing with heights, of course, and when we were in Utah last year, I had my first helicopter ride. I did it. I didn't - I was really nervous about it because, you know, it was a height thing. It was a motion sickness thing. I wasn't quite sure what that experience was going to be, but I did it. I did say no to a hot air balloon ride, because, you know, with my fear of heights, which is quite legitimate, the idea of standing in a basket 1,000 feet above the ground was - I - there was no way around that. I mean, if I'm on a suspension bridge, which I've done - reluctantly, but I did it - you know, and I could set my sight, I could set my vision on a target kind of like dead ahead, where I'm not necessarily looking down and I'm not looking over. I'm just looking straight ahead, or I'm looking at my feet. Whatever it was, I could actually get by and do it. But standing in a basket - I knew that was not going to be for me, so I said no to that.

Foodwise - you know, again, my taste is pretty basic when it comes down to it - you know, a basic kind of meat and potatoes. I, you know, I'm not - Michelin - if, you know, if you're telling me we're going to a Michelin restaurant, I - you know what I mean? The only foam I want to see is on the ocean. I don't necessarily want to see it on my food. I just give me a plate of good food and make sure it's cooked. So I've tasted - you know, so I'm not - I don't have an adventurous palate. I tasted haggis in Scotland this past year. That is really a nasty dish - haggis. It's...

DAVIES: I went to Scotland once and noticed that none of the natives were ordering it (laughter).

LEVY: Well, I don't really - I mean, I - there are people who actually love it sitting not too far from me right now, but I think that, you know, when you're using parts of an animal that you really would never, ever want to see in a dish, it's not a good sign right off the top. I tasted it. I really didn't like it.

DAVIES: You've done Season 2 now. You've done - you shot that. It includes a trip to Scotland where your mother is from. Did you learn things about your family that you didn't know there?

LEVY: The amazing thing about Scotland was I wasn't expecting to be feeling what I ended up feeling in Scotland. I knew Scotland was where my mother was born, and yet I never really had a strong desire to go there if I was going to be traveling, you know. And then we got to Glasgow, which is where my mother was from in a, you know, kind of a poor, working-class, kind of tenement section they called the Gorbals. And we got to see a replica. It's a museum, a replica, of the tenements that were in the Gorbals at that time, at the beginning of the 20th century. And it was really shocking to me because these were little three-room tenements, that - apartments - that, you know, my mother was one of nine brothers and sisters and her parents, and they had a border, to help make a little money, to help see them by. So there were, like, 12 people basically in three rooms, and one of the rooms was a kitchen. And I don't remember her telling me anything about how small this apartment was that she grew up in. You know, she never really alluded to it. It was always - her stories were just basic stories that any kid would tell about, you know, growing up and going to school - but never really heard how many people were sleeping in one bed. It kind of - it got to me. It - you know, I felt an emotional tug in that episode that honestly, I guess, surprised me.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Eugene Levy. He stars in the new Apple TV+ series "The Reluctant Traveler." Its second season premiered last Friday. He'll be back to talk more after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

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

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Eugene Levy. He stars in the Apple TV+ series "The Reluctant Traveler." Its second season premiered last Friday. New episodes now drop every Friday. I wanted to talk about "Schitt's Creek," the series that you did that people have seen on Netflix. And again, Schitt is actually a name of a family in this case. It's S-C-H-I-T-T. It's awkward to say, but that is the name.

LEVY: Yeah. It's a...

DAVIES: You know...

LEVY: ...Legitimate name.

DAVIES: Right. You know, most of us know it as a series on Netflix. It was originally done for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I mean, you are a native Canadian yourself.

LEVY: Yes.

DAVIES: Filmed up there. You want to just explain the premise of the show?

LEVY: Well, I mean, the premise of the show is a wealthy family loses its money and is forced to live in a town they once bought as a joke because the name of the town was Schitt's Creek. So they end up living in a motel because it just doesn't cost them any money. That's really what the premise of the show was.

