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Actor Griffin Dunne revisits his Hollywood childhood in 'The Friday Afternoon Club'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. As the son of writer and television producer Dominick Dunne, Griffin Dunne grew up in the center of old Hollywood. His father's lavish parties made for countless stories about the rich and famous.

Sean Connery saved him from drowning when he was eight. His first babysitter was Elizabeth Montgomery, the actor who played Samantha in "Bewitched." And he shared one of his first apartments with one of his best friends, Carrie Fisher.

But at the heart of Griffin's new memoir, "The Friday Afternoon Club," is also the story of tragedy and how the Dunne family overcame it - mental illness, addiction, a closeted father and the death of Griffin's sister, Dominique, who was killed by an ex-boyfriend in 1982 when she was 22 years old.

Griffin Dunne began working in Hollywood as an actor. His breakout roles were in the 1981 comedy "An American Werewolf in London" and the 1985 Martin Scorsese-directed movie "After Hours," which Griffin co-produced. His most recent work includes roles in "This Is Us," "Succession," and "The Girls On The Bus." Griffin Dunne is also a director. In 2017, he directed the Netflix documentary "The Center Will Not Hold" about his aunt Joan Didion. And Griffin Dunne, welcome to FRESH AIR. Welcome back.

GRIFFIN DUNNE: Well, thank you for having me.

MOSLEY: You know, Griffin, this memoir is as much about you as it is about the famous people who make up your life and your family. And the stories are both hilarious and at times pretty dark. And I'll say even the dark points, though, that you write about, some of them you write with a tinge of humor. I'm just wondering, had you been cataloguing these stories, knowing that you wanted to write a book like this.

DUNNE: I certainly have. You know, at some point, I'd hear myself be telling stories to friends over dinner. And at a certain point, I started to get home, and I'd think, well, that was a pretty good story. I'm going to make a note...


DUNNE: ...Of that. And I would just let them pile up with - I'd be a decade or so away from beginning a book, but it was in the back of my mind. And they weren't just stories about me and my misfortunes and that were usually always funny, but also about my grandparents and great-grandparents who also led incredible lives, filled with scandal and infidelity and a lot of humor as well.

MOSLEY: You go way back, as you said. You go back to your great-grandparents and your grandparents, laying out their arrival to the United States and your family, your immediate family, consisting of your father, Dominick Dunne, your mother, Ellen, your brother Alex, and your late sister, Dominique. And the orbit that surrounded all of you all, too - you guys were living in Beverly Hills. And your father - he'd hold these parties, as you mentioned. How would you describe these parties?

DUNNE: They were all different kinds of parties. Sometimes people would come over in black tie, and there'd only be about 16 people in black tie with a little orchestra my father hired, you know, a little string quartet to play, and they would sit around a long dinner table and talk very, very loud. And we would be at some point, before the adults got too drunk, we would be brought downstairs, my brother, sister and I, in matching bathrobes and pajamas, and my sister in a little, like, Victorian bonnet on her head, a nightcap. And we'd come in, and all the adults would go, poh, and ah, and aren't they adorable?


DUNNE: And my brother and I would bow good night, and my sister would curtsy, and they would all clap and think that was delightful. And then quite a few years later, I'd end up working with Dennis Hopper, who was at that time, quite young and a guest in our home and well before he did "Easy Rider." And we were working together, and he sort of stared off and said, yeah, I was at your parents' house. When you kids came downstairs, I thought that was the saddest thing I ever saw.

MOSLEY: How did you interpret that? What do you think he meant by it?

DUNNE: I think he was right. I mean, you know, my father was a - you know, before he became really into himself and the man that we know, he was a very kind of skittish person whose priorities about having famous people to his home and, you know, giving parties, and, you know, he would keep scrapbooks of the pictures he took of all the famous people who came to the house and the telegrams, the accepting his dinner parties. And I looked back on it, and it was kind of embarrassing.

MOSLEY: As an early executive, what types of things was your dad doing in Hollywood - in those early days in television?

