Faces of Berkeley: Harry Kreisler, ‘Conversations With History’ host has taped more than 500 interviews in 30 years

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Anna Vignet/Senior Staff

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Before Harry Kreisler’s first interview with Oliver Stone, he watched all of the director’s movies.

“(Stone) came in, and he was very restless, so I asked him a question that revealed that I had watched all of his movies,” Kreisler said fondly. “And he lit up, and he opened up and gave me an unbelievable answer, which was quite moving.”

In addition to the 1997 Stone interview, Kreisler, the UC Berkeley Institute for International Studies executive director, has interviewed everyone from Daniel Ellsberg, who helped leak the Pentagon Papers, to Frans Andriessen, former vice president of the European Communities.

Thanks to his series of televised interviews “Conversations With History,” Kreisler has knowledge in several different fields such as foreign policy, science and film — knowledge he has passed on to his viewers.

He first began his interviews 30 years ago, in 1982, and has since completed 545 interviews that have been available to audiences globally through YouTube and podcasts.

The interviews were originally available on local cable television, then when UCTV launched in 2000, the interviews were aired via its cable channel and online. With the growing popularity of the Internet, “Conversations With History” was eventually shared around the world.

Kreisler, who first came to campus to study political science in graduate school and wound up with a position at the institute, came up with the idea to start “Conversations With History” in the early 1980s when he was coordinating events at the institute.

“We were having an event about the nuclear arms buildup in Europe, and in the seminar room were several Nobel laureates — a lot of scientists — and it frustrated me that the public wasn’t being exposed to these very exciting and intellectual conversations,” Kreisler said.

So Kreisler decided to take some of the people to the studio on campus and tape the interviews with them. That was the beginning of “Conversations with History.”

Kreisler has done many interviews with Nobel laureates, army generals and Pulitzer Prize winners, but he said that the most interesting ones are the ones that have surprising answers that lead down to different paths he did not expect to go down.

Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Robert Price said Kreisler has been very successful in bringing influential people to the Berkeley campus.

“He has developed a broad personal network of both public intellectuals and policy makers from throughout the world,” Price said.

Kreisler said his favorite interviews are the ones in which he does not know the subject matter beforehand, allowing him to learn more about a topic with which he is unfamiliar.

“Harry is someone who is genuinely interested in who he is interviewing,” said UCTV Communications Director Alison Gang. “He also asks questions that the audience will find interesting and engaging.”

The preparation that Kreisler does before each interview has allowed him to learn a plethora of new information by working across fields and subsequently using that information to help teach viewers more about those topics.

“I hope I’m helping the broader audience learn through these interviews,” Kreisler said. “I see the interviews as a gateway to a person embracing ideas.”

Kreisler said he plans to continue doing the interviews in the future and possibly publish another book of interviews. He is currently teaching a class on issues facing the next president through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.