William Kunstler was one of America's most famous radical lawyers. In the 1960s and 1970s, he defended civil rights protesters, Martin Luther King, Jr., and The Chicago Seven. He was called in by the inmates during the Attica prison uprising, and defended members of the American Indian Movement during their 71-day standoff with the federal government at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Later in his career, he took on a string of controversial cases, including defending clients accused in the Central Park Jogger beating, the murder of Meir Kahane, and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Tonight, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" opens at theaters in New York and Boston, with a national expansion to follow. It was directed by his daughters, Emily and Sarah— we asked them some questions about their father's controversial life.

Your dad grew up in an upper middle class family here in New York, went to Yale and Columbia, and was awarded a Bronze star for his service in the Pacific during World War II. He seems to have had a thoroughly normal American upbringing— was there anything there that would have predicted the radical leftist lawyer he was to become? Emily: Dad used to tell us a story about a featherweight boxing champion named Sam Langford with whom he corresponded while he was in high school. After a few months of letters back and forth, the boxer asked dad to come watch him train at his gym. There was only problem: the boxer was black and his gym was in Harlem. Dad’s parents wouldn’t let him visit the gym, which was less than a mile from their apartment on Central Park West. He never wrote to the boxer again. His shame for not having the courage to stand up to his parent’s fears stayed with him for the rest of his life. Dad always kept a photo of Sam Langford framed on his desk, I think to remind him to have the courage to speak his mind and do what he thought was right. That same photo is on the wall of my editing room today.

Most of America got to know Bill Kunstler in 1969, for his role in the Chicago Seven Trial. But by then he was 50, and had been a lawyer for almost twenty years. How did a white lawyer living in Westchester get involved in the Civil Rights movement, and end up defending Freedom Riders, MLK, and Malcolm X? Sarah: Emily and I don’t really know the answer to this. I know that dad always wanted to do something important, and that he had a profound sense of injustice and empathy for oppressed peoples. Lately, we’ve been wondering if it had anything to do with growing up Jewish during the first half of the 20th century. When dad graduated from law school in 1948, none of the top law firms would higher Jewish lawyers. Most Jewish lawyers from that period started their own firms or went into private practice. I think that on some level, being treated as an outsider made dad think more creatively about what to do with his law degree. Conforming just wasn’t an option. So when the ACLU asked him to go to the South to observe the arrests of Freedom Riders, he leapt at the chance. There is definitely a Jewish tradition of social action in this country. Jews made up half of the young people who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964.

2009_9_kunstler.jpgDuring the Chicago 7 Trial, your father invented a style of lawyering that had never been seen before in America— a blend of street theater and public relations that turned the courtroom into a circus. Why was trial so important- why is it still talked about today? Emily: As much as we’d like to give him credit for it, what happened in that Chicago courtroom wasn’t all of our father’s making. Dad learned a lot from defendants Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Yippies who were already using humor and guerilla theater as part of their political activism. Hoffman and others had already attempted to levitate the Pentagon to exorcise its demons, and had caused a frenzy at the New York Stock Exchange by throwing dollar bills from the balcony onto the trading floor. So the Yippies taught dad how to use humor and emboldened him to use it. But something else was happening, too - Dad was becoming completely disillusioned with the American government. During the trial, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was murdered by the Chicago Police Department. And Dad realized that the government would stop at nothing to destroy people it viewed as its enemy. More than anything else, I think it was Hampton’s death that radicalized him. He just didn’t care about the propriety of the courtroom anymore. He was going to do what he needed to do and say what he needed to say on behalf of his clients.

Sarah: I don’t know that the trial itself was all that important. It was symbolic, because it felt to many like the counterculture and America’s youth were being put on trial. I think what was important about it ultimately was the image of Bobby Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom. It was a powerful and shocking illustration of American racism, and it was seen around the world. Dad’s theatrics, the defendants theatrics, they were of a time and a place. It hasn’t really ever been replicated. But I think, in a way, it changed the way young progressive lawyers practiced law. They learned not to be afraid of a courtroom or a judge. And to fight like hell for their clients.

After the Chicago 7, your dad's first marriage broke down— he left his wife and two daughters in Westchester and hit the road, touring the country as a kind of radical leftist celebrity. That seems like the first of many times he put his work before his family life. Did he ever reconcile with his first family? Did he ever learn to put his family before his work? What kind of dad was he- did he remember your birthdays and come to your school plays? Emily: His marriage never recovered, but he always had a good relationship with our older sisters, Karin and Jane. Sarah and I were born when dad was pushing 60, so he had definitely slowed down, which was to our benefit. He was home a lot more. And his office was in the basement of our house. But he worked constantly. When I close my eyes, I see him with a stack of papers and a yellow legal pad. That’s who he was. But he loved to have us around. He used to call Sarah and me his life insurance policy, he thought that we kept him young.