DUNNE: Well, his first job in the earliest days of television was on "The Howdy Doody Show," which for those who don't know, Howdy was a puppet, a very cheerful puppet. And Dad was the stage manager, and it was his job to place him, Howdy, on a stool before the show went live. But from then he went on to kind of classier fare, and he was with "Playhouse 90." And that's where he met many of the people who'd end up being in his party, where he was the stage manager, you know, laying down the tape for the blocking, and he would meet Humphrey Bogart, Paul Newman, James Dean, Arthur Penn. All of these remarkable - who became incredibly famous for their talent, you know, later on in life. These were their earliest parts of their career. And then he became a vice president of a company called Four Star. That's when we moved to Los Angeles. And it was a very classy production company within CBS.

MOSLEY: You're very young during these Hollywood years. One of the things that you would do as a kid is that you liked to exaggerate and tell these elaborate stories. And I found this really interesting because it seems like there were so many true stories that you could have told that were just as fantastical. Why did you feel like you needed to exaggerate, especially when it came to telling stories about your father and who he was? 'Cause you would tell your classmates some tall tales about him.

DUNNE: Yes, I would. And, you know, a part of me as a boy, was a little embarrassed of my dad that he wasn't as athletic. You couldn't play baseball with him and the kind of things he was concerned about. He was always funny. He always made me laugh. He had a very dark, funny sense of humor that I inherited. But, you know, my best friends - I went to a very kind of Hollywood school where everybody's parents were in the business. And they knew my dad was - you know, he just couldn't throw a baseball to save his life. They would make fun of me, and they'd say, my dad could lick your dad with one hand tied behind his back. And I came back with, well, he will - I'd throw his name right in the ring - soon as he gets out of jail.

MOSLEY: (Laughter).

DUNNE: They'd go, what? Yeah, he's in prison. Why? He robbed a bank. And, you know, this lie got around school so quickly that the principal at the school called my father. And I had this incredibly uncomfortable moment, where my dad - when he came home from work, he was mystified. And he said, Is that something you wish I would do, Griffin? And I was so embarrassed, but he didn't pursue it because I think he thought - I think he knew I was a little embarrassed about him. It was a very tough moment for both of us.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Griffin Dunne. He's written a new book called "The Friday Afternoon Club," a memoir about his life and complicated family, who dealt with significant traumas, including mental illness and addiction, and the murder of his sister. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today, we're talking to actor, producer, director and author Griffin Dunne. He's written a new memoir titled "The Friday Afternoon Club: A Family Memoir," which delves into the story of the Dunne family, his father Dominick Dunne's life and career as a TV producer and frequent writer for Vanity Fair, his closeted sexuality, and the impacts that all of that had on everyone, including Griffin. The book also delves into the death of Griffin's sister, Dominique, who was killed by an ex-boyfriend in 1982 when she was 22 years old.

I want to ask you a little bit about your mom because your mother, Ellen Dunn, was, in her later life, known as an activist. After your sister was killed, she founded the organization Justice for Homicide Victims. She was actually recognized by President George H.W. Bush...

DUNNE: Yes, she was.

MOSLEY: ...Back in '89 for her work. Your parents seemed not the opposite of each other but maybe an unlikely couple. What do you think attracted them to each other?

DUNNE: My mother had a lot of class. She was an only child, grew up on a ranch in Arizona on the border of Mexico, town called Nogales. But she was sent away to boarding school, all-girls school called Farmington. She was incredibly well read, loved classical music and came to New York. And she was a model, and she was very, very beautiful.

You know, my dad fell in love with her on first sight, and he just was enthralled by her beauty. And what she saw in him was one, he was a really funny guy, and he knew a lot of stuff about New York and gangsters and movie stars and, you know - unlike any man that she'd ever met.

I mean, she grew up in Arizona. She went out with guys who rode in rodeos. And my father - you know, he knew Oleg Cassini and, you know, could make references to, you know, everything from movies to fashion. And I think she just found him fascinating.

MOSLEY: Until she didn't.

DUNNE: Until she didn't.


DUNNE: That fascination with celebrity and partying and movie stars got very, very tired for her. And, you know, he was - he's written about this, so I'm not - Dad was very frank about his personality and character in these years. You know, he was drinking a great deal, and he was getting very sloppy, and he was getting a little mean in his gossip. And people were really turning him away, and he didn't see that...

