Chance Encounters of the Famous Kind
“Been traveling around some, crossing people’s paths. Some, they stand right in your way. Others like to watch you pass.”
– “Nothing,” Uncle Tupelo
After many years of “living” on airplanes, I recently became curious about how many miles I had flown during my career. Most of my flights were on USAIR, so I contacted them. I was not totally surprised to find out that I had flown almost seven-hundred-fifty-thousand miles with them, primarily since the mid-eighties. When I factored in all the other airlines I had flown to places USAIR didn’t go, I figured I must have logged close to a million miles during those years of near-continuous travel. And when you spend such a large portion of your time on an airplane, who you run into – sometimes literally – can become one of the more interesting aspects of your travels.
One of my more memorable encounters happened on flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. A problem with the plane had caused about an hour’s flight delay. Finally, the gate attendant announced that we would be boarding in a few minutes.
As usual, the frequent flyer “groupies” began crowding the jet way. As the travel warrior mob surged forward, a loud, authoritative voice could be heard saying, “Excuse me. Coming through. Please make way. Excuse me.”
The voice belonged to a Red Cap who was conveying a single suit bag hanging from a rolling rack. Slowly trailing the Red Cap and walking with much difficulty was a frail, somewhat bent-over elderly man carrying a briefcase. It took a moment for me to realize that the Red Cap, parting the crowd like the Red Sea, was running point for none other than the actor Charlton Heston.
As they approached the gate, the door opened and Heston and his escort made their way through to board the plane. Many of us, who actually recognized the aging personality, looked dumbfounded that a celebrity of this magnitude would be on the same plane as us. Didn’t people like that normally hire private planes?
Living on planes as I did at that stage of my career, I was often upgraded to first class. That day was no exception. As I approached the door to the plane, a flight attendant examined my boarding pass, glanced up at me with a slight smile, and said, “Today must be your lucky day,” as she directed me toward my seat. Sure enough, my seat companion was none other than the Great Actor himself!
As I sat down, Heston looked up at me and briefly nodded, quickly burying his nose back in the book he was reading. I couldn’t blame him. If I were as famous as him, I wouldn’t necessarily have wanted to be forced to sit next to me for the next six hours either.
About ten or fifteen minutes into the flight, he finally came up for air. That had given me enough time to come up with what I hoped was an intelligent comment before starting, what was I’m sure from his point of view, the dreaded but inevitable conversation between us.
“You know, with the problems this plane was having earlier, I feel much better now knowing I’m sitting next to Moses,” was my first comment, obviously referring to his role in The Ten Commandments.
He was genuinely amused and starting laughing. The line also acted an ice breaker. He seemed to relax, and we entered into a very entertaining conversation. In his seventies at the time, he may not have physically been the young, virile Prophet Moses from the movie anymore, but the voice was unmistakable. He still had the “the Voice of God.”
During our conversation, I asked what had been his favorite role. He said he was still working and wouldn’t know until he stopped. As we discussed some of his movies, he talked about his roles as Moses, Ben-Hur, Marc Antony, and Michelangelo while I was asking him about Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green. Religion, history, and art versus science fiction – it was an interesting contrast between what he thought and what I thought were some of his more memorable roles.
An interesting conversation took place when the passenger sitting in front of me turned around and starting talking to Heston about a 1966 Bob Hope USO show that Heston had toured with in Viet Nam. During the tour, Heston had evidently developed a habit of requesting to be helicoptered out to the field to visit troops in remote encampments. Heston admitted it drove the field commanders crazy. One trip was to visit several Marine firebases outside the city of Da Nang. The passenger had been a new 2nd lieutenant at that time and was assigned to escort Heston on that trip to the boonies. The lieutenant’s superior officer, a major, told the young Marine that if anything happened to Heston in the field, not to bother coming back. Heston’s comment to the former Marine was, “Well I guess I’m glad for both of us then that nothing happened.”
When the plane landed, the flight crew asked that we remain in our seats for a few minutes to allow Heston to get off the plane first. It still would be a few more years before he became totally enamored of the NRA and the famous macho-style picture of him holding a rifle over his head was circulated. But my last glimpse of the actor who had won an Academy Award for playing Judah Ben-Hur was of a bent old man, slowly shuffling down the aisle in pain, as a flight attendant carried his suitcase.
