The premiere episode of Iconoclasts, a new six-part series on the Sundance Channel that pairs famous people with someone they admire for an hour-long interview, brings together Samuel L. Jackson and Bill Russell, the legendary defensive center for the Boston Celtics. Even if, like me, you’re beyond clueless about sports, this encounter is rich with possibility: the meeting of two powerful, gifted black men who, despite their success, tend to regard the white world with a wary defiance. The younger Russell was known for his frequently inconvenient sense of racial pride, often characterized by the white press as resentment. One story tells how, after being given the key to the city in Marion, Ind., Russell was refused service in the dining room of his own hotel. Russell went to the mayor’s house, woke him up, and handed back the key.
There are glimpses of the young and righteously angry Bill Russell in the genial 71-year-old man who plays golf and chats with Jackson in tonight’s show. “In order to be successful as a basketball player, I had to be in a state of positive rage,” he tells Jackson. Russell also relates a story from his college days that clearly still rankles: In his junior year of college, the University of San Francisco failed to give him a Player of the Year award despite the fact that he had just played a record-setting season. Russell concluded that “I cannot, in good conscience, have any regard for these people,” and when he was awarded the trophy his senior year, he put it in a trash can on his way home. Russell tells these stories with a twinkly relish, but his sense of wounded pride is still palpable.
But for the most part, what could have been a substantial conversation about being black and famous in America comes off as a mutually laudatory puff piece. On his way to meet Russell at the links, Jackson tells the camera that his subject is the kind of guy who “gives you nuggets of wisdom just through generally hanging out with him.” But in tonight’s episode, those nuggets seem sparsely scattered among endless scenes of the two men putting golf balls and chatting in nice restaurants. Celebrities interviewing celebrities is a promising concept, in that it upsets the power balance of the typical suck-up interview. But the downside is that once people get past a certain level of fame, they seem to lose the internal monitor that reminds them that not everything they do and say is worth recording.
The second episode of Iconoclasts pairs Tom Ford, the former head of design for Gucci, with Jeff Koons, the superstar artist who incorporates pop-culture detritus into monumental works that hover between beauty and kitsch. Ford and Koons’ encounter has more teeth than the Jackson/Russell snugglefest; in the opening segment, Ford confesses that he swings between finding Koons the most intelligent artist working today, and suspecting that he’s “full of s**t.” Unlike Russell and Jackson, Ford and Koons weren’t friends prior to filming; they’ve met only briefly at a few parties when, by his own admission, Ford was too drunk to start a real conversation. The episode takes place mainly at Koons’ Manhattan studio, where a stable of young artists buzzes about executing his weird visions. The project they’re working on the day of Ford’s visit is a giant paint-by-numbers rendering of a peg-leg pirate toy that Koons has pilfered from his young son.
There’s a Spinal Tap quality to Ford’s unintentional naiveté, as he asks Koons questions straight out of a bull session between stoned college freshmen: “Is that vacuum cleaner a piece of art, or does the art come from the fact that you have put it in a work and called it art?” But his genuine curiosity about Koons’ work is touching, as is the level of attention and detail both men bring to their craft. In a discussion of his own work, Ford defends his obsessive perfectionism: “I was criticized at Gucci for being a control freak. But if someone buys a product and they think, wow, Tom Ford designed this, I think Tom Ford should have designed it.”
Upcoming installments of Iconoclasts will feature even odder matchups: Renée Zellweger chats up Christiane Amanpour on Dec. 8, and star chef Mario Batali meets REM singer Michael Stipe on Dec. 15. The series concludes on Dec. 22, when Robert Redford, the show’s executive producer, interviews Paul Newman. I can hear their conversation now: “You’ve got really nice blue eyes.” “No, you.” “No, you.”