“He puts his pants on the same way you do—one leg at a time.” How often have you heard that expression used in referring to a celebrity? Too many times to count, most likely. But have you ever stopped to consider the implication of those words? Probably not. So let’s consider what they mean. At one time, most famous celebrities were not so famous at all. They were just kids—much like you and me. They grew up someplace, and went to school, played sports, had hobbies, mothers and fathers, girlfriends and boyfriends, just as we all did. In short, they were regular people.
The one “famous person” who I knew personally as a kid—on a first name basis actually—was legendary NFL coach Bill Parcells. We definitely weren’t “friends,” but we did know each other, and we did go to the same high school: River Dell Regional in Oradell, New Jersey. Bill graduated in 1959, while I graduated in 1962. But ours was a truly small town, and everybody knew everybody else—and that included Bill and me. Even then, as a teenager, Bill was special, someone we younger kids all looked up to (particularly me) like some kind of a god. But he was a regular guy, too, who for at least one summer, was in charge of “summer playground” in our little town. I’m sure I was hit at least once with a rubber ball thrown by Bill in a game of dodge ball. Heck, I even got a ride to school in his car, after he picked up my best friend, Craig, and me, hitchhiking. I’d like to think that even today, if he were asked, he might remember me—or at least recognize my name.
But Bill Parcells wasn’t the only famous person I interacted with. Judging by the reaction I get when I tell others about my “rubbing elbows” with other celebrities during the course of my life, I believe I have had an inordinate amount of encounters with so-called “stars.” Most occurred as a result of certain jobs I held during my “working days,” when I was (a) a sportswriter, (b) a taxi driver, and (c) a limousine chauffeur. Here is just a partial list of some of those individuals and a description of my interaction with them.
In the late ’60s, I drove a cab in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City. During my tenure with Babe’s Taxi Service, I carried New York Yankees first baseman Joe Pepitone, TV talk show personality Alan Burke, and the Walter Wanderly Trio. Of course, I also carried my share of drunks and prostitutes, too. But there was one day I will never forget. I was dispatched to pick up a fare in Englewood Cliffs. All I had was an address, with no name. When I arrived at the house, a middle-aged black man emerged, carrying what appeared to be a small, hard suitcase. I was to drive him into Manhattan. After we had crossed the George Washington Bridge, I heard an odd, squeaky sound coming from the rear of the cab. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that the man’s cheeks were billowing like fleshy balloons, each time he blew into what looked like a trumpet mouthpiece. I’d encountered a lot of weirdos, but this guy promised to be something really special, I thought.
I asked whether he was a musician. “Yeah, man,” he replied. “I blow trumpet.” I was intrigued. “So . . . uh . . . is that what you do for a living?” He laughed and said, “Yeah, man.” But I needed to know more. “Are you somebody I might have heard of?” I asked, innocently. “Yeah, probably, man,” he said. “So, what’s your name?” I asked. “Gillespie, man,” he answered, very matter of factly.” I was stunned. “Like . . . as in Dizzy?” I croaked, my voice sounding much like the sound he had been making with his mouthpiece. “Yeah, man,” he laughed. I pulled the cab to the curb, turned around and stuck out my hand. “Nice to meet you!” He reached out and shook my hand. “Nice to meet you, too, man.” He was none other than the late Dizzy Gillespie, arguably one of the greatest jazz trumpet players of all time.
In 1970, while a sportswriter for the Herald News in Passaic, New Jersey, I covered a number of different professional sporting events. One was the Jaycee Tennis Classic, held in Hawthorne, New Jersey. It was one of the earliest tournaments to feature VASSS (the Van Alen Streamlined Scoring System, which included a provision for sudden death). Some of the big-name players were Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Ilie Nastase, Manuel Santana, Clark Graebner, and Cliff Richey. I only spoke to most of the players briefly, along with other reporters, as part of a group. However, I did get to sit down for about 15 minutes, one-on-one, with Stan Smith, who went on to become a member of the tennis Hall of Fame. Stan was a true gentleman, and made me feel like a veteran reporter, rather than the cub journalist I was. During the event, I also got to meet the late NFL great, Pat Summerall, who was there to present the trophy to the winner, Santana, who defeated Smith in the final.