Another of my more memorable chance meetings involved Bob Guiccione, the late mogul of the Penthouse Publishing Empire. In the early eighties, Guiccione’s wife ran Omni Magazine, one of his newest publications. The company I worked for at the time advertised in Omni. While in New York for a computer show, my company received an invitation to a reception at the Guiccione home in Manhattan, and I was lucky enough to be one of those who attended. The house was, in reality, a double brownstone on a shady cross street on the Upper East Side. Entering through the front door, we climbed a stairway to the reception area, which was actually on the second floor. We were limited to roaming the couple rooms on that floor and the lower level spa. That was plenty. The paintings by van Gogh, Matisse, Dali and Picasso on the walls were overshadowed only by the huge gold grand piano in the main reception room. At street level was a beautifully tiled spa and swimming pool that rivaled any bath built by the Romans. Guiccione and his wife were in attendance and were very gracious hosts, shaking hands with and greeting everyone individually. After that event, whenever I was in New York, I always wondered what other hidden treasures lay behind the nondescript walls of all those Manhattan brownstones.
There were a number of other celebrity encounters during those days of non-stop travel, including sitting next to James Doohan – Scotty from Star Trek – on a flight from Pittsburgh to Seattle. He drank Scotch during the whole trip and discussed at length how the cast on Star Trek hated William Shatner, but loved Leonard Nimoy. He also complained how no one except Shatner and Nimoy had ever received any royalties from Paramount for all the Star Trek licensed memorabilia sold over the years, maybe another reason for his ill feelings about Shatner.
On a trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil, I ended up on an elevator with Joey Ramone, lead singer of the punk rock band The Ramones. There I was, in my “business uniform” of suit, tie and briefcase, in the presence of Joey F…ing Ramone, so I started humming “I Want to Be Sedated.” He laughed and asked where I was from. He totally cracked up when all I said was “Jersey.”
At dinner one night at the 21 Club in New York, I was seated next to the actor Scatman Crothers and Paul Schaefer, band director from the Late Show with David Letterman. Schaefer turned out to be just as outgoing in real life as he is on television.
Another time, I was standing in line to clear customs in Toronto behind Leslie Neilson who, not surprisingly, was with a drop dead beautiful blonde half his age. And again, on another cross-country flight from LA, I sat across the aisle from Frankie Valli, a fellow Jersey boy.
While attending a trade show in Florida, I had the opportunity to meet and talk to Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon. He was at the show hustling software. And early in my career, I got to spend three days with Gordon Cooper, one of the original seven astronauts. That encounter took place because of a marketing contract he was under with Atari, who I was representing in those days. Among the things I learned about Cooper was that he was a real ladies man, he lived in a house formerly owned by Peter Fonda, and had the first successful vasectomy reversal in the country. He told me that, as a precaution, the seven original astronauts had been advised to get vasectomies before going into space because no one knew what radiation would do to them or their offspring. Cooper had remarried and his new wife wanted children. As he put it, “They just put in a couple gold valves and things were good as new.”
I was in Seattle in the late 80’s for a state meeting of the Viet Nam Veterans of America group. Country Joe McDonald, founder of the band Country Joe and the Fish, was there, selling his cd’s in support of the VVA organization. McDonald was a Navy vet. Though he never served in Viet Nam, he did have friends who had and his conversations with them turned him bitterly against the war. That in turn led to his penning of the “I Feel like I’m Fixin to Die Rag” which was famously performed at Woodstock. As the business side of the convention wound down and the drinking side picked up, the sounds of “Gimme an F! Gimme a U……” were heard numerous times through the rest of that raucous evening with Country Joe right in the middle of the crowd.
In 1993, I was in Washington, DC, working with a group of Viet Nam women vets involved in the dedication of the Women’s Memorial at The Wall in Washington. Dana Delaney, who had starred on the TV show China Beach, was participating and needed to be picked up from National Airport. Of course, I volunteered – a rarity for me to volunteer with anything involving the military – but I was told they had another “job” for me later. The other job was to pick up another actor from the show, Troy Evans, at the airport. A “B” actor in Hollywood, I’ve seen him in quite a number of movies and TV shows since then. He turned out to be a really nice guy who had been an Army truck driver in Viet Nam. Back at the hospitality suite at the J.W. Marriott, the women vets formed a perimeter around Dana Delaney that was as tight as the security of any firebase I’d ever seen in Viet Nam. The few “token” guys in the suite were kept at more than arm’s length from Ms. Delaney. So I was stuck spending the evening with Troy Evans and a couple other guys, drinking beer and trading lies as all old vets do.
