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The Actor Behind 'Robocop' On Detroit And Art History


He's part-man, part-machine - all cop.


PETER WELLER: (As RoboCop) Let the woman go. You are under arrest.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Creep's Friend) You better back up, pal.


WILLIAM SHOCKLEY: (As creep, screaming).

WELLER: (As RoboCop) Your move, creep.

SIMON: 1987's "RoboCop" is a cult movie classic set in a dystopian Detroit before dystopian became a word used by seventh-graders.

WELLER: (Laughter).

SIMON: Peter Weller played RoboCop. And today Peter Weller acts, directs and produces. But over the years, he's also become a Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance art history. Next week, he will return to Detroit to be a featured speaker at the annual art conference Culture Lab Detroit. Dr. Peter Weller joins us now from Hawaii Public Radio in Honolulu.

Thanks so much for being with us.

WELLER: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

SIMON: So what made you go back to school to study art at the age of 57? You could have been making a lot of money while you sat in the classroom.

WELLER: It all goes back to a dear friend Ali MacGraw, who most people know as a big film star in the '60s and '70s. And she's the person who took me by the hand when the "Guernica" was going back to Spain because Picasso wanted to go back to Spain. And she walked me through Picasso from his early days of realism all the way through his life - cubism, what have you. So when you read about Picasso, you can walk yourself back in time through Western art. When you get to the Renaissance, it's politics, and it's economics, and it's poetry, and it's a change of the look at the way the world looked at Roman classics. As a matter of fact, the Renaissance starts with a reinvention of classical literature - Cicero, Martial, Livy, Plutarch, what have you. So I had to take classes in that, so now I'm really hooked.

SIMON: As I understand it, your talk is entitled "The Aesthetics Of Tomorrow." Can you give us a preview?

WELLER: Well, I don't know who entitled it that. I was just talking about the crisis of beauty because Detroit is really a city that was hitting the skids and is really turning around its downtown area dramatically. And the crisis of beauty addressed by the Cultural Lab of Detroit (ph) is what, who and how we define is beautiful. And if it's put in the power of the wrong hands, beautiful things - i.e., art - will be destroyed or cursed or blackened by somebody's opinion. I mean, someone can make some categorical pronouncement or judgment on what he or she thinks is beautiful. That's a crisis to me.

SIMON: What will it be like for you to be back in Detroit?

WELLER: It'll be fun, man. The first time I went to Detroit, I have to say - you know, I went to New York in 1971, and it was dangerous. And it was bad. It was lethal, and I embraced that. And it was gorgeous, and it was exciting. First time I went to Detroit, I saw it in, I think, 1982, '83 - something like that. And it was the same way. You couldn't go out of a hotel at night. And I thought - oh, my God - get me out of here, man. And then I went back, and I saw the progression and the improvement of it. And I can't believe the transformation of what the downtown is because what I see is what I get right away. And when I see a beautiful city, I see the restructuring of the life downtown, that people walk in the street. Look; it happened in Chicago. It happened to New York. It's happening in Detroit. I feel, I don't know, joined at the hip to Detroit simply because of "RoboCop." We didn't even shoot in "RoboCop" but because we talked Detroit and Detroit is so, like, the ground of being of America in so many ways, that I feel connected to it, man.

SIMON: I'm told there's a RoboCop statue that's going to be unveiled.

WELLER: I keep hearing about it. I don't want to get into it. If they do it, it's fantastic. I have a huge ego and a fragile one at that. But I certainly don't want to endorse, like, this statuary of my own images. But I certainly endorse, like, Martha Reeves up there, man or, you know...

SIMON: Yeah.

WELLER: ...Or Aretha - Aretha, for crying out loud, man. You don't have a statue of Aretha in that city.

SIMON: Yeah.

WELLER: My gosh, they've got to have a statue to her.

SIMON: Peter Weller, part-actor, part-art historian - all Renaissance man.

Thanks so much for being with us.

WELLER: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.