Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Celebrity Encounters Over the Years

I haven’t seen any movies lately worth blogging about, but since this is a movie blog, I thought I would pass on some celebrity encounters I’ve had over the years. Some of them are pretty ordinary, and are shared by many, such as book signings and convention appearances. Book signings by big stars are usually so packed there’s no time for conversation.

In all cases, all my encounters have been very cordial, but then I like to think I have relatively strong social skills and always remember never to overstep my boundaries…I am not their friend and never will be. I just take a moment to explain to them how much I enjoy their work and I think everyone, celebrity or not, appreciates hearing that. Some of these names here are the biggest in Hollywood history, while others are known only to film buffs. But all are memorable and I’m glad to have had them.

First Encounter

I think the first celebrity I ever met was the great director King Vidor, responsible for such silent classics as “The Big Parade” (1925) and “The Crowd” and later director of “Duel in the Sun” (1946), “Street Scene” (1931), “Bird of Paradise” (1932), “The Fountainhead” (1946) and so many others. I was about 12 years old and already a budding film buff. Vidor was the guest of honor at a festival called, I believe, the Midwest Film Conference, which was being held in Evanston. My dad knew the organizer of the event and the two of us spent the weekend in Evanston. I have vague memories of having the TV on in that hotel room and hearing that Larry Fine had died, which would have placed the weekend in January, 1975.

That Friday night, Vidor reminisced about his career, along with lots of film clips, to a large appreciate audience. Afterwards, my dad’s friend invited us to a private reception for King Vidor at the penthouse suite of the hotel. We introduced ourselves and had a very pleasant conversation with him. He signed a promotional booklet I had on the “Men Who Made the Movies” TV series for which he was interviewed (he liked the program very much) and seemed amused at the interest from an inquisitive 12-year-old. I remember asking him what Gary Cooper was like and he said, “Oh, he was always on the move. He always had a fast car nearby and once he was done with the day’s filming, he would jump in his car and speed away.”

Earlier in the evening, Vidor had talked about one of his favorite films, a saga about a steel family dynasty called “An American Romance” (1944). He rued that M-G-M had cut many of the best scenes. My dad remembered a lot of the film and recounted some of the shots which made a huge impression on him, shots he still remembered. Vidor had a huge smile on his face when my dad told him this and said, “Ah, you must have seen it in the military.” My dad said yes, he was in the U.S. Navy and the film was shown on their ship quite frequently. Vidor said the military received a print of the entire film as he envisioned, but stateside saw an abbreviated version with the M-G-M-mandated cuts. He seemed humbled and flattered that the film left such a lasting impression on my dad.

Book Signings

Being a huge Charlton Heston fan, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see him live back in the mid-1970s when he was making a personal appearance to herald the opening of the new B. Dalton Bookstore on Wabash Ave. in the Loop. The place was mobbed and he was handing out autographed photos and greeting fans. I finally got up to the table and shook his hand and said how much I enjoyed “Will Penny” (1968), which I had just seen and how I thought it was his best performance. He thanked me and said, “I wish everyone who says that now would have seen it when it first opened, but I’m glad it’s got such a following now.” One of the tallest men I’ve ever met (he towered over everyone) and the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen on anyone.

I then asked him if he was going to do the rumored biography of Robert E. Lee. He said he wanted to, they were waiting for financing. It was never made and that’s too bad. He would have made a fine Lee.

Kirk Douglas had no use for me, even though I was buying his autobiography “The Ragman’s Son” and waited in line more than two hours during a workday lunch to get it signed. Nothing personal, I don’t think, it’s just that I was the wrong sex. You see, he was flirting with all the women in line. Me, I was just a poor schlub looking for an autograph. But I thanked him for all the hours of pleasure his movies have given me, especially a personal favorite, “The Vikings” (1958). He thanked me for coming out and then proceeded to flirt shamelessly with the woman behind me.