MOSLEY: Because that's the thing that your dad loved to do, is he would pick apart - he would gossip all the time. They'd go to parties. He'd come home, and on the way home, he'd be talking about everything that happened at the party.

DUNNE: Just recounting everything. And again...


DUNNE: ...It's storytelling, too.

MOSLEY: Right.

DUNNE: He just - he would just weave and describe an incredible dinner with - oh, you know, Alfred Hitchcock was over there and Jimmy Stewart. And she just started to not really give a damn about this.

MOSLEY: There's this moment that you write about that I wanted to just ask you about that, like, maybe speaks to your relationship with your mom, where in the announcement of your parents' divorce, they sat you and your brother and sister down and - 'cause your mom said, I'm leaving you, and so we have to tell the kids - sat all of you down. And after the announcement was made, the kids are crying. You put your hands over your face. You're kind of crying. But then you look out of your fingers, and you can - you and your mom's eyes lock.

DUNNE: Yeah. I was faking it.

MOSLEY: And that's a significant moment for you.



DUNNE: It is.

MOSLEY: What did it represent? What did - what was that unspoken thing you all were saying to each other?

DUNNE: It was a kind of relief. There was a certain tyranny, and he would lose his temper a lot at that point in his life. It was exhausting. And being the oldest, I was empathetic to my mother. I could just feel her drift further and further away and away from the family. And it was kind of startling to me that I was losing a connection with her. I've always understood my mother. She was sometimes, particularly toward the end of her life, of few words, but...

MOSLEY: Because she suffered from MS.

DUNNE: She suffered from MS.

MOSLEY: And towards the end of her life, she could not...

DUNNE: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...Talk anymore.

DUNNE: And this is before she was diagnosed but soon would be soon after. And I felt terrible that my brother and sister were crying, that - I felt terrible about myself that I didn't feel anything. I felt this kind of relief, and I felt guilty about the relief.

So I pretended to cry, and I covered my eyes. And as you said, through one slit of my fingers, I saw my mother whose hands - was also covering her eyes in grief and tears. And I saw - both of us saw each other's totally dry eyes, and we both knew we were faking it.

MOSLEY: You spent a lot of time thinking about your parents - your mother's choice to marry him, divorce him, also your dad's closeted homosexuality, which you actually didn't confirm until his deathbed, even though there were signs there. One of his first productions was the 1970 film "The Boys In The Band," which is one of the earliest movies centering queer characters. Does it seem obvious to you looking back and when you put it all together?

DUNNE: Oh, completely. And, you know, in the years even since his passing, you know, he had, I think, a fairly robust gay life that was - remained closeted.

MOSLEY: Did your mom know when they were married?

DUNNE: I don't know the moment that she knew. I just know that after the divorce, I became her drinking partner. Now, I was not drinking, although she gave me a little - a glass of wine, maybe. I was now in my early teens. But she would drink to excess, enough to sort of overshare with a young kid, with her son.

And it was then that she told me, you know, that this trip that I remember so fondly with my dad and this other guy who came with us, who I thought was hilarious, who reminded me of one of the characters - a character I liked very much in "Flipper," the older brother. Mom was a little bummed and overshared that that guy was my dad's lover.

Now, my reaction wasn't shocked. I actually was honored that I was thought of as being so grown up as to be confided in...

MOSLEY: Could handle it.

DUNNE: ...Like a grown up.

MOSLEY: That you could handle it.

DUNNE: Yeah.

MOSLEY: Yeah. Well, thinking about your dad's sexuality - one of the things we actually learn about you in this book is that you were girl crazy. I mean, sex was always on your mind. Readers will get out - a kick out of that. Like, I'll let them read all those juicy details you write about it in the book, but...

DUNNE: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...I was wondering...

DUNNE: Well, that's what teenagers thought about at the time.

MOSLEY: That's true.

DUNNE: Every seven seconds, they say.

MOSLEY: How was it for you to write that stuff? I mean, you had to go back to your teenage mind to get there, right?

DUNNE: I did. I did.


DUNNE: I ****

DUNNE: ***** I traveled there quite easily.

