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Not My Job: 'Empire' Creator Lee Daniels Gets Quizzed On Cookies

BILL KURTIS: Earlier in the year, we spoke to another Oscar nominee, Lee Daniels, who made the movie "Precious" but since then had gotten into TV with his shows "Empire" and "Star." But his entertainment career, as it turns out, goes way back.


LEE DANIELS: My very first job was as a PA in "Purple Rain."


Really? You were on the set of "Purple Rain."




DANIELS: (Singing) Purple rain, purple rain. Yeah.

SAGAL: Whoa.

DANIELS: That old. I am that old.

SAGAL: Was that as fabulous as I imagine it must have been?

DANIELS: I don't know. I was too high to remember.


DANIELS: And that sort of got the bug - you know, when I was able to really find out what it was that I knew that I could do. And that was finding talent. I knew that I could spot talent.

SAGAL: Well, yeah. You were a...

DANIELS: I was a casting director.

SAGAL: Your first job in entertainment was a casting director. But before that, I heard that you, like - you were doing, like, productions of "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" in elementary school, is that right?

DANIELS: It was the first book I read. One of the first books I read was "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" I was - I went to the library - public library - came home with it, was drawn to this book, didn't know what it was, opened it up, read it, like, mouth agape, came home and sat down and had my family and friends read it on the stoop of my front steps.

SAGAL: Wow. Now, how old were you?

DANIELS: I was 8.


SAGAL: You were 8 years old...


SAGAL: ...And you read "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" which for people who know is the classic American play of Edward Albee about this bizarre, alcoholic evening filled with sexual tension and rage and Latin.

DANIELS: (Laughter).

BURKE: As an 8-year-old, were you really upset that there were no wolves in it?

SAGAL: Yeah.


DANIELS: No. And I think that it really informed who it was that I am - why - you know, my mother said to me way on - later on she - because I had done "Monster's Ball" and "The Woodsman" with Kevin Bacon about a pedophile. And I had done "Precious." And, you know, she says, you know, why are you doing these dark movies? People down at the church - they're talking about us. They think something's wrong with us.


DANIELS: Like, you know, can you do a movie like Tyler Perry?


SAGAL: And what did you say?

DANIELS: I did "The Butler" and said, tell them people to watch this and shut the hell up.

SAGAL: There you go.

DANIELS: Shut them up.

SAGAL: Yeah.


DANIELS: It was my first PG-13 film. And it was so hard doing that film, really, because all of my movies were R. And that PG prepared me for the insanity of television.

SAGAL: Yeah, which is...

DANIELS: And - yeah.

SAGAL: Speaking of insanity. So let's talk. Your first huge hit was "Empire," which introduced the world...

DANIELS: I guess that's right.

SAGAL: ...Among other - many other things - to the character of Cookie.

ROXANNE ROBERTS: Cookie's awesome.

SAGAL: Cookie is awesome. I mean, I was looking - I've seen "Empire," and I've looked at Cookie. And I was watching "Star," and I was looking at the Queen Latifah character. Have you ever rejected a plotline for either of those shows?


SAGAL: Because they're pretty extreme - what happens in those shows. Have you ever rejected a plotline? Have you said, no, that's just too crazy?

DANIELS: Actually, there have been a few that I've rejected. Yeah, there have been a few that I rejected, and I can't say because I'll be in trouble.

SAGAL: It would be weird. One of the things I'm curious about is your co-producer on "Empire" is Danny Strong, right?

DANIELS: Love him to death, yes.

SAGAL: Now he's...

DANIELS: He wrote "The Butler."

SAGAL: Oh, he did? I didn't realize that.

DANIELS: Yeah. We were - we became best friends because of "The Butler." And we had such a great experience together. Look, my friend Whitney Cummings...

SAGAL: Yeah.

DANIELS: ...Came over to my house in New York. She said, why are you poor? And I go (unintelligible). She says, why are you poor? Lee, you could make so much money in television. And I go what does that - what do you mean? She says, well, you get all these people Oscars, and you can't put your kids through college.

You're complaining about - so when Danny came back to me for our second film, which was going to be "Empire," I said, no, let's do it as a TV show because I wanted to get some money.


DANIELS: And jackpot - ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching (ph).


DANIELS: Now I can put your kids through college.

SAGAL: Absolutely.


SAGAL: Lord knows we all need it. Is there one thing that's really different since you've done both - you've done these very high-end, prestigious movies, and now you're doing network TV. What's the biggest difference?

BURKE: The fourth ka-ching.


DANIELS: Do you know what - you know what's really - I don't - I miss being at the party at the award shows and, you know, the Oscars and all that kind of stuff. It was fun.

SAGAL: Yeah.