One of the most insightful of these run-ins with the famous and almost famous took place once again in New York City. The Late Show with David Letterman is recorded at the Ed Sullivan Theater. Next door to the theater was a typical NYC souvenir shop run by two Bangladeshi immigrants named Mujibar and Sirajul. Letterman occasionally used them as “roving correspondents” for the show and sent them all over the country. Dressed in their business suits and ties, Lettermen would have them fly fishing in the middle of a stream in Montana, reporting from the Super Bowl, riding bicycles in California, and any other activity the show’s producers would deem silly while being performed by two guys from Bangladesh in suits.
One day I walked into that store and Mujibar was behind the counter. I asked him if he would say hello to someone on the phone. He agreed and I called Tom, a friend of mine who is a huge Letterman fan. After initially not believing who he was talking to, Tom realized it was the “real” Mujibar. They had a nice, if brief, conversation. The best part of that exchange was Mujibar’s statement, “Only in America can someone like me, a poor immigrant from a poor country, become a TV star overnight.” His sense of humility – almost embarrassment – showed that he truly believed in his version of the American dream.
Some encounters didn’t always include an actual face-to-face meeting. While flying into La Paz, Bolivia, I was traveling with Ramon, a business associate from Uruguay, and again we had upgraded to first class. As I sat in a window seat, I was trying to read a very fancy scroll-like panel mounted right above the window. It was in Spanish and, with my limited Spanish speaking skills, it made no sense to me. It went on and on about el Papa, which I took to mean someone’s father. I finally asked Ramon to translate. “You are sitting in the Pope’s seat.” Well, ok then. When Pope John Paul II flew in to visit La Paz several years before that, he had sat on that plane in that seat. My first instinct was to borrow a ring from Ramon – I wasn’t wearing one – and see if I could get anyone to kiss it. I quickly gave up on that idea when Ramon strongly advised against it.
On one occasion, I spent about a half hour alone in a cable TV studio with James Florio as he began his campaign for governor for New Jersey. He had been in the Navy and the naval reserves and was very supportive of veterans’ causes while in Congress. We discussed his service time and mine. He said he hoped the veteran community would turn out to support him on his run for governor. They did and he was elected but wasn’t able to repeat after his first term.
Richard Dreyfus, whom I saw in an electronics store in New York, can only be described as bombastic and extremely outgoing. In contrast, Ben Vereen came into a Sam Goody’s store I worked in many years ago and purchased a pair of headphones. He came across as very refined and relaxed, a real gentleman. Nicolas Cage and his then-wife Patricia Arquette were very gracious and appreciative after I returned a pair of sunglasses she’d left behind in a shop in Venice.
There were other run–ins over the years thatincluded such diverse personalities as Alice Cooper, Pete Rose, Gary Maddox (former centerfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies), Tony Bennett, Geraldine Ferraro, and Ron Wood from the Rolling Stones who I literally ran into when I hit him with a men’s room door.
Though I’ve retired to beautiful central Arizona, the encounters continue. After the disaster that tragically killed nineteen firefighters out here in 2013, the city of Prescott held a huge fundraiser for the firefighters’ families. The main street in front of Whiskey row was blocked off for beer gardens, food concessions and tee shirts sales, with profits going to the families. While having a beer, a tall, thin familiar, “looking slightly out of place” person was standing next to me. Turned out to be the actor Jon Voight. Flying in just to support the families of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, he was about to get on a stage to make a speech in support of the fundraiser. Though at first he seemed to be very much in a daze – with his handler almost literally leading him around by the hand – he seemed to shake it off and became “Jon Voight, the Actor” as he got up on the stage. He gave a great speech in support of the families. Unlike all my previous encounters, this last one took place in the era of the handheld cell phone cameras so I was able to get a picture with him.
I don’t have many encounters like those anymore. But then, I don’t have to live in hotels or on airplanes anymore either. Most people want to travel when they retire. Not me. Even though I still enjoy the occasional trip, for the most part, I am just as content to stay home. I don’t miss the extensive travel schedules, the long lines at the airport or even the “encounters.” But it was lots of fun for a while to call my best friend Dan every so often and say, “Dude. You’re not going to believe who I sat next to this time.”