Kirk Douglas took the time to inscribe my name when signing his autograph. No such luck with James Stewart, making a personal appearance at the Marshall Fields at Water Tower Place to sign his recently released volume of poetry. That was another two-hours-plus wait during a workday. It’s a small wonder I wasn’t fired from my job. There were a ton of people there, and no time for chit chat. No time to sign personal names either, just a quick signature from Mr. Stewart. I thanked him and he looked at me with those very gentle blue eyes and nodded his head. I’ll never forget that wistful expression on his face. Like Heston he also had extraordinarily blue eyes.

Christopher Lee was making a rare personal appearance at a horror convention in Baltimore called Fanex to promote his autobiography “Tall Dark and Gruesome.” Guidelines were very strict for the autograph session. No other items would be signed and no prolonged conversations allowed. However, he would shake hands and allow pictures to be taken as your book was being autographed. The guidelines may be strict but there were so many people there and so many horror fans are so nuts…er, I mean fanatical…that I completely understood where the conference organizers were coming from. I got my book signed and shook his hand. He handed my signed book back and I said, “It was a great pleasure to meet you.” He looked at me very solemnly with a Rasputin-like stare and slowly nodded his head. I’ve been nodded at by the best of them.

Michael Caine showed up at Kroch & Brentano’s in the Loop to sign his (very readable) autobiography “What’s It All About?” Again, a workday lunch lasting over two hours in line. Why do I do this for a short scribble? I don’t know but I do. I finally got up there and we said hello to each other. I said, “I’ll bet you’ll sleep well tonight after all your signing.” He said, “No problem there. I never have trouble sleeping.” Sure, it may not be the most meaningful conversation, but I treasure it.

Celebrity nightmare time occurred right in front of me, and I was terrified I would be the unwilling recipient of an actor’s wrath. One of my favorite actors, Gene Hackman, was making an appearance at the Borders on North Michigan Avenue to sign a fiction book he co-authored called “The Wreck of the Perdido Star.” (A good, ripping historical sea yarn by the way.) He and his co-author answered questions from the audience for a good half hour and I was pleased that most of the questions were about the book and the process of researching and writing. I waited in line to get my book signed and was next in line when the guy in front of me reaches into his briefcase, hands a large bundle of papers to Hackman and says, “I’ve written this script. It’s just perfect for you. Please take it and read it.” The script was quickly confiscated by security and Hackman said to him (much nicer than the guy deserved), “I’m sorry. I don’t accept scripts. All scripts come through my agent.” The guy was led quickly away and I was up next. Was Gene Hackman going to pull a Soup Nazi on me? I handed him my book, leaned in a little bit and quietly said, “I’m just here to get my book signed.” He didn’t say anything but gave me one of those crooked Gene Hackman smiles, signed my book, thanked me for coming out and hoped I enjoyed the book.

Janet Leigh delighted the crowd on hand to meet her and get her John Henry on a book she wrote about the making of “Psycho.” God, she was so petite. Anyway, I told her how much I enjoy “Prince Valiant” (1954), and that it was one of my favorite films. I said, “I know it’s not as important as some of the other films you’ve made, and it wasn’t a very challenging role for you, but I love that movie.” She was very gracious and said, “I love that movie too. When I was a little girl I used to read the Prince Valiant comic strip all the time, so I was thrilled to be in the movie.” Tony Curtis was nuts for divorcing her.

I couldn’t believe some of the meanness I heard from people around me upon seeing Ginger Rogers in the flesh. She was at Marshall Fields to sign her autobiography “My Life” and some of the older women around me were shocked that, gasp, she wore glasses, and walked with a cane and, boy, she sure doesn’t look good does she? Did they expect her to look like she did when she danced with Fred Astaire? I’ll never understand people. But I got to meet her, which was a real thrill. Like Kirk Douglas, I thanked her for all the hours of pleasure her movies have given me. She said in that distinct Ginger Rogers voice, “Well, we had a lot of fun making them. I’m glad people still enjoy them.” It was only a brief moment, but I’m glad I had the chance to meet one of my favorite actresses.

Near Brushes with Stars

Back in the late 1980s, I think I stood next to William Petersen on a street corner waiting for a light to change. I knew him from “Manhunter” (1986) and “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985), and when not in L.A. he often appeared at Steppenwolf. It was a spring afternoon and he was dressed very casually in a sports shirt and slacks. This was before business casual attire, and it was the splitting image of the guy, so I like to think it was him.

