We were coming back from Jamaica last December when I saw an elderly man putting his coat into the overhead bin. He looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place him. If he were a little younger, that’d be Richard Benjamin, I thought, referring to the director of one of my favorite movies, MY FAVORITE YEAR, and the star of another, WESTWORLD. The plane took off, and a little later I heard his female companion call him “Richard.” I listened carefully for his response: holy cow, it was Richard Benjamin!
In and around New York, where we were headed, it is very uncool to make a big deal over a star spot, especially if the celebrity’s trapped with you on a plane. But if you hang around here long enough, you see plenty of notables. Sometimes when there’s nobody else around, I’ll actually walk up. The year before, we noticed at customs that Timothy Hutton had come back from France on our redeye flight, and the load was very light – he might have been the only guy in first class. At the baggage carousel, I saw him sitting alone, nobody else around. I walked over, shook his hand, and told him I admired his work. He said thanks – both for the shout-out and because I immediately left him alone again – and he smiled at us as he was leaving. That’s about as intimate as it ought to get. One day David Byrne stood behind me in line at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square. I paid, turned, and said I admired his work. (I’m plumb full of admiration, children.) He said, “Thank you,” and that was it. No fuss, no muss.
Inside, understand, I’m like Chris Farley in that old SNL sketch where he hosts a talk show and is so starstruck that he can only fawn over his guests. Remember in STOP MAKING SENSE…remember when you came out with the boom box and you pushed Play? That was…AWESOME. That’s what I wanted to say. But you just have to hold it in, man.
Once I was crossing Park Avenue, and Paul Sorvino was headed the opposite way. When he got close enough to see me, I made eye contact and mimed applause, very softly. He grinned and nodded, a slight jovial bow. Perfect. He gets a little ego stroke but doesn’t even have to break stride. I’ve done that for several others, and so far I’ve gotten the identical response: thanks, and whew!
Intermission at the theater, particularly at cool downtown venues, can bring the stars out. Once we saw Keanu Reeves standing in line for a halftime nosh, all by himself, no posse. He’s strikingly handsome – you’d notice him even if he weren’t famous – but nobody bothered him. A bereted Ed Harris can walk right through a crowded lobby because he has The Stare: yep, I am indeed Ed Harris, but I’d rather we didn’t get into that right now. Joe Pantoliano was at the same show as Keanu, but you don’t wanna walk up to Joey Pants anyhow. We saw the original production of David Mamet’s SPEED-THE-PLOW with Joe Mantegna and Madonna. Steve Martin and his then-wife, Victoria Tennant, were in the audience. After the show, there was a huge crowd at the stage door, waiting to see Ms. Donna get into her limo. Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Steve Martin and Mantegna –- the actor they’d just seen in the play — stepped out from the lobby, headed down the street the other way, and nobody even gave ‘em a glance. (Except us, of course.)
You can get noticed, though. Just after Bush v. Gore, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg walked into a theater with her husband and got an ovation, presumably for standing with the 5-4 minority. When QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY was first becoming a sensation, Carson Kressley — the blond fashion expert — actually walked up and down a few rows at AVENUE Q shaking hands. Outside in Times Square there was a 100-foot poster of the Fab Five: this absurd amount of fame was still new to them.
Sidewalks are great too, but you have to be quick. Richie Havens told me that if he really needed to get somewhere in New York, he had to walk at a certain pace, never slower, or else he’d wind up talking to tons of people and be late. Even after all these years! It takes more than an instant to conclude, that’s Richie Havens!, and he’s such a sweetheart that he would just stop and chat every time. Don’t make eye contact, be gone before they can figure it out. (I edited Richie’s autobio, so he doesn’t count: meeting people at work is quite different from a random star spot.) I’ve seen Bill Paxton, Matthew Broderick, Paul Newman, Sigourney Weaver, Lorne Michaels, Carly Simon, Tony Randall, Will Ferrell, Alec Baldwin, Patrick Stewart, Katie Couric, Eric Clapton, Sylvester Stallone, Sandra Bernhard, Bob Costas, and many more that I’ve forgotten – plus, no doubt, dozens that I wasn’t even aware of! Linda used to work next door to the Russian Tea Room and has made lots of spots: I think her favorite was Sean Lennon. I went through a revolving door directly opposite Chuck Jones, the legendary Looney Tunes director, and still regret that I didn’t keep pushing my way back in to shake the great man’s hand. My favorite sidewalk-passing spot was David Patrick Kelly, who was in town for a play and for some unexpected reason was barreling down a street in my neighborhood, looking studious in glasses and keeping it straight ahead. I actually might have broken the unwritten rule and stopped him to talk if he hadn’t breezed on by a la Havens: he was the best psycho ever in THE WARRIORS, which also happened to star one of my college buddies. He might have even enjoyed the shout.
But the master of Upper East Side sidewalks is undoubtedly the Woodman. For 16 years, we lived quite close to him, from Mia through Soon-Yi. We’ve passed him on the sidewalk maybe four, five times. Each time, the neck-snap only shows his receding scrawny ass. Woody Allen can hunch down in a way that almost erases himself from view: his street anonymity is an art form. The last couple of times, I noticed a vaguely familiar young Asian woman. Slight pause. Soon-Yi! But by the time I’d figured it out, Woody had already passed me close enough to nudge me if he’d wanted to. I saw him clearly in my peripheral vision, but by then it was too late. He makes Ed Harris look like Captain Kangaroo: don’t even think about engaging me. We moved across Park Avenue from his haunts almost four years ago, and we haven’t seen him since. I think he might have moved away too: he shoots his pictures in Europe now.
One star spot stands out above them all for me. I was getting on a bus on Madison Avenue one afternoon, and everybody – I mean everybody, including the bus driver, who kept the door open – was looking over my left shoulder, some with mouths agape. I went in, sat down, and looked myself. Coming out of an office building, sharply dressed in a suit and flanked by two assistants, was none other than Muhammad Ali. Everybody on the bus was transfixed. Ali was instantly surrounded. Never have I seen such adoration. Slightly shaking from Parkinson’s, the Champ couldn’t sign autographs, but his helpers handed him a stack of little cards which he personally gave to everyone around (must have been something like, “I met The Greatest”). He even posed for a couple of pictures. You know that expression where he’s biting his lower lip and raising a fist to, say, Howard Cosell? He can still do that. After a long couple of minutes, the bus driver finally had to get back to work, and as we pulled away, Ali headed for his limo. How many times has this happened to him? Yet his graciousness was an example to everyone, and everyone knew it. As our bus headed uptown, a teenage kid was running alongside us at full speed, yelling to his friends on the corner ahead, almost skipping with excitement. In his flailing hand was the Champ’s card.
6/4/16: Today we received some sad news. Goodbye, Champ.