For me, this question about what famous or important people I’ve encountered in real life is a bit different as I’ve spent most of my adult life involved in various aspects of entertainment, often with people who would get recognized and stopped for autographs while walking down the street.
As I’ve said previously, I grew up in the theatre. I joined the Rainbow Company in Las Vegas when I was 9, but even before that, I was enamored of the performing arts. When I was 6, and we were living in Albuquerque, NM, I grabbed dad’s super-8 camera, gathered the neighborhood kids together and made a revisionist version of Bambi. We all taped twigs to our heads and this time, Bambi killed the hunter! Yes, this footage exists somewhere, probably in a box, buried deeply in my folks’ garage. It may only be 3 minutes long, or so, but it is incredibly earnest and heartfelt!
When we moved to Vegas, in 4th grade, I was in the school play and MCd the school talent show and that’s when I joined Rainbow. One of the first things we were all taught there was that the production was created by a team. The person on stage saying the lines was no more or less important than anyone else. It wouldn’t matter how well those lines were said, or how poignant the performance was, if they couldn’t be seen or heard. Obviously, this had resonance. More so since I was often (at that point) one of the people in that camp, either on stage or behind it, but part of making the magic happen regardless, it never occurred to me to treat others in that position any differently.
When I moved to Los Angeles in November of 1987, I moved because a couple of women I had met in Vegas offered to help me out when I got there*. Within a week of arriving, I had stopped in at The Groundlings on Melrose thinking it was a theatre and I know theatre so maybe I can volunteer and meet some people. I started running the sound board a week later.
Back then, when you walked into the lobby, the wall was covered with pictures of various scenes which had played on the stage as well as the headshots of the current company. Even then, looking at those faces, many of them were familiar if not household names (and there were a few household names, too). My first weekend working the main shows (which played only on Friday and Saturday nights) I was invited out for drinks by people who had written and/or starred in studio released major motion pictures. It was a bit heady to say the least.
And the following Monday, I went out to visit Connie, one of those women who had offered to help me (and who is an amazing documentarian!). She had already put me to work running a video camera for some shoots she was doing (and I knew about video cameras from working with my dad doing social events), but here she was a production coordinator on an actual film. Sure, it was a low budget monstrosity (literally. It was called Frankenstein General Hospital) but it was a real working film set in Hollywood – or at least Hollywood adjacent. By the end of the day, I was offered a job (more of an internship) and had met more people I had seen on TV.
Over the next several years, I worked with a number of people who became very famous. It got to the point that it was difficult to watch TV without seeing someone I knew (either well or vaguely but had at least a nodding acquaintance with). I formed a partnership with a TV star (and those stories also deserve their own post at some point) and my ex was an entertainment news producer so running into famous and known people was an everyday occurrence for us.
Sometimes we’d stop and think about how weird our lives were, but in the end, it was really just our lives and our friends were just our friends.
That all said, I’ve often had a strange relationship with the idea of famous or important people. See, for me, fame means I know more about you than you do about me. There was a situation once, where I was working with the wife of a former TV star who had become a successful producer and director, but was still instantly recognizable. I was with my ex and a friend of hers when we ran into this other couple and I introduced everyone. Afterwards, the friend was a bit flabbergasted. She didn’t know how to act around the TV star because she already knew so much about him, not only his own career, but also about his late first wife’s activism. The idea of “small talk” had vanished and so there was no way to carry on a normal conversation. And to me, that’s just weird.
There are also different levels of fame. Like the time I was hanging out with my friend Steve, an author, and we ran into some people from the Groundlings, a couple of whom were big names. When I introduced Steve and showed them his book, these people, who would be recognized pretty much anywhere in the western world, were more than impressed by meeting someone who had actually written and published a book.
Whenever I have encountered a famous person I didn’t know previously, I always tried to set aside that pre-knowledge and just chat. Of course, living in LA, you’d think nothing of running into someone in corner shop who you had just seen in a movie the night before. That’s when the conversation, if it happens at all, centers around your mutual purchases or whatever else is happening around you.
Like when I was out at a restaurant with some friends and we found ourselves sitting next to a guy who looked really familiar. None of us could place him, though. When something happened that caused us all to take notice, we started up a conversation and this guy and his date were incredibly nice. We ended up basically having a really nice dinner with them. It wasn’t until an hour or so later, when we were all getting ready to leave, that we got around to introducing ourselves. Turned out he was the star of a huge 70s science fiction show, one of my favorites, and when he understood that we hadn’t recognized him, he became incredibly self-deprecating and really funny about it.
When I moved back to Vegas, I transitioned from hanging out with TV and movie folk to live entertainers and magicians (who, yes, are also live entertainers…mostly), but the same philosophy was present. While I appreciate their talents and skills, they’re also just my friends. And I still see them on TV from time to time and it makes me happy!
Then again, maybe I should have just told stories and named names…next time.