Starspotting

Hollywood_Walk_of_FameWe 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.

thOnce 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.

David Patrick Kelly in THE WARRIORS. Remember him now?

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.

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6 Responses to Starspotting

  1. Janna Silverstein says:

    What a wonderful piece, Tom! And it’s so true. I have a couple of friends I know would appreciate this and will point them to it immediately.

    I’ve passed Yoko Ono on the street (she’s tiny, and had a big body guard with her, looking bigger for her shortness). I saw Al Roker at a restaurant (looking uncharacteristically grouchy). I passed by Mel Gibson and met Geraldine Ferraro and Jackie O at work.

    But I think my favorite celebrity spot in Manhattan happened one day on the way to the subway. I’d just walked past Plaza Athenee when I heard a distinctive man’s voice say, “You dAAaaAArling man!” I knew the voice instantly. I turned to glance and there was Tony Curtis on the hotel steps, his white hair impeccably coiffed, his clothing pure movie star, ascot and all.

    • Tom Dupree says:

      I rode the elevator with Mrs. Onassis once, just the two of us, back when Bantam and Doubleday were still at 666 Fifth Avenue. I still wonder if I should have spoken — she had the Ed Harris vibe, but only because of her great celebrity, not any buzz-off body language — but what would I have said?

  2. Steve Perry says:

    Used to see a lot of movie and rock stars when I lived in L.A. One of my favorite instances was when I was heading for a bookstore near UCLA and there was a sudden and unscheduled eclipse of the sun. Turned out to be Lou Ferrigno. You can tell he’s big on a screen, but you really get a sense of that when he’s standing five feet away …

  3. Mark James says:

    Great piece! I love the idea of miming applause. Perfect.

    As for Mr. Allen, I passed him on the UES last fall – he was wearing his signature chinos, blue button down and a bucket hat. It was the first time I actually stopped on the street and looked behind me.

  4. brenda says:

    What a fun topic. Here’s my list of Celebrities I’ve Met. It’s a short list, bein’ as I live down here where there ain’t too many movie stars roamin’ around:

    1) Gary Busey, when he was here filming “The Buddy Holly Story.” This was back in the late ’70s. I (along with every other college theater student in town) served as an extra in the roller-rink dance party scene—we showed up, got costumed in our poodle skirts or pegged jeans, and jitterbugged for a thousand takes, over and over, and then…the film was refinanced, re-shot elsewhere, and I ended up on the cutting-room floor.

    2) Geraldine Fitzgerald, at the very party given by Frank Hains described in Kevin Sessums’ *Mississippi Sissy.*

    3) Rod Stewart, in an elevator here at the Holiday Inn Crown Plaza, circa 1979. He was here to do a concert. That is one long, tall drink o’ water.

    4) Ralph Waite (come ON, y’all, he played Pa Walton!) who filmed a pilot for a TV series in Vicksburg. Elizabeth the Freethinker and I were “lighting stand-ins” for the real actresses. Also got to spend time with Harry Morgan, Jr. (son of Colonel Potter in *MASH*) who was directing. He referred to E and me as “The Marx Brothers,” for some reason.

    5) Jerry Orbach. When I was a freshman in college, I went with 3 other friends to NYC, and after we saw “Pippin” we went to a place on Broadway, and while I was waiting for my drink at the bar, I felt someone stroking my hair (which at the time was down to my butt, thick as molasses, and wheat-blonde.) I was terrified (little Nell in the wicked city and all that)—turned around, and politely asked him to remove his hand. He did, but told me it looked like “Rapunzel’s” (awwww) and afterwards my companions chided me for being a fool—and told me who he was. He was appearing in *The Fantastiks* at the time. Just looked like some random dude to me…fast-forward to *Law & Order* on TV. I wouldn’t be so prissy if I met him again (although, as he’s dead, not likely…)

    6) Matt Lauer. My friend Ann and I were up in NYC (that’s when we had dinner at your place, TD) and just strollin’ along the street, and there he was. He politely allowed my to take a photo of him.

    7) John Lithgow! What a sweetie-bear! We were in London in ’03, dining at a teeny-tiny French restaurant near Hyde Park, and there he was, all by himself, finishing his meal. He took out a book and began to read while having his coffee, and I went over and asked for his autograph. He was more than gracious, told us all about the movie he was filming there about Peter Sellers.

    Of course, in our state, literary types were more prevalent…for a few years there you couldn’t sling a dead cat without hitting Eudora Welty. She was drunk as Cooter Brown at that same cast party for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” where I met Miz Geraldine. When my husband was in law school up at Ole Miss, Willie Morris was the writer-in-residence (just after his Harper’s gig) and I worked in the building where he taught. He brought some great celeb writers down to speak and meet the students—John Knowles (author of one of my all-time faves, *A Separate Peace*, William Styron, etc. Gentlemen all, but Willie was the gentlemanliest of ’em all.

  5. Tom Dupree says:

    This came via Facebook, but I just had to share it here. It’s from Jamie Warren, whom Janna and Mark — and maybe even Steve — will remember from Bantam as one of the truly great cover designers in the sf field. Anyhow, here’s Jamie’s story:

    Tom I loved your “Starspotting” article. It is fun to run into the famous, especially easy to do in Manhattan. Years ago I went to join a gym. I walked in,was pointed toward the owner of the gym and we went into his office. He closed the door and we began talking about the gym membership. Suddenly the door opens and in… leaps a man who proceeds to tell me that the gym is wonderful, good facilities, terrific people and then runs out. I turned to the man behind the desk and said “wasn’t that…???” “Yeah…that was Tony Randall…great guy!” I joined the gym.

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