I was an impatient child, anxious to escape from New Jersey to New York City. When I was finally old enough to take the bus alone to nearby Philadelphia, I started hanging out at the stage doors of the legit theaters. I wanted to meet the theater luminaries I was certain would wait for me to someday join them in a play. There was a group of us who looked at the fans seeking autographs as amateurs, beneath us wannabe professionals. We grew bolder in our efforts to get past the stern stage doormen, even though we had no idea what we would do if we actually encountered our target. I was the most successful. On one particular occasion, I ran past the doorman, opened a door with a star and closed it behind me. There he was, Sir Laurence, Lord Olivier, sitting at his dressing table, dressed only in undershorts, removing his makeup. I was fourteen, and Olivier was in his underwear. He smiled. “Did you see the matinee today?” Unable to speak, I nodded yes. “Would you like to talk about it?” Again, I nodded. He pointed to a
chair. “Take a seat.” I sat. “Do you mind if I continue dressing while we chat?” I shook my head no. The rest of our one-way conversation is a blank. When he was fully dressed, he handed me a small autographed photo. “I’m leaving now. Shall we leave together?” He put his arm around my shoulder and we walked to the exit. Many fans waited for autographs, and among them I spotted my
fellow groupies. I turned to Olivier, offered my hand, and with fake bravado boldly announced, “It was a pleasure to meet you.” My friends looked on with astonishment. It was my first acting job.
I eventually discovered an easier way to meet my future colleagues. I got the unlisted backstage phone numbers of the Philly theaters. If I called person-to-person from New Jersey, the operator would announce “long distance calling,” and the actor would take the call, probably expecting a family member phoning from back home. Instead, I asked if I could tape an interview for my high school drama club, since it was too much to expect them to travel to speak to the club in person. Robert Preston agreed, as did George Grizzard and Julie Harris. Only I had no tape recorder. The teacher in charge of the school AV department agreed to let me borrow a very heavy reel-to-reel. My father, on his only day off, had to drive
me into Philly and carry the monster inside. Julie Harris emerged from her dressing room, insisted on taking the monster from my father, and carried it inside as if it were light as a feather. Robert Preston stood up, offered his
hand to my father, and introduced himself. George Grizzard took me around after the interview and introduced me to his fellow cast members and their
guests—Lauren Bacall, Arlene Francis and Martin Gabel.
I snagged an interview with Buster Keaton, bringing along a high school friend. Keaton was delighted that young people remembered him let alone wanted an interview. He showed photos of his dogs left behind in California and told stories of early Hollywood. A young man interrupted, handing Keaton a bottle in a bag. Hiding it under a table, he said to us, “Don’t tell my wife. I take just one nip before each performance.” He had no photos but signed a piece of paper that I later framed next to a
I never got to work with any of my hoped for colleagues, but I did meet both Julie Harris and George Grizzard again when I was a professional actor in New York. And the meeting with Buster Keaton is a highlight of my life.
Future Thinking: Anticipating a Future in the Theater.