MOSLEY: (Laughter).

DUNNE: And I was, indeed, girl crazy. I thought about girls all the time. You know, long before I could, you know, actually get them, I was in awe of them. They intimidated me. You know, I had...

MOSLEY: I was just wondering how your sexuality, your understanding of your sexuality was also impacted by your father's repression of his orientation. And I say that because you hint at it.

DUNNE: Well, I had been deflowered when I was 13 by a girl who was 16, and always had these girlfriends. And at the time I had a girlfriend, who I eventually married as a teenager as well in Tijuana, but that's another story. And Dad always left his apartment unlocked. And I walked in on him with a guy who turned out to be, you know, his boyfriend, lover. And Dad freaked out that I saw. And it was so clear what happened, what was going on. The guy didn't even have a shirt on. And he said, oh, this man is my valet. I've hired him to be. You almost wanted to laugh out loud.

You know, we got out on the street. And this girl could be quite cruel at times, too. And we both saw the same thing. And she said, so, your dad is gay. Well, if he's gay, I wonder if that means you're gay. Now, that was like a virus that went in my head. I mean, I actually - you know, I was 17 or 18. You know, I thought it was hereditary. I thought, you know - and I didn't know. I hadn't really thought about my own sexuality as that being a preference, but I felt I had to find out because it scared me so much.

And by the way, my mother had lots of gay friends. And, you know, there was a gay general who produced "Patton," the movie "Patton," and he taught me how to salute. And I found out at an early age that his practical husband was a publicist, and they lived in houses next door to each other. I knew that story when I was 11 or 12. It didn't make any impression on me. I didn't find that unusual. I just didn't think it would - literally the way I thought - this would touch me, if I'd been touched by it. And so I went over, you know, and kind of, like, had...

MOSLEY: Relations.

DUNNE: ...Uncomfortable, weird, you know, sort of sex with the valet when my father was out of town. And the guy said to me, Griffin, I got to tell you, you don't have what it takes to be a homo.


DUNNE: And I went, OK. I found out. OK, I think I'm OK.

MOSLEY: That's something else, though, you know, to say I'm going to try it to actually confirm for myself or not whether I am.

DUNNE: You know, when I got to that part in the book, I went, God, I really did that? I can't believe I did that, my young self really did that. I kind of admired it. And then when I wrote it down and it was - you know, I would send my editor, John Burnham Schwartz, these, you know, clumps of pages as I went along. And I remember he went, wow, you really said that?

MOSLEY: Right.


DUNNE: You sure you're gonna do this? And I went, eh, what the hell.

MOSLEY: You wanted to keep it in there.

DUNNE: Yeah.

MOSLEY: Can you describe "The Boys In The Band"? Because for all of its groundbreaking nature, it was about self-loathing, that it was all about suffering.

DUNNE: And at the same time, it was also hilariously funny. But at the core of it was self-loathing that was assuaged with lots of alcohol at that party. You know, I went to school in the East Coast at that time while that movie was being filmed and I went to the set several times. And, you know, it was a remarkable movie for Billy Friedkin to be making, too. What a bold choice to make, you know, as a young director. I think it was only his second movie.

MOSLEY: And your dad was the executive producer, yeah.

DUNNE: And my dad was the executive producer. Again, at that age, I wasn't really thinking, oh, he was - I found out he was in love with one of the cast members, a guy named Frederick Combs, who later became a very close friend of mine who told me, you know, about how heartbroken my father was that his love wasn't reciprocated. And of the cast of eight, I believe five died of AIDS, and Frederick was one of them.

MOSLEY: That's devastating.

DUNNE: And, you know, toward the very end of his life, he called me, and I could hear how sick he was. And there was all this noise in the background. And I said, where are you? And he went, I'm in LA County Hospital. I went what are you doing there? And his insurance had run out, his SAG insurance. And I was producing a movie at the time. We were just about to go into production, and we gave him a job as an actor, which, of course, he couldn't fulfill. And his insurance kicked in right away.

MOSLEY: So that he could have insurance, yeah.

DUNNE: And he ended up dying with hospice care. And he died in his own bed in his own home.