At my old job, I use to walk the breadth of downtown Chicago from Union Station to my office in River North. There used to be a ton of movies shooting downtown and in my hikes to and from work or during lunch I saw quite a few movies being shot. I saw Tom Hanks film a scene from “Nothing in Common” (1986), James Woods and Dolly Parton in “Straight Talk” (1992), Arnold Schwarzenegger get out of a limo while waiting for a scene to be shot in “Raw Deal” (1986), and a few others I can’t remember right now.

My brother and I did go downtown on a Saturday afternoon to see the parade scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) being shot, but I left after about an hour and a half to go record shopping at Rose Records. Watching a film being made has to be the dullest experience ever. While waiting for the scene to be shot, female lead Mia Sara stood practically next to my brother and me. I recognized her because she had just shot the Tom Cruise fantasy film “Legend” (1985). I was going to ask her about the horrible “Legend” news that the Jerry Goldsmith score was being dumped for Tangerine Dream drivel, and what the hell is Ridley Scott thinking with that decision, but figured I would likely be arrested, so I kept my mouth shut. I did see them film the “Danke Schien” portion of the scene, but left before the parade broke into “Twist and Shout.” I’ve never had a moment’s regret.

Two years in a row my friend and I went to the Tweeter Center (or whatever it’s called now) to see a performance by the Ringo Starr Traveling All Star Band. One year we were fearful of traffic and parking and got there quite early. We were sitting there in the late afternoon drinking Cokes when who do we see walking towards us but Ringo Starr. He was in the midst of a group of people on the way to the nearby sponsors tent for some photo opps. He was talking with the guys around him and passed about three feet in front of us. We didn’t say anything to him, but it was cool to see Ringo so up close.

Backstage with Dennis Morgan

The following is more of a backstage meeting. I’ve always been a big fan of Dennis Morgan, best known for the musicals he made at Warner Bros. in the 1940s and 1950s. Always a very genial presence on screen, he showed up in Chicago in the mid-1970s to replace an ailing Pat O’Brien in a play called “Skip and Go Naked” at the Drury Lane Theater in Evergreen Park. My parents, cheerfully if somewhat befuddled by my interest in such things, agreed to go see the play during a summer vacation. I built up the courage and wrote a letter to Mr. Morgan asking if there was a chance I could meet him after the show. I left my phone number. A representative from the theater called and said he would be happy to meet us. I brought along a book on Warner Bros. for him to sign, along with a bootleg LP of the “Thank Your Lucky Stars” soundtrack. He could not have been nicer, and seemed highly amused that I was so interested in meeting him. He met the rest of my family and introduced me to his fellow cast mates, taking time to pass the Warner Bros. book along to his cast mates. We had a short chat, and it was very pleasant. He was just as nice as he was in the movies. It may have been an act, but I don’t think so. I’ve never read anything about him that would make me think otherwise. A few weeks later I received from him an autographed photo. I still have that photo and I still enjoy his movies.

Horror Conventions

I’ve been to quite a few horror conventions and enjoy them, but most of the horror conventions now are geared to fans of more contemporary horror and most of the people I like in the genre are dead, so I’m not sure how many more I will go to. But I’ve had some nice encounters.

I think its fair to say that for a lot of guys my generation, English beauty Caroline Munro got us happily through puberty and beyond, thanks to appearances in “Dracula A.D. 1972”, “Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter” (1974), “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” (1973), “At the Earth’s Core” (1975) and the 007 flick “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977).

