Earlier this week, a video of the TV journalist Leta Powell Drake conducting celebrity interviews went viral.* In it, Powell Drake, who was a fixture on the Lincoln, Nebraska, CBS affiliate for decades, can be seen peppering Tom Selleck, Tom Hanks, Kurt Russell, and more with hilariously blunt observations like “You worked with Richard Burton—and now he’s dead.” The video was cut together by the Twitter user John Frankensteiner, who told me over DM that two days ago he’d come across Powell Drake’s interview with Roy Scheider—in which she makes the cameraman do close-up on his eyes and asks, “What is that ring around your eye?”—and liked it so much that he put together a compilation of her interviews, available on YouTube. So I gave her a call, and she picked up on the first ring, delighted that she had gone viral. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Willa Paskin: Have you watched the viral clip that’s going around?
Leta Powell Drake: Well, the thing is that I know all of the clips because I saved them, I saved all those interviews and I gave them to the Nebraska History Museum about five years ago. I was trying to clean up my closets and all this crap I have here and I thought, What are you doing with this? You know, your son’s just going to come in and dump them. Why don’t I give them to the Nebraska History Museum? So they kind of sat there, and I don’t know how this came about that all of a sudden now it’s all over the world. Like, where did 3.5 million viewers come from?
Do you understand what people are responding to in the videos?
They love it! Especially older people, they know these people and to look back on—some of them are so cute. Everybody was much younger, everybody was really handsome. Now they’re old and dead.
I think it’s also because of the way you are, because you’re so matter-of-fact.
I’m not matter-of-fact, I do my homework. If I’m going to do an interview, I come in and look like I know what I’m talking about. I did the research, and of course, we didn’t have computers then, so I had to work really hard to figure out who they were. And I think they responded to that.
It’s more than that, though. Like in this interview where you’re talking to Gene Hackman and you’re like, “You’ve been in some brilliant pictures, and you’ve done some stinkers.” How often do you think that people say that to Gene Hackman? There’s like a level of honesty you’re bringing.
You know, I tried to put on my face and make sure my hair looked OK, so I looked halfway decent and I had done my homework, so I went into everything with confidence. And maybe that was it. Confidence will take you a long way, you know, it really will.
Do you remember doing these interviews?
Fortunately—and I’m so glad I did this—in 2016, I took all of the videos that I had and I listed them and I listed the date and the name. So there are so many here, you wouldn’t believe it. But just for example, Ed Asner and Lou Grant. How old are you?
Oh, a baby. OK, you don’t know who Ed Asner is.
I know who Ed Asner is!
How about M.A.S.H.?
M.A.S.H. is worse for me than Ed Asner. Mary Tyler Moore is better for me than M.A.S.H.
OK, I’ve got a whole bunch on Mary Tyler Moore. I was just looking at something that might be for your age. … Do you know who George Burns is? I interviewed him at age 99. Let’s see, I’m trying to think of people for your age that might know. Carol Burnett? Ernest Borgnine?
Yes, yes, I know all those people. What was it like talking to Tom Hanks?
Well, the strange thing is we were both in the same hotel and I was in the swimming pool and he came in the swimming pool. So we swam together. I said, “I can beat you.” I’m very competitive. “I said, come on, Tom, let’s go.” And I beat him.
Did anyone ever get mad at you?
I think they didn’t get angry with me. There were a couple of people I didn’t like, but I did hundreds of them, so I can’t remember exactly who. I could go through my list, but my list is about seven pages—oh, God, no. There’s eight, nine, 10, 11 pages. Thank God I kept this list. Oh, Alex Haley! And James Earl Jones—he called me and he wanted to take me to dinner and I said, no, no.
Yeah, Willa Paskin.
What kind of a name is that?
It was Jewish, but then they changed it.
Jewish! My favorite people! My favorite people are the Jews.
How could the video get across the world like this? Oh my goodness! How on earth could they do this?
Did you see the tweet that went viral? It’s about you.
[she reads the tweet] “Currently obsessed” and “the greatest interview of all time!” [cackles with delight, then starts to read the comments] “Oh, my God, her makeup when interviewing Tim Curry.” He was not a fun interview at all. Not fun at all.
So you were working for the CBS affiliate in Lincoln, Nebraska, is that right?
I hosted two shows a day. I did the morning show at 7 a.m. Oh, God, an hour all by myself. I hosted it and produced it and, you know, got the guests and got everybody organized. And then I had the afternoon kids show, which was called Kalamity Kate’s Cartoon Corral. I was the West’s only lady sheriff and I had all those kids to take care of at 3:30 in the afternoon after school. And that was the big deal. I mean, the kids came in from all over the state. Their mothers and fathers drove them in their cars all the way to Lincoln. And everything was live. So I was doing two shows a week and, you know, creating them and putting them together.
When were you doing these interviews?
I did these in the late 1970s, through ’80s. For about 10 or 11 years, I was going to New York all the time and interviewing all the TV stars. And we were all there in the finest hotels and all the time everything was first class and, you know, in Nebraska, we’re fourth class. So it was always nice to get a free ride to the New York City.
And now you’re retired?
I’m not retired. I’m still doing television. We have a local channel that is called—it’s a terrible, absurd title— called Live and Learn. I’ve been doing that for about 12 years. And it’s for old people. And I’m still there in person in the studio, and the other people have to be on Zoom. A lot of older people don’t know how to Zoom, so we’re suffering there. And I’m with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, I create classes. So I hardly call it being tired, I mean, being retired. I may be tired, but I’m not retired. I’m busier than I ever have been. I’m not making any money right now. But that’s OK. I always say, “What am I gonna do with the time—I could clean out this house? Nah.”
Correction, Nov. 14, 2020: This article originally misidentified Leta Powell Drake as Leta Powell Blake.