DAVIES: A riches-to-rags stories - and I'll play - I want to play a clip here from very early in the series. I mean, you're Johnny Rose. You had this - it was a chain of video stores, I guess. And then you were defrauded by your financial manager. With you is your wife, Moira, who is played by Catherine O'Hara, who you've known for decades and done many roles with. Your son, Dan, plays your son in the series, David, and your daughter is played by Annie Murphy, who is just terrific in this. I mean, and what you see is that every - all four of you have lived very pampered and self-absorbed lives - so self-absorbed, in fact, that you, as parents, haven't paid that much attention to the kids, who've had plenty to play with, being so rich. This comes up in the scene we're going to hear where you've all moved into this run-down motel. Your - you know, your circumstances are drastically changed, and you call a family meeting. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHITT'S CREEK")

LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) Your mother and I have been talking, and we've come to the realization that we've not been very good parents.

CATHERINE O'HARA: (As Moira Rose) Sadly, and most of the time, we have no interest in what's going on with you.

LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) We have no idea what's - she means no idea. We have lost touch as a family. And if we're going to get through this ordeal together, we have got to get reacquainted. Now, back at Rose Video, we had management retreats where we would play fun team-building exercises.

DANIEL LEVY: (As David Rose) You also had company-wide spa days. Why don't we try that?

LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) And one of the icebreakers at these retreats was a game that was always a hit, and it was a game where somebody would tell a lie about themselves and then a truth and then another lie, and everybody would have to guess which one was the lie.

O'HARA: (As Moira Rose) No, Johnny, they had to guess which one was the truth.

LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) Which one was the lie.

D LEVY: (As David Rose) It's just one lie.

LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) What did I say?

ANNIE MURPHY: (As Alexis Rose) You said two lies.

LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) Well, it is two lies. It's...

MURPHY: (As Alexis Rose) No, it's...

D LEVY: (As David Rose) No, the game is Two Truths and a Lie.

LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) It's truth.

D LEVY: (As David Rose) That's the game.

LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) So you've heard of it.

MURPHY: (As Alexis Rose) Yeah.

LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) You've heard it.

MURPHY: (As Alexis Rose) Well, yeah, because babies play that at their birthday parties.

LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) OK. Whatever. It's a good game.

O'HARA: (As Moira Rose) Oh, babies play it at their birthdays.

LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) OK? Now, here's how it goes. I'll give you an example.

D LEVY: (As David Rose) Why don't I start? I'm miserable, drunk and hate this game. So here's a hint - sadly, I'm not drunk.

LEVY: (As Johnny Rose) OK. Wrong attitude.

DAVIES: And that is our guest, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O'Hara and Dan Levy and Annie Murphy.

LEVY: I haven't heard that one in a long time.

DAVIES: The writing is really crisp. You and your son, Dan, did a lot of it. As I understand, he originally came to you with the idea for this. Was it...

LEVY: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...The series that then - that we came to know, or was it something different?

LEVY: The idea he came to me was a wealthy family loses its money, and what's it like to be a fly in the wall? So, you know, it was based on - you know, at the time, there were the, you know, shows like "The Kardashians" or "The Osbournes," and we were seeing incredible wealth on camera. And we were right inside the house dealing with the family. But what if the families we're dealing with lost it all? What would it be like to still be a fly on the wall with these families? And that really was the premise that we started with. And we just - we worked on developing the show.

DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah. I just want to tell the audience if you've heard of the show but haven't gotten around to it, or maybe tried it and didn't quite catch on, stay with it. It is just hilarious, in part because there's just such a terrific supporting cast. Did your son, Dan, have experience in writing a show like this? I know he'd worked for MTV in Canada for a long time.

LEVY: He worked for MTV in Canada, and he - for - you know, was a host for about seven years and started to get involved writing, you know, kind of sketches. And as the years went on - and his stuff was actually kind of quite funny. When we started, I truly, you know, didn't know at that time whether he had - whether he was able to, in his writing ability, even though we were coming up with a show together, to come up with a show - a weekly show where a character driven show, you know, where, you know, you really want the audience to have an emotional involvement with your characters, that's really, you know, that's the kind of writing that is really tough. And I mean, it's really tough. And he, right out of the gate, showed an amazing talent for it. And once I saw him kind of just going at it, I knew I could, you know, kind of step back and just say, OK, boy, he doesn't need any mentoring on this. I think he's - you know, he's way ahead of the old man on this.