I had met her at one convention in Baltimore and had my picture taken with her, a picture that proudly sits on a shelf at home. The second time I met her at a convention in New Jersey was much, much more memorable. Part of the weekend’s festivities was a panel discussion and tribute to Hammer great Peter Cushing, which Caroline was to take part in as she starred with Cushing in the Dracula and Earth’s Core flicks. Everyone was gathered in a huge banquet room and before the panel discussion there was a warm-up from a comedian. Caroline Munro entered, crossed the room (I’m sure every pair of eyes was on her, she’s still a stunningly beautiful woman) and proceeded to stand directly behind me! I got up and offered her my seat but she said, “”That’s very gallant of you, but no thank you. I’m fine.” She then stood me behind me for 15 minutes or so with her hands resting on my shoulders the entire time. I was in Heaven. And no, I haven’t washed those shoulders since and I don’t care how crusty those shoulders get, they’re not getting washed.

I guess when you think of Julie Adams you think of her in that white swimsuit in “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” When I met her I went up to her and told her what a pleasant surprise I had recently watching the John Wayne cop movie “McQ” (1974) and saw her play a scene as the Duke’s ex-wife. I had forgotten she was in it. Well, her face lit up like a Christmas tree and she said how much she liked working with John Wayne. She probably gets tired of talking about the Gill Man all the time. Julie Adams is typical of those actors who never became huge stars but we always enjoy seeing, like old friends.

When I first started going to horror conventions, celebrities did not charge for autographs, and if they did prices started at $5. Now they’re $20 and over. I guess everyone needs to make a living, but more than $20 seems a bit much. Jane Adams, who played the hunchback nurse in “House of Dracula” (1945) and beat Kim Basinger to the Vicki Vale role in the Columbia serial “Batman and Robin” (1949) was incredibly gracious and would not accept money for her signature. She introduced me to her husband and young grandson, who seemed a little shell shocked that total strangers were showing such great interest in meeting his grandmother.

Edward Kemmer wouldn’t take any money for his signature either. The agreeable star of many a “B” science fiction film from 1950s seemed to enjoy talking to his many (middle-aged and older) fans. If you ever get a chance to see his resurrected Spanish conquistador flick “Giant from the Unknown” (1958), it’s really quite good.

Linda Harrison, best known as the mute Nova in the first two “Planet of the Apes” movies, remains every bit as beautiful as she was running through the jungle chased by apes on horseback in 1968 and 1970. My buddy and I were among the first in line to meet her and get an autograph. Not that we were waiting long, but we just happened to be walking by when she first sat down at her table for the autograph session. No one else was there so we had a nice visit. She asked where we were from and what we did for a living. She had nothing but nice things to say about co-star Charlton Heston and was very proud to be a part of a series of movies that continues to resonate with so many people. We each got an autographed photo, but she wrote “Love, Linda Harrison” on mine but only her signature on my buddy’s photo. I think she dug me more and could you blame her?

Another early appearance at an autograph session allowed me to help someone out. Yvette Vickers, a former sex kitten best known for her roles as the town tramps in “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman” (1958) and “Attack of the Giant Leeches” (1960), had just sat down and was charging $5 for an autograph. I happened to be strolling by so I got in line as the second person. The guy in front of me handed her a $20 and she didn’t have change for it. She started frantically looking in her purse for change so I told her I had four $5 bills and could make change for her. She was very relieved and pumped my hand several times thanking me for helping her out.

One of my favorite actresses is Anne Francis, best known for her role in the science fiction classic “Forbidden Planet” (1956) and as TV’s first female detective, “Honey West” (a very entertaining show). Anne is loaded with personality and humor and I really enjoyed her appearance on the panel discussion. Such vivacity and humor, you couldn’t help but like her. I had gotten her autograph earlier at the show and on the last day of the show rode down with her in the hotel elevator. I asked how her hand was holding up as she had been signing autographs all day and she said she was fine. As we hit the ground floor and the elevator doors opened up I said to her, “It was a great pleasure meeting you. I hope you have a safe trip home.”

She seemed really taken aback by this, but then gave me a huge smile, put her hand out to shake and said, “Well, thank you very much. You know, it was really nice meeting you.” I floated out of that elevator like I had just won the lottery.