MOSLEY: Oh, wow. Yeah. Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Griffin Dunne. He's written a new book called "The Friday Afternoon Club," a memoir about his life and complicated family. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today, we're talking to actor Griffin Dunne. His breakout roles were in the 1981 comedy "An American Werewolf In London" and the Martin Scorsese-directed film "After Hours," which Dunne co-produced. He's written a new book titled "The Friday Afternoon Club: A Family Memoir," which delves into the story of the Dunne family, growing up among larger-than-life characters in Hollywood. His dad was Dominick Dunne, a Hollywood producer and frequent writer for Vanity Fair. The book is also about how his family dealt with tragedy, mental illness, a closeted father, and the death of Griffin's sister, Dominique, who was killed by John Sweeney, an ex-boyfriend, in 1982, when she was 22 years old.

I actually want to talk about your sister Dominique for a moment. Who was Dominique? What role did she fill in your family?

DUNNE: Well, being the only girl and the youngest, she was, by far, the favorite of my parents. And my brother and I, you know, just - we were old enough to remember her coming back from the hospital. My mother had lost two girls before.


DUNNE: And I was in the car with her when she miscarried a little boy, and she was fully pregnant, but bleeding, and she drove herself with me in the passenger seat, which I remember. That was another - you're talking about my relationship with my mother. That was another hugely bonding moment for us, even though I was only about 4 years old. And she said, you're very brave, Griffin, when she left me in the car, she was taken in and they - and I waited for my father. And then she lost another girl. So when she came into our lives, it was like, Oh, my God. And my mom - first thing, she was, I can't believe I finally got a little girl.

MOSLEY: She finally got a girl.

DUNNE: I finally got a daughter. And you know, she grew up. She was quite a bossy little thing. And my dad called her Little Miss Muffet. And she, you know, loved animals, you know, just from the get-go. And my brother and I would just, like, compete to do things for her. And she knew my father was gay long before we would find out. And she never told us. She was - that was, like, between - and my dad knew that she knew because he had a relationship with a friend of hers for 20-something years.

And - which we never knew. I never knew until Dad was on his deathbed.

MOSLEY: His deathbed.

DUNNE: And when she decided to become an actress, I was in New York doing everything but being an actor and being rejected and, you know, on the border of being a bitter guy. She said she wanted to be an actress and I went, oh, God, Dominique, don't do that. And I think about a week or two later, she auditioned - one of her very first auditions - for a TV movie called "Diary Of A Teenage Hitchhiker," and she played the teenage hitchhiker. She was number one in the call sheet, and she was off and running.

MOSLEY: She went on to then play the role of the older sister in "Poltergeist." And as you said, you have no doubt that she would have been a successful actor. I should tell the audience, your sister was strangled by her ex-boyfriend, John Sweeney. He was a sous-chef, who had been showing obsessive behavior towards your sister. He strangled her. And she survived for five days before you all made the decision to take her off life support. There's this one moment where you write about when you arrived at the hospital, before she died, there were photographers waiting outside, and they were following your family. They were writing stories about her relationship. And I wondered if you saw fame differently after experiencing that part of fame.

DUNNE: What it changed was things I hadn't thought of before - was something as simple as Halloween. She was attacked on Halloween Eve. And we arrived on Halloween from New York, my brother, father and I. My brother and I were in the cab going through our neighborhood, and all these children were all dressed up, and they were covered in blood and some had hatchets in their heads and ghosts and all this obsession with death and violence. And I just looked at these kids having the time of their lives. But violence had never touched their lives. And I kind of remember wishing it never would. And I just thought, I'm never going to put on a Halloween costume again, and haven't.

MOSLEY: Her killing was one of the most devastating things to happen to your family. It also helped your father find his voice after a pretty tough time that he was dealing with after leaving Hollywood after going broke and trying to find himself as a writer. After her death, he became known as Dominick Dunne, the father of a murdered daughter, and he wrote quite extensively about her and other murders and just became another persona. It propelled his second act, and you felt conflicted by it. Can you say more about that confliction?

