Here’s a very L.A. question: When you run into celebrities you admire, do you approach them and say something, or do you play it cool and act as if you don’t know who they are?
As I’ve written about (incessantly) on this blog, it’s hard to go long in Los Angeles without running into celebrities of one ilk or another. Having known a fair number of famous people in my life, I am well aware that they are just regular folks with the same issues and dysfunctions (more?) as the rest of us. The last thing I’d ever want to do is to act like some fawning sycophant, and yet, when I encounter certain people, I still find myself fighting the urge to gawk and stare.
In the old days, the relationship between celebrities and fans was more clearly defined. Big movie stars had huge studio publicity machines behind them arranging for public appearances, so-called dates, all sorts of positive press, even fake marriages if they thought it would help the person’s image. There were no Smoking Gun, TMZ, or Go Fug Yourself websites exposing these people at their worst, and most scandals, arrests, ugly divorces, or any other indications that the celebrities were real human beings were quickly suppressed. Sure, there were a few sleazy tabloids such as “Broadway Brevities” and later “Confidential” and others that printed salacious gossip, but these were not considered mainstream publications and were nowhere near as ubiquitous as they are today.
For their part, most of the old-time stars understood the role of their adoring public in maintaining their fame. Joan Crawford may have been a sociopath in her personal life, but she was the epitome of the gracious Movie Star, acting like royalty but always kind and generous to her fans. She answered much of her mail by hand and never missed an opportunity to lap up the adoration or bestow gifts on the “little people” who were lucky enough to cross her path.
Even today you can see the difference between the stars who grew up in the old studio system and younger actors in the way they respond to public attention. Kendall and I have always marveled at how people like Debbie Reynolds (who we just saw last weekend at the Hollywood Bowl), the late Ann Miller (we must have seen her at more than a dozen events around town), and other actors from those bygone days cater to their fans. It’s in marked contrast to the celebrities who (understandably) don’t want to be bothered when they’re in a restaurant or a theatre and sometimes, when confronted by cloddish fans, become incensed and angry. I remember seeing MGM star Cyd Charisse at a screening a few years ago and hearing her say that whenever she and her husband Tony Martin are out and about in Los Angeles, she is aways touched and honored when people come up to them and tell them how much they have enjoyed their work. She urged everyone in the audience to approach her no matter where they happen to see her. I obviously don't expect people like Sean Penn to make such a remark.
Not that I have any desire to accost celebrities in public. Still, I have to admit that I always notice them when they're there. Reviewing celebrity encounters is practically a parlor game here in L.A. and usually it’s just a fun aside, not the focal point of your day. When I stopped at a coffee shop yesterday after dropping my daughter at school, I realized I was sitting next to William Shatner. I immediately found myself assessing how the actor has physically changed since he was at the height of his fame (thank God no one compares me on a daily basis to how I looked in my 20s!) and I briefly thought about “Star Trek” and some of my favorite Captain Kirk moments (I don’t watch his current show). Leah goes to school with a slew of actors’ children and when I meet those parents I rarely acknowledge their work. Sometimes I wonder if I’m going too far the other way. If I met a novelist I admired in that situation, wouldn’t I be likely to mention how much I enjoyed their books if that was the case?
When my brother-in-law Jeff was here last month, he was recognized on several occasions in restaurants or on the street. A few people came up and told him how much they loved his songs. It was always sweet and respectful but also a little uncomfortable and awkward. Jeff is kind to his fans and appreciates the fact that they enjoy his music, but it’s still a little weird when people recognize him during his off-stage life, especially if they approach him in places where anonymity is preferred like in a bathroom or locker room!