DAVIES: I read that you thought that your character in this, Johnny Rose, was closer to you, Eugene Levy, than other characters you played. Is that true?

LEVY: Yeah. You know, I've spent my life as a character actor, and I - you know, I would - give me something to put on. Give me some glasses. Give me a mustache. Give me a beard. Give me a hat. You know, I - it really helped - if I could totally be somebody else and feel like somebody else, I could do the job. The closer a character came to who I was, I just didn't think there was anything that interesting there. So I - it, you know, I kind of shied away from it. So I knew that Johnny Rose had to be - this is not a sketch character. It had to be a - you know, a three-dimensional character like everybody else in the show. And so, again, you know, there was more of me in that character. But nevertheless, it was a character.

DAVIES: You know, in the series, the four of you, the parents and the two adult children, live in pretty close quarters. I mean, you and Moira in one room, and then the kids are in an adjoining hotel room, both of them with their own single bed. And you - you know, you did - what - was it six seasons?

LEVY: Six seasons. Yeah.

DAVIES: Six seasons. You know, I'm old enough to have kids in their 30s. And I have to say, it is just so nice to have an adult relationship with people that, you know, you share this family history with, but who are now adults that I actually like and I really enjoy getting together with them. And I was just thinking it must have been a really gratifying experience for you to work with your son Dan, and your daughter Sarah, who plays the waitress...

LEVY: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...Twyla.

LEVY: Yeah. Well, it's pretty amazing that both Daniel and Sarah kind of ended up in this, you know, in this business. The experience on the show was totally surreal for me because I - it - I don't think I ever got over the fact when I was in a scene with them or watching them work with somebody else, Catherine or, you know, Chris Elliott, how good they were in the show and how proud I was, you know, watching them. And I would be on camera in a scene with them, and in my mind, I'm thinking, wow, I can't believe I'm actually working with my kids on camera. This is what's going through my head as I'm in the middle of a scene. So it was a unbelievable experience, you know, not a lot of dads get a chance to do that.

DAVIES: Well, you're Lucky, you know, 'cause there's another kind of piece of advice that people give which is never go into business with your relatives because you don't know what's going to happen. And, you know, sometimes when you're making TV and film, you know, it can be intense. There are budgets and schedules and studio executives and, you know, it can be difficult.

LEVY: Well, you know, that was the initial - the - my initial nightmare when I started working on this thing with Daniel was, you know, thinking, what if he doesn't have it? You know, we're starting to write and put together this show, and I'm thinking, what if he just can't do it? What am I going to do? Do I tell him? Do I - at some point, do I sit him down saying, son, you know what? This is not really going to work. Or do I not say anything and just spend time working on this thing that I know probably will never get off the ground, you know? It was a real kind of "Sophie's Choice" thing for me. So I - but fortunately he came through with flying colors.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you.

We're speaking with Eugene Levy. He stars in the Apple TV+ series "The Reluctant Traveler." Season 2 premiered last Friday, March 8, and new episodes drop on Fridays. He'll be back to talk more about his career after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIBETH SOLOMON'S "SCHITT'S CREEK THEME")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Our guest is actor and comedian Eugene Levy, known for his characters on "SCTV," appearances in more than 60 films, including the "American Pie" series and the hit comedy show "Schitt's Creek." That's "S-C-H-I-T-T-S Creek," about a wealthy family who lose their fortune and have to live humble lives. He's now starring in the travel show "The Reluctant Traveler." It premiered its second season last Friday on Apple TV+. New episodes drop on Fridays.

You grew up about - in a steel town about 40 miles from Toronto, right? You're Canadian. Your dad was a foreman in an auto plant, your mom, a homemaker, as I understand it. Did you have any idea when you were young how you might earn a living? Did you expect to see a blue-collar world or...