DUNNE: You know, before Dad and I went to New York, on his last night in New York, he went to a dinner party at the urging of a wonderful journalist and friend of his who stuck by him named Marie Brenner. She just kind of bullied him into coming to this dinner. And she sat him next to Tina Brown, who was in New York with the hopes of taking over Vanity Fair, which she was going to resurrect. And they sat next to each other, and he told her why he was going to Los Angeles, for the trial of the killer of his daughter, and how little he knew about the judicial system, how he'd never been in a courtroom. And he was scared, and he didn't know what he was going into. And he was worried about how the trial would affect my mother's health, who was now at this point in a wheelchair from MS. And as Tina listened, she said, keep a diary. And if I get this job, you will be one of the first people I publish. And he did. And he turned it in. And it was more than a diary. It was an essay about what a family goes through, if they are on the side of the prosecution and prosecuting the person that killed their family member.

MOSLEY: And we should say that John Sweeney - he was sentenced to manslaughter, and then he was incarcerated in a medium-security prison. He only served three years for your sister's death.

DUNNE: Yeah, yeah, 3 1/2, actually, but who cares? You know, it was a ridiculous sentence. So Dad wrote about this, and he was in Oregon, licking his wounds and having lost all of his money and having - going to AA meetings every day. His mission was also to be a writer. That's what he most wanted to be. And when this happened and he came to Los Angeles for this trial, and he wrote this article, that's when he found his voice. You know, from the time he turned that in, he became a crime reporter, but not just any crime reporter.

He became a reporter bringing such a unique, tragic experience to what he was writing about, that when he wrote about O.J. Simpson, he never let the reader forget the Simpsons or the Browns. And when he wrote about Phil Spector, you know, he let people know Lana Clarkson wasn't some third-rate actress who the rest of the media were portraying. And he's always had - written for the side of the victim. He's always been empathetic.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Griffin Dunne. He's written a new memoir called "The Friday Afternoon Club" about his life, and how his family dealt with significant traumas, mental illness, addiction, a closeted father, and the death of his sister. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today, we're talking to actor, producer, and author Griffin Dunne. He's written a new memoir titled "The Afternoon Club."

I want to play a clip from one of your breakout roles, "After Hours," which came out in '85. It was directed by Martin Scorsese, and in it, you play Paul, who meets a woman named Marcy, played by Rosanna Arquette. You all meet at a cafe, and later that night, she invites you to her apartment. And on the way there, your character loses a $20 bill he was going to use to pay for the cab. He meets Marcy at her home. It gets really weird in the apartment.

And feeling like something is wrong with her, he basically dips. He leaves the first chance he gets. But after a series of events that make it impossible for him to get home, he comes back to Marcy. And in this scene I'm going to play, he's talking to her as she's lying in the bed with her eyes closed.


DUNNE: (As Paul) Listen, I owe you an apology. There's just no excuse for leaving the way I did. And I'm sorry. You know, I just figured it's not working out between us. And, hell, I'll never see you again, and, you know, there's just no excuse. I think I just got a little spooked, you know? You know, with that story about your husband and your boyfriend. I mean, that was really weird. What was that all about? And I gather there's something wrong or you have some burns or something. And I just couldn't handle that. I'm sorry. I don't know what happened to me. I don't know. Maybe the timing's just off or something, but I think I just better go. OK? Marcy. Marcy? Oh, Jesus. Marcy. Oh, God. Breathe. Breathe.

MOSLEY: That was Griffin Dunne as Paul in the 1985 film "After Hours." And what he actually encounters is Marcy has taken drugs to kill herself when she's knocked out in the bed. What did you learn from that time in working with Scorsese and directing?

DUNNE: He made it look like so much fun. I learned that if you're prepared enough - which he was, the most prepared director I've ever worked with - if you're prepared enough, you can go off-script. You can change the game plan. You just have time to work with just the directors. And I loved - his direction would sometimes be so unexpected. You know, that there was a scene where Rosanna Arquette, as Marcy is telling this, you know, terrible time about her husband, about him screaming, surrender Dorothy. And she was doing it very, very kind of seriously take after take. And Marty came up to her and said, I don't think you would laugh during this, would you? She went, no, God, no. Am I laughing? She goes, no, no, but make sure you don't laugh.