Why am I even writing about this meaningless and L.A.-centric topic? Last night Kendall and I were watching “Mad Men,” our favorite new show, about people working in an advertising agency in 1960. Fantastic series with a great cast including the always good John Slattery (also a regular on “Desperate Housewives” this year). I started thinking about Slattery’s role on one of my favorite TV shows of all time, a series called “Homefront” from the early 1990s that detailed the lives of a group of small-town people just after World War II. It only lasted two seasons but it covered a lot of ground in its depiction of those tumultuous post-war years. In addition to John Slattery, the excellent cast included Wendy Phillips, Kyle Chandler, Hattie Winston, Mimi Kennedy, and a young British actress named Sammi Davis. Davis’s character Caroline was my favorite and, in my opinion, the most challenging. She played an English war bride who married an American G.I. to escape Europe’s post-war devastation and, once safely ensconced in America, still suffered from the trauma she went through during the war. This made her act in ways that were anything but sympathetic. I loved Davis in this role, just as I had admired her in great films such as “Hope and Glory” and D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rainbow.” I started wondering what had happened to this wonderful actress who I hadn’t seen in almost ten years (except for a brief appearance in a “Lost” flashblack last year as Dominic Monaghan’s mother).
Imagine my surprise when I walked into my favorite La Brea Avenue coffee shop this morning and there sat actress Sammi Davis with two friends, chatting amiably in her distinctive British voice. I couldn’t believe the coincidence and I thought I should say something to her. I sat in full view of the actress, listening to her talk about current projects (including a new scary-sounding movie called “The Double Born”) but I never said a word. Sammi survived my lack of attention quite well, believe it or not, but I found myself wondering if I was throwing the baby out with the bathwater in my quest not to appear like a celebrity stalker. Maybe she would have enjoyed hearing from an admiring fan in that situation. Refusing to acknowledge her presence felt silly and ungenerous.
Why am I so self-conscious about this? Is it because of the time, nearly thirty years ago, when the attention I paid to a celebrity nearly sent her to a mental institution?
“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” was the surprise hit of the year. A Norman Lear parody of soap operas, this nightly foray into high camp pushed all the envelopes. (I remember seeing the names of a married couple in the show's credits, never dreaming at the time that the story editors were my future in-laws, Kendall's parents.) The star of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” was Louise Lasser, who was mostly known back then as Woody Allen’s ex-wife and the neurotic spouse in a series of Nyquil commercials. Now she was the darling of the avant-garde and hanging out with the likes of Andy Warhol and Gore Vidal.
Lasser was coming to Chicago in a one-woman show that would capitalize on her new fame. I cut a few college classes to wait in line in the frigid midwest winter to purchase one of the sought-after tickets. Mission accomplished, I threw the ticket into my ever-present backpack. As the date of the show neared, however, rumors circulated that Lasser was crumbling under the weight of her newfound celebrity status. Less than a week before the engagement, the show was abruptly cancelled. “Ms. Lasser is experiencing minor health problems,” the notice read. An opportunity came up for me to visit New York the following weekend. Since my plans had changed, I decided to go.
The very night that I would have been in the Park West Theater in Chicago watching Lasser’s act, I found myself in a Broadway theater. As the lights came on at intermission, I spotted a familiar shock of red hair two rows in front of me. There, paging nervously through her program, sat Louise Lasser! I followed her to a small hallway where she went to have a cigarette. She looked wide-eyed and frightened. I was so stunned at the irony of the situation that against my better judgment I ran up to her and shouted, “Louise Lasser! Louise Lasser! I was supposed to be watching your show tonight in Chicago!” She responded as if I had caught her red-handed. As I reached into my backpack to find the ticket to her show, she lurched backwards against the wall, as if she feared I might be pulling out a gun. The more I tried to appear nonchalant and non-threatening, the more agitated she became. Still, I was so taken with the strange coincidence of our encounter that I wanted to record it. I whipped out my camera and asked her if I could snap a quick photo. Lasser backed further into the wall, her eyes darting. “Take the picture, take the picture,” she whimpered in a staccato monotone. Looking as if she wanted to die, she wrapped her purple shawl around her red hair and stared off into the distance. I took the photo.
And here it is, decades later, her Danny Miller-induced terror recorded for posterity. Later that month, I heard that Louise Lasser had checked herself into a mental hospital. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” continued for a while without her and was eventually cancelled. I’m not saying that I caused the actress’s nervous breakdown, but I clearly was responsible for her panic on that particular day. Is it any wonder why I hesitate about approaching celebrities? And I haven’t even told you about the time I followed actress Ellen Burstyn for six city blocks.