Television could be enriched if more men of letters were interviewed instead of empty-headed celebrities plugging their latest project. In the case tonight of Norman Mailer on PBS' "Talking With David Frost," (9 p.m. channels 22 and 67) a session that touches many bases, we're able to see how time has mellowed and changed this two-fisted writer who surprisingly pulls a few punches today.
He's opinionated, yes, but leaves his targets still standing; is self-critical, but at the same time defensive and philosophical. Sitting in the Essex House with Frost, the gray-haired, well-dressed Mailer, 68, is affable, responsive and engaging -- a real pussycat. His subjects range from sex to marriage (he's on his sixth) to feminism to politics.
His latest book, "Harlot's Ghost," is not the focal point of the discussion here; it's Mailer himself.
Once an atheist, as well as a boozer and marijuana user, he now believes in what he calls an "imperfect God," in reincarnation and in karma. In his view, God wins some and loses some. The biggest battle He lost to the Devil was the Holocaust.
As for reincarnation and karma, he credits James Jones, author of "From Here to Eternity." Says Mailer: "The great virtue of karma is it strips you free of self-pity if you really believe in it. There's no need to feel sorry for yourself if you're getting a lot of rotten shakes in a given life . . . you might be building up your karma for your next life, where it will be fairer."
Mailer's life, colorful and sometimes violent -- he was once described as a "literary Frank Sinatra" -- slowly unfolds. Having stabbed his second wife, he's issuing a mea culpa today. "I did a terrible injury to a good woman," he admits, "and I spoiled certain parts of my own life forever."
This, and a second episode in his life -- being instrumental in getting convicted murderer Jack Henry Abbott out of jail, only to murder again -- he claims he doesn't take pride in. Not because Abbott murdered again, as one might expect. His regret is not giving him more attention than he did once he was out of jail and in a halfway house. "If you're going to get a guy out of jail who is that disturbed, then you've got to put in the hours," he says.
"The level of violence is getting worse and worse," he notes. "This is a reflection of the deadening process that goes on in society. We have not solved a way to live in a mass society."
He amusingly attacks Ms. magazine during the session, and at the same time makes some valid points about women in general. Women, he says, can be just as "power driven, just as mean-spirited, just as able to cut corners in argument and logic . . . just as ill-intentioned as men."
Writers are our oracles, our observers, who no matter how flawed their vision at times, should be heard from more often on television. I regret that Frost did not invite some comment from Mailer on Oliver Stone's "JFK," which he so eloquently writes about in Vanity Fair.