Well, off she went (laughter). You know, and he to get my looks, of, you know, kind of shock and stuff, there was a cardboard box filled with broken glass in it and a big rock. And he'd have the prop guy, Tommy Allen standing next to him when the rat trap would go off. He wanted to see me jump. He would take the rock and throw it into the glass. And it made this horrible sound. And my spine would shoot up, and I'd just fly off in the air. He would just think of things off the top of his head...

MOSLEY: Right.

DUNNE: ...To sort of get reactions.

MOSLEY: It's almost, though, like you were a reluctant actor, though, 'cause you actually turned down a lot of roles following "After Hours." What was that reluctance about?

DUNNE: I think I had a complicated relationship with success, and certainly with fame. 'Cause with fame - one, it brought back all that kind of the importance of being famous was when I was brought up in the house. Like, you know, the way people talked about celebrities, there were, like, celebrities, and then everybody else were a bunch of nobodies. But there was also - that came with it a great deal of attention, like, unwarranted attention.

MOSLEY: Was it a kind of self-sabotage? Because, I mean, you were offered some really, yeah, some really powerful roles like "Sex, Lies and Videotape." You turned that down. But then you decided to do roles like a talking penis (laughter).

DUNNE: Yeah, I know. I know all I get - that's exactly what I get into is I just felt kind of lost. I felt lost about my decisions, and, you know, every actor, at some point, usually early in their career, they think the entire world is waiting to see what decision you make next. And that, you know, it will cause great controversy and affect the economy if, you know, you take a crappy job. And - or do

DUNNE: and - or do a movie that's a flop. So it paralyzes a lot of people. And I was particularly paralyzed with that. I felt much more comfortable producing movies that I had developed the story with and that I knew where it was going, that I knew was a good movie that was attracting top directors and top actors. That at least - I knew I was doing really good work. When I was - my decision-making about being an actor that just involved me - I wasn't so good at that kind of decisions.

MOSLEY: You produced a documentary about your aunt, Joan Didion, in 2017 about her life and career. It's called "Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold." And I want to play a clip from it. It's the two of you. You're looking at old photographs, and you remind your Aunt Joan about the time when you and your brother, Alex, first met her as children after your uncle married her. Let's listen.


DUNNE: Do you remember meeting me for the first time?

JOAN DIDION: Maybe it was in Portuguese Bend.

DUNNE: Here's my, like, 5-year-old memory of meeting you. We were at the pool. Alex and I had matching swim trunks, these tight, like, bicycle pants with gold buckles on it. And we were - you know, this is how - this is during our leisure time in our matching bathing suits. And everybody was very excited about you and John coming over. Mom was kind of nervous and was telling us about, you know, we're going to meet John's wife. I'm meeting you. And John says, Griffin, you got a little something poking out of there. And I look down, and one ball has come out of the seam that was broken in the tight bathing suit. And Dad and John and, I think, my mom roared with laughter. And I was scarlet. I was so embarrassed. And you were the only one that didn't laugh. You really - you just kept right on going just, like, with a totally straight face. I always loved you for that.


MOSLEY: That was my guest Griffin Dunne.

DUNNE: You should see my smile just remembering that.

MOSLEY: Yeah, it's such an intimate moment. You and your aunt - you're sitting side by side together. I was also thinking about, I mean, why this moment is forever cemented in your mind. What was it about that moment of meeting and the way Joan reacted to that embarrassing situation that sticks with you?

DUNNE: Because, you know, it became emblematic of the kind of person she's known for as a writer. But in my mind, at that time, having never read her, she was a person who was -didn't go with the crowd, did not join the laughter of adults toward a little boy. She saw it differently. And she looked at me through these big sunglasses, and, you know, she was not that much taller than me either. And I felt this unbelievable connection. And she seemed - the subtext between us was, like, going, I'm not with those guys. I'm right here.

MOSLEY: Well, Griffin, thank you for allowing us into your family's life and your story.

DUNNE: Thank you very much, Tonya.

MOSLEY: Griffin Dunne, author of the new memoir, "The Friday Afternoon Club." Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Jill Ciment's new memoir. This is FRESH AIR.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.