Later that year, I also interviewed basketball legend Bill Russell, who was on a speaking tour at various universities throughout the country. At six-feet, nine-inches tall, Russell was a full fourteen inches taller than I was, and our staff photographer, Jim Hannigan, had a heck of a time fitting both of us into a picture. (The proof is in the picture on the left.)
Between 1971 and 1973, I worked as a life insurance salesman in the “Big Apple.” My company’s office was located at Columbus Circle, in the prestigious Gulf and Western Building, which also housed the headquarters of Paramount Studios, as well as offices for movie producer Dino Di Laurentis. One day, I got on the elevator to go upstairs to the cafeteria, and found myself face-to-face with actor Dustin Hoffman. Another time, I shared that same elevator space with New York Knicks star Bill Bradley. Hoffman was aloof, while Bradley was fairly cordial. (I saw Bradley again not long afterward, while having lunch at Stampler’s Steak House). I also passed actor Elliot Gould one day, while walking along the sidewalk on Central Park West.
In the late ’80s, I worked for one day (don’t ask!) as a convenience store clerk at an Exxon station, and got to shake hands and chat with actor Abe Vigoda, known for his roles in the TV series Barney Miller (he was Fish), and the motion picture The Godfather. He was delightful.
Also in the late ’80s, as a limo driver, I transported New York Yankees controversial manager Billy Martin, along with a vice president of Chiquita Banana, from a small town along the Hudson River to New York City’s La Guardia Airport (a short time later, Martin was killed in an automobile accident, near Binghamton, New York). At the time, Martin had just been fired for the final time by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and as we passed Yankee Stadium, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw tears streaming down his face. Contrary to the reputation he carried as a two-fisted drinker with a bad temper, I will forever remember Billy Martin as one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
My biggest “close encounter of the star kind” also came when I was driving a limousine. I was charged with picking up radio sports talk show personality Art Rust Jr and delivering him to a hotel in the New Jersey Meadowlands, where he was scheduled to be the Master of Ceremonies at a dinner for the Boy Scouts. Because the event ran for several hours, I was permitted to actually attend the dinner, and wait until it was over, before returning Mr. Rust to his NYC apartment. There were numerous sports luminaries in attendance, and I got to meet most of them, including three of the greatest quarterbacks to ever to play professional football: Y.A. Tittle (NY Giants), Johnny Unitas (Baltimore Colts), and Bart Starr (Green Bay Packers). I got autographs from all three! But there was a very special, little old man there, of Italian descent, who was also signing autographs. He was a former baseball player named Lawrence, known universally by his nickname, “Yogi.” I got in line (it was a long one), and eventually I reached Mr. Berra, who was seated at a table, whose surface was littered with ball point pens. I had four event programs in my hand, and asked politely if Yogi could sign them all (one for me, and one each for my three sons). He accommodated me without hesitation. While he was signing them I mentioned that I had recently carried his old pal, Billy Martin, in my limo. Yogi put down the pen immediately, and looked up at me with a baleful stare. “No kiddin’,” he said. “How’s Billy doin’ anyway?” I related my story about Martin crying when we passed Yankee Stadium, and Yogi shook his head and muttered something like, “Yeah . . . poor Billy.”).
I’m sure there have been other celebrity encounters I could tell you about (in fact, I’m certain there are), but these will have to do for now. The most important thing I’d like to leave you with is this: Don’t ever be intimidated by celebrities, whether they are movie stars, sports personalities, or politicians. Respect their privacy, but never pass up an opportunity to say hello. Remember, they’re all just people like you and me, and “they all put their pants on . . . “