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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Walter Mitty is back. Ben Stiller plays him in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," a new movie version of James Thurber's short story. The nebbishy daydreamer has been inspiring flights of fancy for almost 75 years. We asked our critic Bob Mondello to take a look back at the many public lives of Walter Mitty.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) We're losing altitude, sir. Hadn't we better turn back?

ROBERT BENCHLEY: (As Walter Mitty) Out of the question. We'll stay on the beam if it takes us straight through the center of the worst storm in 20 years of Navy history.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: For 1940s radio audiences, Robert Benchley was Walter Mitty, a legend in his own mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

BENCHLEY: (As Walter Mitty) We're going through.

MONDELLO: Heroic, fearless, the bravest man in an entirely imagined universe.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Mrs. Mitty) Not so fast. You're driving too fast. Walter Mitty, do you hear me?

BENCHLEY: (As Walter Mitty) Oh. I'm - I'm sorry, my dear.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Mrs. Mitty) What's the matter with you, Walter?

BENCHLEY: (As Walter Mitty) What makes you think something's wrong?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Mrs. Mitty) You started getting that vague look again.

MONDELLO: Benchley's Walter Mitty was channeling a henpecked milquetoast that audiences already knew. James Thurber had created him for the pages of The New Yorker on March 18, 1939 - pages 19 and 20, to be precise, and not all of either page because Thurber's "Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was barely a thousand words long. Still, words enough for Mitty to pilot a hydroplane, save a millionaire banker on the operating table, electrify a courtroom with his testimony, and stare down a firing squad, all as he was running errands for his wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) Pick up your feet there, will you? Can't you see the light's changed?

BENCHLEY: (As Walter Mitty) Oh, oh, sorry.

MONDELLO: Mitty's imaginary exploits were enough to fill Benchley's 19-minute radio broadcast but not enough to fill a feature-length movie. So when Hollywood recruited Danny Kaye to play Mitty in 1947, they embellished a bit. Mitty was given a job editing horror stories and trashy romances, which became grist for his fantasies and which also allowed Boris Karloff to drop by, claiming to be a writer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

BORIS KARLOFF: (As Dr. Hollingshead) I know of a way to kill a man and leave no trace.

MONDELLO: So that romance could blossom with a beautiful co-star, this first movie Mitty was henpecked not by his wife but by his mother, who prepared dinners that were a little on the nose.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

FAYE BAINTER: (As Mrs. Eunice Mitty) Walter, you haven't touched your nice milk toast.

MONDELLO: And because Danny Kaye could rattle off nonsense songs, the filmmakers threw those in, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LITTLE FIDDLE")

DANNY KAYE: (Singing) Happy little fiddle... (singing nonsense syllables)

MONDELLO: This Walter Mitty was still a nebbish, timid and insecure. But unlike the guy in the original story, he got caught up in actual adventures, not just fantasy ones. And they helped him work up the courage to say some very un-Mitty-like things to his boss and the other folks who kept bossing him around.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

KAYE: (As Walter Mitty) Your small minds are musclebound with suspicion. The only exercise you ever get is jumping to conclusions.

THURSTON HALL: (As Bruce Pierce) Now, hold on, Mitty. I don't think...

KAYE: (As Walter Mitty) You never think.

HALL: (As Bruce Pierce) What?

KAYE: (As Walter Mitty) The only good idea you ever had was to hire me to do your thinking for you.

MONDELLO: This more assertive Mitty also put in an appearance when some off-Broadway folks decided to fully musicalize his story on stage in 1964. And music turned out to be a great way to pump up those fantasies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

TOM EWELL: (As Walter Mitty) (singing) ...that I say.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Oh, tragedy.

EWELL: (As Walter Mitty) (singing) Rushing off to Rio in my private plane...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) With your oil wells gushing...

MONDELLO: Ben Stiller's new movie version doesn't use music to pump up Mitty's fantasies. It uses state-of-the-art special effects.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Go, go, go. Get out. Get out. She's going to blow. Go, go.

MONDELLO: Building in flames, Mitty leaping in through a third-floor window to save a pretty co-worker's three-legged dog, no problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

KRISTEN WIIG: (As Cheryl Melhoff) Thank you. How did you know about the building?

BEN STILLER: (As Walter Mitty) I heard barking. I thought I smelled gas. Oh, I hope it's OK. I engineered a prosthesis for Chips while I was sprinting down the stairwell.

WIIG: (As Cheryl Melhoff) God, you're noteworthy.

STILLER: (As Walter Mitty) I just live by the ABC's, adventurous, brave, creative.

MONDELLO: It's easy to understand why the part would appeal to Stiller. He's spent much of his career playing nebbishy characters who get pushed around. The thing is, Ben Stiller is in total control here: actor, director, producer. And his fantasy about Mitty's fantasies seems to be that they turn the character into an action hero. About a half-hour in, the daydreams disappear and Mitty starts doing real heroic stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

STILLER: (As Walter Mitty) I jumped out of a helicopter yesterday into the ocean and had a shark fight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Really?

STILLER: (As Walter Mitty) I can't really talk right now. I'm on my way to a volcano.

MONDELLO: By the time he's hiking through the Himalayas to retrieve a photo for work, the most Mitty-iest thing about this Mitty are his snow mitts, which is fine. It's an actor's job to imagine himself a hero. There must be a little Walter Mitty in everyone in Hollywood. And if Stiller's dreams don't mesh with Thurber's, someone else's will, no doubt.

Maybe someone who writes about the movies. I can see him now sitting there at the multiplex, notepad in hand, daydreaming as the credits roll about standing up for the audience, screaming at the filmmakers, "No! For once, don't do what's expected. Do what's smart!" A critic can dream, can't he? I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is NPR News.

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