LEVY: It - I didn't really know. I know my dad always stressed an education so that, you know, you could go into a profession. And that was drilled into us and my brother kind of followed that, you know, to a tee, and I didn't. I discovered, I guess, when I got to university, I went to McMaster University in Hamilton. A lot of good people went there, actually. Marty - my good friend Marty Short and the late Ivan Reitman and the late Danny Goldberg, we were all at Mac together, and I didn't really - I got into acting at McMaster and just started cutting classes. I was so excited about the people I was hanging out with and making films and acting in plays that the idea of going to class, I found it boring, and I thought, well, why go? So I ended up quitting, you know, I had to leave school and ended up, fortunately, with a job in one of - in Ivan Reitman's first feature. And I was kind of on the behind the cameras, not in front of the cameras. And that's literally how I got into this line of work. It...

DAVIES: Well, you were serving coffee, right? I mean, you were way behind the cameras.

LEVY: I was - yes. I was the coffee boy on the film, you know? But back in Hamilton, you know, in the 1960s, I mean, it just didn't - you didn't - nobody went into the entertainment business. So as much as I loved acting back then, it - I never thought, well, this is something I should do. It just was kind of a, you know, once I left school, I thought, well, you got to leave acting behind and think about what you want to do for a living. Luckily, there was a position on Ivan's movie that he gave me, and he's the one that gave me my first chance in front of the camera. And then, you know, one thing just led to another.

DAVIES: You got involved with Toronto's Second City, the comedy troupe, and you developed a lot of really, you know, funny characters. I mean, you and John Candy were the Schmenge Brothers who hosted the live poker show.

LEVY: Yeah.

DAVIES: You were Bobby Bittman, this Vegas comic. Actually, you and I spoke, gosh, on this program, 2005. You - we played some of those.

LEVY: Wow.

DAVIES: You really honed a lot of skills doing that. And was it writing? Was it performing? Was it both?

LEVY: Well, it was good character work and - which is what I love doing 'cause anything except playing me was kind of fun. We poured ourselves into the work on "SCTV," you know, and it was a case truly where the inmates were running the asylum. And I think that's why the show was as good as it was. We had a, you know, kind of a producing team that knew enough to, you know, let us do it. We worked in Toronto and then we worked in Edmonton. You know, unlike, you know, "Saturday Night Live," those - you know, those kids, you know, that was a - certainly a great show. And the reason we got our show, "SCTV," was because "SNL" had started in 1975, and our show started in 1976. And it was the reason that the owner of Second City said, well, look what's happening with "SNL." All the Second City people are going into "SNL." We should have another show where Second City people can get in front of the camera and do their thing. And so "SCTV" was created one year later. But...

DAVIES: You know, yeah. I mean...

LEVY: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...You built a career in TV and then got into film, did a whole bunch of films, and, you know, as you started to raise a family, you know, you could have moved to Hollywood. You didn't, right? You stayed in Toronto. Was that a conscious decision, maybe to shelter your kids from a Hollywood lifestyle?

LEVY: That was exactly the reason. It was to - we didn't think it was going to be the healthiest thing in the world if our kids grew up inside a kind of show business community. So we moved back to Toronto and, you know, the idea was, well, Toronto is kind of a normal city. It's - you grow up with a lot of different influences that might kind of lead you in a direction to a profession, and it was also just a great town for kids to grow up in, you know? Had a great transit system, subways, very safe, you know, kids could start getting around town, you know, at the age of 12, 13, 14, on their own through the subway system. That wouldn't happen in Los Angeles. And so that's what we did. And of course, the biggest irony of ironies, they both end up...

DAVIES: They both live in LA, right?

LEVY: They both end up in - you know, in show business. So...

DAVIES: Yeah.

LEVY: Right. But I think our decision was still the right decision.

DAVIES: You know, I've interviewed a lot of actors here, and it's interesting to me when I find some that told me that there were times - and these are really established, famous people to me, but times when, you know, the phone wouldn't ring for long stretches. I mean, Frank Langella once told me he couldn't even get an agent for a while. Did you have any slumps in your career like that?

