Sunday, February 27, 2011

My First Celebrity.

Today is Oscar day, usually a fun day for people in my business regardless where they are, but especially serious in Los Angeles. Last year Angie and I had a whole gaggle of people over with ballots and prizes and trivia questions and homemade chili. This year we're not doing any of that. Just the two of us and a quiet night at home after I finish the matinee of Adding Machine.

For one thing, I've hardly seen any of the nominees. We've officially turned into a Netflix/cable kinda household. A clear sign of aging. We did see 'Winter's Bone' because we had a close friend in it. And we saw 'True Grit' because I love westerns. But, I blush to confess, that's about it, really.

The times, they are a-changin'. There were many years in which I'd never dream of not seeing one of the nominees.

Like most actors, when I was very young, I practiced my Oscar speech late at night while drifting off to sleep. I was always very magnanimous. "It's such an honor to even be nominated with Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Jay Silverheels." Or whatever.

A few years back a good buddy of mine actually attended the Oscars, live and in person. Had a reserved seat, the whole thing. I was very impressed. He told me he peed in the urinal next to Denzel Washington. I was doubly impressed.

Coming face to face with a certain kind of celebrity is an interesting thing. When I first moved to NY a gillion years ago, I often encountered celebrity. At first it was always sort of world rocking. Eventually, of course, it became rather old hat. In New York there's an unwritten law, of sorts, that says you can't bother celebs. Not like Chicago or LA. In Chicago people swoon and faint and carry on like toddlers around a birthday clown. I guess that's because Chicago is, deep down, just a big, midwestern small town. In LA it appears to be no big deal but because it's such a spread out place, the celebrity sightings are not nearly as common as one might think. Although it certainly happens. But in NY I ran across so many recognizable names and faces and the rule of thumb was, 'don't bother them.'

As I got older it became not such a big deal. I worked with high profile people onstage myself. I drank beer with people I'd seen on the afternoon 'bowling for dollars' movie as a kid. The entire idea of 'celebrity' lost it's luster for me.

But there are still a few that captured my attention. People that got my blood up even after many jaded years in this business. One was running across the late Paul Newman after a play one night. Another time was during a brief visit to LA many years ago and accidentally bumping into a vry old Ray Bolger. Still another was flagging the same cab during a drizzly afternoon as Woody Allen. And still another was a spur-of-the-moment conversation with Rex Harrison a few months before he died. Celebrity, in general, doesn't really do much for me these days, but there are those still that make me feel like a kid again. And finally, there was a life-changing chance meeting with Muhammad Ali in a diner on 36th and Third in the city.

My first encounter with celebrity was at the age of ten in Missouri. When I was a boy I was completely fascinated with professional wrestling. I all but held my breath until Saturday nights when 'Wrestling at the Chase' or 'All-Star Wrestling' came on tv. Even today I can remember the wrestlers in startling detail: Dory Funk, Jr., Handsome Harley Race, Jack Briscoe, Dick the Bruiser, Black Jack Lanza, Baron Von Rashke, Rufus R. Jones, Hans Schmidt, Terry Funk, Johnny Valentine, Nature Boy Roger Kirby ('Nature Boy?'). This was long before professional wrestlers were the chiseled, monstrous, massively huge specimens they are today. No, these were mostly middle-aged tubby guys in speedos.

In any event, the local Optimists Club (a club I could would never be allowed to join today, no doubt) brought in a wrestling event at the VFW hall. I took along some notebook paper and a black crayon in the hopes of getting an autograph.

One of the wrestlers featured that night was a guy who went by the name 'Lord Alfred Hayes.' He was a British Lord that had, inexplicably, decided to become a professional wrestler. At least, that was his backstory. So after 'Lord Alfred Hayes' finished pinning his rival for the night, he left the ring and disappeared into the temporary dressing rooms. And for some reason decided a bit later to come out and watch the rest of the program. He was standing in the back in his street clothes directly behind me. Up to that point I'd been unsuccessful in getting an autograph from any of the wrestlers. But suddenly I turned around and there, towering over me, was 'Lord Alfred Hayes.'

I had recently heard on the news that the hockey player, Bobby Orr, had purchased a ranch in Montana. So, at the age of ten, I assumed that's what famous people did, they purchased ranches in Montana. When I turned around and realized 'Lord Alfred Hayes' was standing right beside me, close enough to touch, I was speechless. I thrust my paper and crayon at him. Wordlessly he took it and scribbled something that looked like 'Libby Alfling Habs' (I still have the autograph). Then, remembering the hockey player on the news, I blurted out, "How is your ranch in Montana?"

Lord Alfred Hayes paused a moment to be sure he'd heard me right. Finally, he drew himself up, stared sternly at me (he was a 'bad guy' in the ring) and said, "I don't have a ranch. I have a castle." He prounounced the word 'castle' especially British. And, much like years later when my friend peed next to Denzel Washington, I was very, very impressed.

The funny thing is, today, quickly approaching fifty, having been onstage with scads of celebs, hung out with them, drank with them, laughed with the newsworthy, argued with the recognizable, eaten dinner with the noteworthy, I think I'd still get tongue-tied if I ever came across 'Lord Alfred Hayes' again. Your first celebrity is a powerful thing.

See you tomorrow.