Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Jerry Lewis Would Have Said, "HEY LADY!"

I am pretty sure I saw the actress Linda Hunt sitting by Lake Merritt as I walked past on my morning constitutional. There she was dressed in black just sitting on the grass looking at the birds, which were mostly coots and gulls. I do not mean the actress Helen Hunt, who was on TV for a long time and won an Oscar in that movie with Jack Nicholson in which you remember he plays a misogynist who is converted by....

Not that Hunt. This is the Hunt who is very short, well under five feet, and won an Oscar playing a man in "The Year of Living Dangerously" with Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson in 1983. Her voice is somewhat anomalous: deep, vibrant, too much voice really for one so small.

Folks around here who listen to public radio are familiar with her because she is host of the City Arts & Lecture interview show, which is produced in San Francisco. (I google her and I see that she is referred to as the "on-air" host.)

It probably was her.

This is the kind of celebrity sighting I can enjoy. Small-scale celebrities caught out among the people are what I like, seeing them as part of the fabric of life. The unusual in the guise of the usual. I'm pretty sure I once held open a coin-operated newspaper box so that Ralph Barbieri, who is co-host -- on-air co-host -- of a local sports talk show, could grab a Chronicle. He didn't have a quarter at that moment. (Emphasis added.)

Several years ago I saw the really tall pitcher Randy Johnson at a restaurant on Grand Avenue near where we live. It was back when he played with the Mariners, and they were in town. I handled that sighting the way I believe such moments should be handled. Recognition, then one glance prolonged slightly, then a smooth turn of the head and careful avoidance for the rest of the time the celebrity is in your vicinity.

Pointing, interrupting, buzzing, asking for an autograph -- my god.

What do they say about end zone celebrations by professional football players? They say, "Act like you've been there before."

Or to put it another way act as if you have some semblance of a life.

Now the only celebrity with whom I was ever tempted to interact was Patrick Stewart, whom my wife and I saw while we were sitting in front of the Maritime Museum near Ghirardelli Square at Fisherman's Wharf. He walked past us very self-possessed, moving fast enough to stay ahead of the bow wave of recognition he was creating.

I wanted to shout after him just one word: "Sejanus."

You see back in the Seventies in "I, Claudius," which is maybe the greatest TV drama ever done, Stewart had a very small role, that of Sejanus, who does some light murder for Caligula (who was played by John Hurt) before Claudius (played by Derek Jacobi) succeeds him as emperor.

"I, Claudius" is a snob's in-joke. Back when Frazier Crane was a character on Cheers, he told Sam he had the whole series on tape, which showed both his excellent taste and his failure -- chronic? momentary? -- to understand that Sam Malone would have no idea what in the hell he was talking about. It was also the show's writers and producers showing off.

A lovely and delicate piece of snobbery.

Patrick Stewart is, now and will ever be Captain Picard on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," a television show I enjoyed very much. Very first episode I recognized him from "I, Claudius." But I didn't recall the character's name. I looked it up -- to have it handy if the opportunity arose to insinuate my democratic but intermittently rarified appreciation for the popular arts. Or to put it another way I wanted to be prepared to play a variation on old-fashioned name dropping, to snob it up.

Okay. Stewart is walking past. The sudden urge arises to connect but to do so in a way that shows a cultivation, a kind of Keatsian negative capability, that is, the ability to simultaneously appreciate a talent narrowcast and a talent broadcast, to pander to his Englishness, to suggest that my word what have you been up to since that splendid "I, Claudius," probably some West End work or at the National....

He was 25 yards away. It was too late for me to shout anything and hope to be heard. And my good luck, I must say. It would have been just a little pretentious (editors: just a little?) and kind of a putdown for him now that I think about it.

My wife was staring with frank and uncomplicated interest. She can take Star Trek or leave it. She said she hadn't realized how short he was. I asked if she remembered that he was in "I, Claudius." She said it was certainly the best television ever, but even thinking about that scene where Caligula ate the baby still gave her the creeps.

1 comment:

B. Wieder said...

I once bumped, literally, right into Dustin Hoffman on Telegraph Avenue, but since it was 1967 and they were in the process of filming The Graduate, I had no idea who he was. Ironically, I did blurt out, "Watch where you're going, Benjamin!" Consider the odds.