Willie Stark Lives On

One of the best-known politicians of the 20th century was Willie Stark, the populist hero who rose to rule his state in All the King's Men. Stark has lived on in three stage plays, two movies, an opera and several required-reading lists.

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And now a profile of one of America's greatest and most controversial politicians. Willie Stark was a champion of the little guy who became a governor and a tyrant. He's also fictional.

Stark began life in print, the main character of Robert Penn Warren's classic novel "All the King's Men." Stark has since been the subject of two movies, three stage plays, and an opera. He resembles the legendary Huey Long of Louisiana, but Stark's persona is larger than any one man.

As part of our continuing "In Character" series, NPR's Ron Elving has this look at the quintessential American demagogue.

RON ELVING: In each retelling, the story of Willie Stark reaches its climax with the vote on his impeachment as governor. A throng of his supporters waits outside the state capitol.

(Soundbite of 1949 movie "All the King's Men")

Unidentified Actor: This is the result. Willie Stark has won.

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

ELVING: Surrounded by bodyguards and police, Willie Stark appears on the steps of the capitol.

Mr. BRODERICK CRAWFORD (Actor): (As Willie Stark): Do you like what I have done?

(Soundbite of cheering)

ELVING: And what has Willie done? He's won elections as an outsider and smashed the old power structure in the capital. He's built roads and bridges, hospitals and schools. And he's eliminated every rival for power and every competing authority.

Now he wants to run for president. But at this moment, an assassin steps from the shadows.

(Soundbite of gunshots and screaming)

ELVING: Willie Stark was the creation of the American poet Robert Penn Warren who also wrote fiction. "All the King's Men" was his best-known novel, winning the Pulitzer Prize for 1946 and becoming a hit movie.

Willie Stark's story is the classic cautionary tale of power and corruption, a small-town crusader who rides a wave of Depression anger all the way to the governor's office.

(Soundbite of movie "All the King's Men")

Mr. CRAWFORD (Actor): (As Willie Stark): But I am going to tell you a story. It's about a hick, a hick like you, if you please. Yeah, like you. He grew up on the dirt roads and the gully washes of a farm. He knew what it was to get up before dawn and get feed and slop and milk before breakfast, and then set out before sun-up and walk six miles to a one-room, slab-sided schoolhouse.

ELVING: Stark delivers on his promises, but his single-minded pursuit of power ultimately destroys him and all those around him. The film won several Oscars, and 60 years later, Willie Stark still seemed irresistible to another Oscar-winning actor with an interest in politics: Sean Penn. Here is his 2006 take on Willie Stark on the stump.

(Soundbite of 2006 movie "All the King's Men")

Mr. SEAN PENN (Actor): (As Willie Stark) You are a hick, and a nobody ever helped a hick but a hick hisself. It's up to you to nail these parasites up. Up to you and me and God. Nail up Joe Harrison.

Unidentified People: Amen. Nail up!

ELVING: The author did not live to see the second film, but he would not have liked seeing his story set in Louisiana, nor would he have approved of having Sean Penn sing this song.

(Soundbite of 2006 movie "All the King's Men")

(Soundbite of song "Every Man a King")

Mr. PENN: (As Willie Stark) (Singing) Every man a king, every man a king, for you can be a millionaire...

(Soundbite of song "Every Man a King")

Unidentified Man: (As Former Governor Huey Long) (Singing) But there's something belonging to others. There's enough for all people to share.

ELVING: That second singing voice is supposed to be that of Huey Long. He wrote that song while he was governor of Louisiana. Even today, you can hear him speak and sing in an animatronic version in the Old State Capitol building in Baton Rouge.

Long was governor and then senator in the 1920s and '30s, inspiring fierce loyalty and even greater animosity, a legend for his denunciations of the wealthy.

Former Governor HUEY LONG (Democrat, Louisiana): Thou hast been yielded too much to eat, too much to wear, everything to live in. The Lord has answered the prayer...

ELVING: Long was at the zenith of his career plotting a path to the White House when he was assassinated in 1935. Just a year earlier, Warren had begun teaching at LSU. So, for many, Willie Stark is no more than a fictional gloss on Huey Long.

But for Robert Penn Warren, Willie was not Huey Long, and the novel was not just about politics. Warren pointed out that his first version of Willie was sketched out on a sabbatical in Italy in 1938. At the time, he would say he was more concerned about another authoritarian figure, Benito Mussolini, who was one model for his earliest Willie Stark.

Warren in Italy wrote a verse drama about a man named Talus, an allusion to a mythic Greek hero. As he converted that poetry into the prose of the novel, he renamed his character Willie Talos. His editor hated that name, so Warren suggested Willie Strong, which sounded too much like Long. And they compromised on the German word for strong, stark. Years later, when Opera composer Carlisle Floyd asked permission to base an opera on "All The King's Men," Warren agreed, but would not let Floyd incorporate the tune "Every Man a King." Floyd called his opera "Willie Stark," even though it followed the novel's plot lines, including the assassination scene.

(Soundbite of opera "Willie Stark")

(Soundbite of music, gunshots, and screaming)

ELVING: David Madden is a writer, scholar and teacher who took a job at LSU because Warren had been there. He's now the Robert Penn Warren Professor of English there.

Professor DAVID MADDEN (English, Louisiana State University): The reason I teach and write about it as a universal book, and try to stay off Huey Long, is because I really do believe that it applies to America. Everybody in it, Willie Stark mainly, is representative of facets of the American experience.

ELVING: Warren clearly regarded Willie Stark as both a Machiavelli and a kind of mouthpiece for moral philosophy. Yet, for generations of readers, Willie Stark remains a political animal.

Ms. ALICIA P. LONG (History Faculty, Louisiana State University): On a certain level, he's a forbearer of the kind of cynicism we have about politics today.

ELVING: Alicia P. Long teaches history at LSU.

Ms. LONG: We just assume that politicians play hardball, that politicians today consider themselves an entitled class.

ELVING: T. Wayne Parent is a professor who uses "All the King's Men" in his political science courses at LSU.

Professor T. WAYNE PARENT (Political Science, Louisiana State University): It's about the democratization of the United States. And Huey Long was a good model for what can go right and what can go wrong. But Willie Stark, I think, was imagined in an even broader, fuller, richer sense than Huey Long. And that's what makes that novel so fantastic.

ELVING: Robert Penn Warren would have many honors in his long life, but nothing else he wrote found such an audience as "All the King's Men." And for all of the poet's high art, his best-remembered creation is his rough-hewned Willie Stark, the unlovely embodiment of our unfinished democracy. Ron Elving, NPR News.

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