LEVY: Well, I had a stretch in Toronto where I rented an office and thought, well, maybe I'm going to have to come up with a script or I'm going to have to come up with something to create some work 'cause the phone wasn't ringing. So I'd go into my office every day, I'd get my coffee, I'd come in, you know, I would stare at my laptop, my computer and not much going on there, so I'd kind of stare out the window. And it got to a point where I would look at the office building across the road and see people kind of moving in and out of offices and just - and thinking, boy, everybody in there is getting paid at the end of the week, that's for sure. And I'd look at the bike courier who was, like, pulling up, delivering packages out front, and I'm thinking, well, at least this guy's, you know, getting paid at the end of the week. I'm not getting - there's no money coming in for me here. I'm just - I'm - you know, if I don't come up with something, you know, I'm dead in the water here. So there was - there - that - you know, there was some months that went on there where I thought, boy, I could be in serious trouble here.

DAVIES: Last question - might there be a "Schitt's Creek" movie?

LEVY: Well, you know, we've never said no to another project, that's for sure. But as my son Daniel, you know, has said, you know, we, you know, it - the first thing is coming up with an idea that's as good or better than where we left the show off. And if that - and when that, you know, happens there - you know, there's a possibility that, you know, anything could happen in terms of a reunion. But I can't say we're terribly close to that right now. But we would never rule it out.

DAVIES: Well, good luck. Eugene Levy, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

LEVY: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Eugene Levy stars in the Apple TV+ series "The Reluctant Traveler." Season 2 premiered last week, and new episodes drop on Fridays. Let's end with a clip of Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest's 2006 movie "For Your Consideration." Levy has appeared in a number of Guest's satirical comedies. This one is a movie about a movie being made, and some of the actors are receiving buzz around Hollywood. One of the actors is Victor Allan Miller, who's played by Harry Shearer. Eugene Levy plays his agent, Morley Orfkin. In this scene, the agent sees his client on the studio lot and calls out to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION")

LEVY: (As Morley Orfkin) Victor. Victor. Hey.

HARRY SHEARER: (As Victor Allan Miller) Morley.

LEVY: (As Morley Orfkin) Yeah.

SHEARER: (As Victor Allan Miller) Morley, what the hell are you doing here?

LEVY: (As Morley Orfkin) What am I doing here?

SHEARER: (As Victor Allan Miller) Yeah.

LEVY: (As Morley Orfkin) You wanted to have a meeting.

SHEARER: (As Victor Allan Miller) Yes...

LEVY: (As Morley Orfkin, laughing).

SHEARER: (As Victor Allan Miller) ...Yesterday. We had a meeting scheduled for yesterday. You didn't show.

LEVY: (As Morley Orfkin) Yesterday? No. No. No. No. No. What the hell are you talking - no, I was in the office all day. Well, why didn't you call me? You should've...

SHEARER: (As Victor Allan Miller) I called you. You didn't return my message.

LEVY: (As Morley Orfkin) Well, you got a minute now? Because...

SHEARER: (As Victor Allan Miller) No, I have to go to the stage. They called me.

LEVY: (As Morley Orfkin) Well, what - was it important? What did you want to talk about?

SHEARER: (As Victor Allan Miller) A lot of things. But look, I'm working for scale. An actor of my stature - 40 years in the business - there's no excuse for me working for scale.

LEVY: (As Morley Orfkin) No. And that's exactly what I've been telling people. You should not be working for scale...

SHEARER: (As Victor Allan Miller) Good.

LEVY: (As Morley Orfkin) ...OK? But you know these producers, they have their own take on things. Victor, I'm on your side, all right? I'm your agent. You are my No. 1 priority. There is nothing more important to me in my life than you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE RINGING)

LEVY: (As Morley Orfkin) Excuse me. Yeah. (Laughter) Stranger. What do you say? Nothing important. I'm here with a client.

SHEARER: (As Victor Allan Miller) I got to go.

LEVY: (As Morley Orfkin) Hang on. Good, 'cause I got to take this, Victor. Look, stop by the office anytime. You know we moved?

DAVIES: Eugene Levy in a scene from the Christopher Guest movie "For Your Consideration." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews "Help Wanted" - the new novel from Adelle Waldman set in a big-box store in the Catskill region of New York. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON CLEARY SONG, "DYNA-MITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.