Encounters with the rich and famous

Someone asked me the other day how many famous people I’ve met in my life. I guess it depends how you define “famous,” how you define “met,” and even how you define “people.”

When I was growing up in Miami during the 1960s, I had several encounters with the rich and powerful. At the time, South Florida was considered to be on the brink of becoming another Los Angeles in terms of its connections with the entertainment industry. Comedian Jackie Gleason had moved his popular television show to Miami Beach and was touting the location as having “the greatest audiences in the world,” which the audience in attendance would riotously agree with. His influence led others to visit the area, including Ed Sullivan who brought The Beatles to town.

I never met Sullivan or The Beatles, but I did drive by Jackie Gleason’s house. In the days before the gated communities and private islands that now dominate the Miami landscape, he had a home in an affluent neighborhood several miles from my house, and whenever we had out of town visitors, we’d drive them past the expansive yellow structure. We never saw him mowing the yard or rolling out his garbage, but we knew he was probably just on the other side of those stucco walls, unless he was in one of his other homes in another state or in rehab.

In addition to seeing Jackie Gleason’s house, I also saw President Lyndon Johnson’s speeding car. Shortly after he succeeded John Kennedy, Johnson flew into a suburban airport, then motorcaded to an appearance downtown. My parents, eager for me to see history in the making, thought it would be an educational experience for my sister and me to stand in a roadside ditch and watch a long black limousine pass us at 70 miles per hour. I may have seen LBJ’s famous long face peering through the dark glass, though it could’ve been his beagle.

I also had the occasion while growing up to visit the set of “Flipper,” and personally meet with TV’s favorite cetacean. My sister, an aspiring model and child actress, was riding a wave of popularity at the time from her appearance as girl number three in a sunglasses commercial. (I almost had a similar career myself, but there turned out to be surprisingly few calls for pimpled, overweight teenage boys). Her agent had the connections to get us invited to the small inlet where the world-famous dolphin resided, and he came to the pier where we stood and offered up a fin in greeting. I doubt he’d remember the encounter today, principally because he’s long since been blended into a can of tuna fish, but it made a big impression on me. For literally days afterward, I wanted to be a marine biologist.

As I noted earlier, whether any of these events constitute “meeting famous people” or not is certainly debatable. It’s similar in a way to the discussion I often have with my wife – does it count as visiting a foreign country if you’ve only changed planes in the airport? I would contend that looking at someone’s residence, being passed by someone’s car, or pawing someone’s flipper counts as a meeting. She would disagree, and I can understand why, since she’s never been to Japan and I have.

When I left Miami for college, my encounters with fame became even harder to dispute. I attended a show by then-rising comedian Steve Martin in a small on-campus pub. Since I was covering the performance for the student newspaper, I got an excellent seat at the front table with some friends of mine. Martin interrupted his act long enough to acknowledge us at one point, I called out “Steve!” and he sort of waved in my direction. He continued with the show until being tragically wounded by an arrow through the head only moments later.

The next year, CBS news anchor Dan Rather came to campus as part of a speakers’ series, and was kind enough to visit our tiny newsroom after the event. As the paper’s editor, I served as host and invited him to sit at my desk as he was surrounded by eager young reporters. We were in a bitter rivalry at the time with a fraternity-sponsored newspaper, and the editor of that publication had the nerve to show up for the symposium. I interrupted Rather’s talk just as he was about to tell us how journalism was a solid career that would prosper long into the next century, and forced the rival editor to leave. Too bad I missed that part, or I could be laid-off even today.

After I moved to the Carolinas, I jumped to an even higher level of power encounters. While he was running for his first term as president, Bill Clinton campaigned at a motel near where I worked (the choice of a motel didn’t seem odd at the time though, in retrospect, it makes sense). He was surrounded by Secret Service guards as I approached him in the parking lot, and I asked their permission before attempting to shake his hand. The agents said nothing, though if body language could be interpreted as a response, it would be “Yes, but I’ll have to kill you.” I took a chance anyway and Clinton and I had a brief exchange. He might remember me now 18 years later, though I hear he’s had a lot on his mind in the interim.

About a decade and a half later, at a Charleston bookstore, I met two different celebrities on two separate occasions. The first was former Senator John Edwards, then campaigning for his first run at the presidency and promoting his book. I bought the book and asked him to autograph it, and we had a cordial discussion in which I said I’d probably vote for him just to annoy my right-wing mother-in-law. He seemed like a nice guy and I continued to be a supporter of his until that whole unfortunate cheating-on-his-dying-wife misunderstanding.

Interestingly, the second encounter at that same store was with Dr. Ruth Westheimer. She too was promoting a book, a fictional work about how it was possible to have great sex over age 50. We didn’t get a chance to speak, though I did point at her and laugh, mainly because that although she’s known as the “tiny sex therapist,” few people realize she’s actually only 7 inches tall. I guess that would make any potential shtupping of Senator Edwards somewhat problematic, but maybe not.

The last meeting I’ll describe took place while I was visiting New York. On a business trip in 2000, I had a free Saturday to walk uptown to Central Park. It was the first warm weekend of the year, and the sidewalks were packed with families. As I passed one couple pushing a stroller, I realized the mom looked vaguely familiar. It took a few seconds for me to realize that the lesion on her lip unmistakably marked her as supermodel Cindy Crawford. As a big fan for years, I couldn’t resist calling out to her, though by then it was over the heads of a hundred people who had passed between us. “Cindy,” I yelled, “I loved your work in the movie ‘Fair Play’. It wasn’t fair that critics dubbed you the worst actress of the year. What was it like to work with William Baldwin?” She must’ve thought I was kidding, or else just another Manhattan lunatic, because she walked on without acknowledging me.

So, what do you think: have I met any famous people in my life? I would say that I have, though the celebrities in question might deny it all.

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2 Responses to “Encounters with the rich and famous”

  1. tannerleah Says:

    Yeah…bad news Davisw. None of those count except maybe the Dan Rather story.

    It reminds me of the time my brother sent me a rock in the mail with no explanation. When I called and asked what it was, he said it was from Dwight Evans, famed right fielder for the Boston Red Sox. When I asked how so, he said that he saw Dewey’s dog pee on the rock and Dewey kick it. He picked it up and the rest was history.

    Maybe we should get out more often?

  2. Chieu Says:

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