Did Barbara Walters Ask Katharine Hepburn What Tree She'd Be?
987: (L-R) Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Walters on '20/20' on Sept. 18th. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
“If you were a tree what kind of tree would you be?” That’s the question that Barbara Walters has been rumored to have asked Katherine Hepburn in her 1981 interview. Walters became the butt of jokes and water cooler fodder, but when it comes down to it she didn’t really ask that question, at least not in that context. The question is asked in the interview but it’s not as weird as it sounds, Walters doesn’t read it off a card or anything. The entire interview is extremely fascinating and a fun watch and through a misremembering of the facts the nuance of the question has gone down in history as one of the worst questions asked in an interview.
Walters was just asking a follow up to something Hepburn said
Barbara Walters interviewed Katherine Hepburn a few times, but the one that everyone remembers occurred in 1981 when Hepburn was 74 years old. Walters asked how Hepburn had become so much of a legend and the star replaced that she had become “sort of a thing.” Walters asked “what kind of thing?” and Hepburn said “I’m like a tree.” The answer teed up Walters to ask a follow up question which is obviously “What kind of tree are you?” Hepburn answered, “I’m not an elm, with Dutch Elm diseases or a weeping willow dropping all its leaves.”
Instead, Hepburn answered that she hoped to be an oak tree. She continued, “I saw one recently in the woods, a white oak, strong and great like that.” While answering, Hepburn stretched her arms out as if she was growing into a large tree.
The question has become mythologized and misremembered
In 1981 audiences couldn’t play things back. They couldn’t record moments or watch them over and over again on YouTube. VCRs cost about $1,500 so they weren’t as prevalent in the early ‘80s as they would be a decade later. Because of this audiences had to rely on their memory to recount a crazy moment that they witnessed and many people remember the question going differently.
There are message boards and comments across the web where people remember Hepburn dressing Walters down for asking a “stupid question,” but that’s not the case. Thankfully today we have proof that Hepburn started the tree talk.
Jokes about the interview hurt Walters’ feelings
Walters’ question about what kind of tree Hepburn would be brought her a lot of grief on the late night circuit. On top of that people who didn’t even watch the interview thought she was just asking ridiculous questions, but out of all the people poking fun at her she says it’s Johnny Carson who most disappointed her.
In her memoir Walters writes that the question immediately made her the butt of every joke. She says that she was most hurt by Johnny Carson. She writes:
Johnny Carson was one of the people who wouldn’t let the tree issue go, so when he heckled me about it during an interview some years later, I finally broke down and asked him what kind of tree he’d like to be. ‘A tumbleweed,’ he replied.
Walters feels like she whiffed that question
“What kind of tree are you” isn’t the best question that’s ever been asked in an interview, but in context it makes sense. Hepburn was notoriously feisty and the interview was a series of back and forth jabs that feels more off the cuff than most interviews airing on ABC at the time. She says that the moment has followed her throughout her career and it’s caused more problems than it has opened doors. There are things in life that we wish we could take back, it’s just that they’re not broadcast on television for millions of people to see and talk about the next day.
The interview is more than the tree moment
Barring the tree moment, this interview with Katharine Hepburn is really good. If you like a good tete a tete between an interviewer at the top of their game and a star with nothing to lose then it’s a must see.
Hepburn is open about her private life, her friends, and the way that she’s been misconstrued through Hollywood gossip. The full 16 minutes is funny, a little nasty, and very sweet even with that thing about the tree.
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