DANIELS: And so I got to get back to - I don't know. It's funny. You know, I don't - you know, you don't do it for the awards, but I like - I miss all my friends - my filmmaker friends that are there.

SAGAL: Sure.

DANIELS: So I want to get back to making films

SAGAL: Well, I know you're close with Oprah. Maybe she can get you a ticket.

DANIELS: (Laughter).


SAGAL: Well, Lee Daniels, it is so much fun to talk to you.

DANIELS: Thank you.

SAGAL: It's maybe as much fun as watching your TV shows. We have asked you here to play a game that this time we're calling...

KURTIS: (Imitating Cookie Monster) C is for Cookie.


SAGAL: Like we said, in "Empire," you created one of the great TV characters of our time, the record company executive and matriarch Cookie Lyon. And so we thought, well, we'd ask you about actual cookies.

Answer 2 out of 3 questions, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - Carl Kasell's voice on their voicemail. Bill, who is writer-director Lee Daniels playing for?

KURTIS: Michael Vanderoef of Holland, Mich., Lee.

SAGAL: Here we go. So we all know that some store bought cookies are really bad for you. Some of them are really, really bad for you. Among the worst is which of these? A, Crisco Crunchies...


SAGAL: ...B, Birthday Frosting-Filled Chewy Chips Ahoys, or C, Keebler Chocolate Cocoa Mega Bombs.

DANIELS: Holy - my - two - the second one.

SAGAL: You're going to go for Birthday Frosting-Filled Chewy Chips Ahoys?


SAGAL: They like it.


SAGAL: You're right.


SAGAL: You can buy them.


DANIELS: Oh, holy cow (laughter).

SAGAL: I don't recommend it. Yeah. They're awesome. All right. That's one. Now you knocked that down.

DANIELS: Oh, come on, man. I don't want to do two - are you joking me?


SAGAL: I wouldn't pull your leg here.

DANIELS: OK. Let's go. Come on. Hit it.

SAGAL: One of the most famous cookie people around is Wally Amos, better known as Famous Amos. You've seen his cookies.


SAGAL: What is Famous Amos' other claim to fame? Was it A, as a talent agent, he discovered Simon and Garfunkel; B, he set and still holds the world record for number of cigarettes smoked at once...


SAGAL: ...Or C, he happens to be a champion Morris dancer?



SAGAL: You're going to go for A - as a talent agent, he discovered Simon and Garfunkel?


SAGAL: Yes, you're right. That's what he did.


DANIELS: (Shouting) Holy cow. Unbelievable.


SAGAL: It's true. It's an amazing story that Wally Amos had this career as a talent agent. He was very successful. All right. Fortune - see if you can go for perfect here. Why not? Everything else you've done was perfect.

DANIELS: No. Oh, God.

SAGAL: Come on.


DANIELS: A third one?

SAGAL: Come on. Fortune cookies don't get a lot of attention because they're free, they taste like sweetened cardboard. But on occasion - on one occasion...


SAGAL: ...A fortune cookie changed lives - how? A, a desperate message inside a cookie led to the freeing of 50 imprisoned fortune cookie factory workers; B, a fortune cookie typo introduced the phrase on fleek to the language, or C, a fortune cookie correctly predicted Powerball numbers leading to 110 people winning a $100,000 each.


SAGAL: You're going to go C? You're right again.




SAGAL: It absolutely happened because you know...

DANIELS: Tell Michael I want the prize.

SAGAL: You know...

BURBANK: He wants the prize.

DANIELS: Tell Michael I want my prize.

SAGAL: You know how it works.

DANIELS: Michael from Michigan, I want the prize.


SAGAL: Michael, you're going to have to fight Lee for it.

BURBANK: Imagine this. You're some Hollywood power player. You're trying to get your movie made. You call Lee Daniels. You get Carl Kasell's voice on his answering machine.


SAGAL: Yeah. I know.

BURBANK: That would be the best thing ever.

SAGAL: I love that. Bill, how did Lee Daniels do on our quiz?

KURTIS: Lee Daniels just kicked it out of the park. A perfect score on the hardest quiz in radio. Congratulations.

SAGAL: Absolutely.


SAGAL: It's not the Oscars, Lee. But I hope it satisfies anyway.

DANIELS: Oh, my God. It felt like being there. Thank you very much. That was fun.

SAGAL: Thank you. Lee Daniels is the producer and director...


SAGAL: ...Of films like "The Butler" and "Precious." He's also a co-creator and executive producer of the shows "Empire" and "Star." Lee Daniels, thank you so much for joining us.

DANIELS: Thank you. It was great.

SAGAL: Lee Daniels, everybody.


SAGAL: When we come back, yet another Oscar nominee, and somebody who will have to wait until they give out Oscars for children's books. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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