Sarah: We don’t have any abandonment issues or psychological traumas to share with your readers. When he could show up for something, he showed up. When he couldn’t, he didn’t. Sometimes it was worse when he did show up. He was a really embarrassing person - when we were teenagers, Emily and I were continually mortified by him.

Sarah, you were born in 1976, the same year your dad married Margaret Ratner, a civil rights lawyer, and Emily, you came along in 1978. Right around that time your father seems to have switched the focus of his professional work. He stopped defending leftists and political protesters, and started defending more controversial figures, like the mobster John Gotti and El-Sayyid Nosair, who was accused of murdering Meir Kahane, the radical Jewish leader. What caused that shift? Sarah: Emily and I have been trying to answer this question for as long as I can remember. We just spent the past five years making a movie about it. There isn’t an easy answer. Dad started out as a movement lawyer - defending people who were a part of movements he agreed with. The strength of the social movements in the 1960s and 70s waned over time. So Dad had to take different kinds of cases. What bothered Emily and me when we were kids was that he had a choice of whom he represented, and we didn’t understand why he wanted to represent people charged with terrible crimes. It just seemed so far away from standing with Martin Luther King Jr. or the Chicago Seven or the Attica inmates.

Emily: When we were kids, we really wanted our father to be consistent. I think all kids are like that - incredibly moralistic, seeing everything as black and white, right and wrong. But I think if you asked Dad, he would probably tell you that he was being completely consistent. For him, representation of the most hated members of our society was important civil rights work. Dad believed that the government demonized criminal defendants so that society would rush to judgment without evidence and before trial. He used to talk about Goldstein, a fictional character in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, who was imprisoned to justify Big Brother’s repressive government. Dad told us that the government was always creating Goldsteins to scare the public and justify the rollback of civil rights.

Sometimes your dad seemed to seek the spotlight for its own sake, taking roles in movies, and cases for financial gain. How much of his motivation was driven by a true desire to fight for justice, versus the need to satisfy his own ego? At bottom, was he driven by principle or self-interest? Emily: The financial gain part is wrong. Dad rarely took cases for money. He made a living largely through speaking engagements. But there were a few clients who paid. Dad represented Raymond Patriarca, a Rhode Island crime boss. Jimmy Breslin told Sarah and me that clients like Patriarca put food on the table.

Sarah: Dad definitely loved the spotlight. Back in the stone age of the early 1990s, his nightly ritual was to walk our dog around the corner to the newsstand so he could buy the evening edition of all the local papers to look for his name. But I don’t think he was ever driven exclusively by self-interest. He knew how to use the media, and recognized that by taking a case, he would elevate the profile of that case. He used his fame to bring attention to cases that would have otherwise gone on without the benefit of public scrutiny. Justice was very important to dad. He saw it as something that you strive for but never reach. We talked about justice all the time. Dad wanted us to understand that law and justice were not the same thing, and that it was our obligation to fight for what was right.

Your dad seems like a good example of the conjunction of a man and his times— a bigger-than-life personality for a crazier-than-normal age. But we live in different times— times in which a black man can become President, the Secretary of State is a woman, and state and national laws have been extended to protect racial minorities, women, and gays. Is there any cause still worth becoming a radical about? If he were alive today, what cases would your Dad be working on? Emily: Sarah and I were at the Sundance Film Festival premiering our film during the inauguration of President Obama. On Main Street in Park City, Utah, we heard people talking about how the election of a black president meant that we had “moved beyond race.” Dad would have been horrified. This nation still bears the scars of slavery, civil war, Jim Crow, lynchings, riots, and the assassinations of countless black leaders and activists. Racism is alive and well. There is still plenty of reason for outrage, and plenty of reason for activism.

Sarah: If Dad were alive, he would be representing Guantanamo detainees, and anti-war, environmental and anti-globalization protesters. He would be fighting for the release of Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal. And he would be saying outrageous things to the press to get his name in the paper.

Sarah, what kinds of cases are you working on today? Are you interested in carrying on your dad's work? I am a criminal defense lawyer practicing in federal court in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I work with Elizabeth Fink, a colleague of my father’s who represented the Attica inmates in a landmark civil lawsuit. Liz is the most fearless person I’ve ever met. But I’m not interested in carrying on my dad’s work. I wouldn’t even know how to start. It’s time for the next generation of lawyers to determine the course of progressive lawyering.

Emily, what do you want to do next? Sarah and I are looking forward to making a movie that isn’t about our family. Our next film is going to be about racism in America.