America has always been the land of opportunity, literally, for millions. Elbow grease, a few brains and perseverance have been the recipe for success in this new world.
However, it’s still a hard-scrabble world we live in, especially given the economic times. Sometimes it helps to hear about someone else who made it in some way or another. And for most of us who weren’t born with a silver spoon in our mouths (or foot, as Ann Richards once famously said of George H.W. Bush), overachieving is as American as baseball.
Burt Prelutsky knows some of this himself. A writer of some renown, Prelutsky has not only written for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, TV Guide and Sports Illustrated, but he has also written for television. Anyone who’s written for “Dragnet,” Bob Newhart and “M*A*S*H*” is a portrait of success in his own right.
Burt, though, has penned a terrific new book, “Portraits of Success: Candid Conversations with 60 Over-Achievers,” and you won’t be able to put it down. The rich and varied list of interviewees is so absorbing, you’ll refer to it again and again.
The diverse group Prelutsky spoke with in preparation for “Portraits of Success” ranges from Orson Bean, to Ernest Borgnine, to Caroline Glick. A personal favorite is the entry featuring the actor, Gary Sinise.
The art of the interview is something that eludes many of us, but Burt Prelutsky is a master. He’s not afraid to ask probing questions, and he asks questions the rest of us would love to know the answers to, such as, “How big a role does religion play in your life?” He gets his subjects to open up in ways most entertainment and political writers only dream about.
For instance, Prelustsky had the moxie to ask Sinise about his drift toward conservatism after 9/11. The actor’s answer is riveting:
“The truth is, before 9/11, I wasn’t political at all,” Sinise says. “But after that, I began really looking at my country in a whole different way. I had always felt terrible about the way that the Vietnam vets had been treated when they came back home. First they risked their lives fighting for us, and then they came home and were literally spit on. I knew I had to do everything in my power to ensure that the same thing didn’t happen again.”
Just one of the things that make this book such a fun read (and, it won’t take long to speed through these fascinating vignettes; you’ll regret at the end that you’re finished) is the eclectic nature of it. For instance, in the piece on retired Colonel (and now writer) Ralph Peters, we get a real sense of the man’s patriotism. Yet he professes to admire the writings of Christopher Hitchens, the ailing genius who, despite his epiphany about the war on terror, remains a liberal in many respects.
As with any great interviewer/reporter, Prelutsky understands that it’s not only the famous who make great interviews, but those we might not know by name. Such a person is John Hillerich IV, CEO of the Hillerich and Bradsby Company.
Not overly impressed? Well, this company makes the famed Louisville Slugger, as Prelutsky points out, “the single most famous baseball bat in the world.”
Hillerich reveals that, unlike many sons who are eager to “make their own way,” he was eager to join the family company. Why? His answer is timeless: “I had sawdust in my blood.”
George Kennedy, perhaps the greatest character actor of all time (well, one can certainly make the case, at least), comes across as the everyman he has often played. Prelutsky learned from Kennedy that the acclaimed actor has had to overcome both his great size and numerous health problems, not the least of which is a scoliotic spine. If anyone had an excuse for sliding through life, it was Kennedy. Yet here he is, at 85, still going strong.
Much of the value in “Portraits of Success” comes from the fascinating detail Prelutsky’s interviews provide, and you’ll have to get the book to learn why Paul Newman wouldn’t cast his castmate from “Cool Hand Luke” for “Sometimes a Great Notion.”
A lot of wisdom is packed into this wonderful book. Prelutsky knocks this one way out of the park.