Veronica Carlson was one of the most beautiful women to ever grace a Hammer movie, and her warmth and approachability makes her a favorite guest at conventions. Of the three horror conventions I’ve gone to on the East Coast, she’s been a guest at all three. At the third one she saw us in the lobby and said, “I’ve met you before haven’t I? You come to these quite often don’t you?” I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or pleased that she recognized me. Ahhhh, I gotta go with the former. We did sit across from her at a revival showing of “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed” (1969), and it was weird watching a movie with one of its stars sitting across the aisle. Good movie, too, one of Hammer’s best.


While waiting for a panel discussion of some of Hammer’s leading ladies, I noticed someone trying to get into the door next to us. I got up to open it and on the other side was Suzanna Leigh, who appeared in two Hammer movies “Lust for a Vampire” (1971) and “The Lost Continent” (1968). She was also leading lady to Elvis in “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” (1966). She thanked me for letting her in and said how nervous she was. She was afraid someone was going to ask her about the movie she made with Richard Johnson and she was drawing a blank on it. She couldn’t remember the name or anything about it! I told her it was called “Deadlier Than the Male” (1967) and it was an attempt to revive the Bulldog Drummond franchise.

She patted my hands and said, “That’s right. That’s right. That’s it.” She then walked up to the stage to take her seat for the panel discussion. I sat down, absurdly pleased with myself and thinking I had saved her from embarrassment. It was not to be, as “Deadlier Than the Male” never came up in discussion.


Favorite Encounter

The following is perhaps my favorite celebrity meeting. In the late 1980s, one of the downtown Chicago hotels threw what was billed “The World’s Largest Office Christmas Party.” I don’t know if it was, but it was all for charity and attracted thousands of attendees. There was plenty of good food and drink on hand, door prizes, raffle drawings and appearances by (mainly local) celebrities. One year a bunch of us from work decided to go.

We paid our tickets and were given a brochure of that evening’s activities. On the celebrity list I noticed that Ben Davidson was there. Could that be THE Ben Davidson, the former Oakland Raiders football player who also co-starred in one of the greatest movies ever made, “Conan the Barbarian” (1982)? Yes it was. (He played Rexor, one of James Earl Jones’ henchmen).

As the evening wore on, we made our way to the center where a lot of the evening’s celebrities were holding court. Sure enough, there was Big Ben. You couldn’t miss him, he was the size of a house. Ben was surrounded by a lot of young Masters of the Universe types, smoking big cigars, tossing back martinis, guzzling beer and talking football with Davidson. These guys were pretty full of themselves and, gee, couldn’t they tell that Davidson looked utterly, utterly bored? Still, I braced myself and went up to him.

“Mr. Davidson,” I said, “I just wanted to meet you and tell you how much I enjoyed your performance in ‘Conan.’ You were great in it and it’s a great movie and I just wanted to come over and tell you how much I love that movie.”

Well let me tell you, the biggest smile in the world broke upon that man’s face and he shook my hand (it was like shaking hands with a Sherman tank) and he said, “Thanks, man. I really appreciate that. It’s so nice of you to come over.”

Meantime I just happen to look up and all these Young Turks are shooting daggers at me, not pleased that Ben Davidson was showing so much interest in a movie nerd.

I told him how convincing he looked wielding a sword and how great it would be if he ever played a Viking in a movie. He would be perfect. He said, “Yeah, yeah, I would love to play a Viking warrior.” He added that he loved making Conan, loved working with Arnold, loved writer-director John Milius, and just treasured the whole experience.

I didn’t ask for it, but he gave me a personalized autograph photo shook my hand again (I think it almost came off that time), told me how much he appreciated my coming over and recognizing him from Conan.

And yep, the Yuppies were still shooting me hate looks. It was great.

Next time, work-related celebrity encounters, lots of film composer encounters and a meeting with the biggest celebrity of all, though who knew it at the time.


classicfilmboy said...

Great post. I'm jealous that you got to meet King Vidor ... I love so many of his films, such as "The Big Parade." Dennis Morgan ... I think of "Kitty Foyle" and "Christmas in Connecticut." You've met a wide variety of folks. How fun.

Kevin Deany said...

They've all been a lot of fun. I hope to get another celebrity encounter blog up soon, but work and personal commitments are preventing that. Hope to get part two up soon.