I don’t know how I came to latch on to him. The heart wants what the heart wants. For some reason from an early age, I have been attracted to the all purpose show biz journeymen: Screen, Stage, Concerts, TV, Nightclubs, commercials; actor/singer/dancers: Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Liza, Fred Astaire, Noel Coward. I became fascinated with Joel Grey in the mid-1960s. I wanted to model my career on his & strangely... I wanted to kiss him.
I look back now, & I am actually embarrassed that I had a Joel Grey scrapbook; what sort of really weird little gay child was I? I was 12 years old, & while visiting the grandparents in rural Illinois, I insisted that they drive 80 miles to St Louis to see Joel Grey (& Bernadette Peters) in George M! at the Muni (The Municipal Opera). I need you to understand, I didn’t want the grandparents to take me to the musical; I wanted them to drop me off a block away & I would enter on my own. I would see the show solo (so very cosmopolitan) & not have to share my Joel Grey moment with the rubes. I loved seeing the musical about the life of George M. Cohen & I was zany- over the moon for Mr. Grey’s performance. Singing, Dancing, Acting. The thrill lasted for months.
The scene shifts to Seattle, in 1991. I am fully adult, in my late 30s & I have done a little acting, singing & dancing myself. I am "day jobbing" as a maitre d’ at a swank, upscale vegetarian eatery. I’m not easily impressed by celebrity. In the year of having this job, I have sat regular- Tom Skerritt & his many actor guests such as Yaphet Kotto & Meg Ryan, but I am not prepared when I have to face my childhood idol- Joel Grey when he & guest enter the cafe.
I gently explain to the Oscar, Tony, BAFTA, & Golden Globe winner (he is one of only 8 actors to win a Tony & Oscar for the same role) & his guest, that we have a short wait, & that while trying not to offend the others in line, I will do everything I can to get them a table very soon. I consider kicking the lingering, tea drinking lesbians out. While standing at the host podium, a few inches away from the object of my childhood obsession-JOEL GREY, a small group of 20 something veg-heads enter & push their way up to me & my waiting list. I keep thinking- “No! Please! Don’t bother Mr.Joel Grey, he is MY guest.” When the group reaches me, they shriek & giggle, point, & then ask- “Hey, aren’t you that guy in SINGLES?”
Yes indeed, boys & girls, I was recognized as an actor in front of the man whose photos, reviews, programs & ticket stubs filled a little homosexual theatre nerd’s scrapbook.
Joel Grey: “You are in the movie SINGLES?”
Stephen: (sheepish, yet sexy, with genuine humility) “Yes, Mr. Grey. Cameron Crowe was really fun to work with. It was a great shoot.”
Joel Grey: "My daughter is a friend of Campbell Scott & I believe he is on that film. He is such a nice young man… & so smart & talented. He is really gonna go places.”
Stephen: (a bit bodacious) “& that would be Jennifer Grey, star of DIRTY DANCING?... & yes Campbell Scott is quite talented & a sweetheart.
Then it happens.I held off for so long & now sickeningly, I gush. I tell this great performer about the experience of seeing George M! all by myself at 12 years old & about the scrapbook & even the crush. I have met & worked with many celebrities & important actors by this point in my life, & I have never behaved like this. & I am on the job! What was wrong with me? It was as if my circuit board overloaded.
Joel Grey: (laughing & smiling) “Well Mr. Appears in SINGLES, you are just something else!”
Stephen: (crossing Mr. Grey's name off the waiting list) "Your table is ready, Mr. Grey. This way, please."
Joel Grey tears off a corner of the wait-list from the clip board, borrows my pen, & takes a moment to write something down. I pray it is not a complaint to the owners & about my blathering. Am I the gayest thing he has ever encountered? He smiles & sticks the paper in my jacket pocket.
On my first chance, I read his note: “Thanks for being such a big fan for so many years. Love, Joel Grey”. I go in the walk-in fridge & cry. I cry for the little 12 year gay boy who would have never believed it possible. I still have the note. It is in a cigar box with Merle Oberon’s place card from MGM’s 50th Anniversary Ball, my ticket stub from the 1974 Academy Awards, my call sheet from Drugstore Cowboy, a post card from my father postmarked from Rutledge, Georgia, & a love letter from the Husband.
Happy Birthday, Joel Grey!