Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Hollywood Days and Night(mare)s: Mr. Orange’s Mountaintop

I have a little rule when it comes to interacting with celebrities in public, and it’s one I’ve tried to impart to others.  Call it EFA’s Law of Unmutual Attraction.  It basically goes like thus:

Ask yourself this question: If places were switched, would you want to be pestered?

More colloquially, it comes down to basic manners.  I’ve been out at a number of restaurants in Hollywood where celebs frequently dine.  Most of them are too haughty for my tastes, but one of them, Koi, in West Hollywood, I’ve been privileged to dine in free of charge (or nearly free of charge) a handful of times over the years thanks to my friends David Schoner and Heather Colache.  It’s a long story, but they made the acquaintance of the general manager, Mark, at a film commission expo in Santa Monica.  He had, at the time, an idea for a television show about Atlantic City during Prohibition.  If this concept sounds familiar, it’s because his “partner” in the creative process was none other than Mark Wahlberg, who then—or so I’ve been told—ran off with the concept to Scorsese and HBO, and the rest is history.  Mark the Manager was left in the lurch and, last I’d heard, he and Marky Mark were no longer speaking; he has since left Koi. 

Anyway, Koi is one of those spots where paparazzi basically stake out the sidewalks on La Cienega Blvd. awaiting the famosos inside to perform the oh-so-photo-worthy act of handing their tickets to the valet and thereafter driving off in their Porsches/Mercedezes/DeLoreans.  I once saw Cindy Crawford exiting Koi, the incessant flashbulbs washing out her skin as she and her date made their way to the getaway car.

Now imagine having that happen to you daily, or even several times a day.  Don’t get me wrong, movie stars and other celebrities are paid handsomely—and then some—for the relatively little amount of work they actually do, but on a humanistic kind of level, I actually do find myself sympathizing when they go on talk shows and bemoan constantly being hounded by photogs and gossip columnists (did I actually just use the term “gossip columnist” like it’s the 1930s????) and have bottom-feeders digging through their trash in the search for used dong bags and incriminating love letters from politicians on a constant basis.  There’s no privacy, no anonymity.  You can’t even go to Target to buy a Nerf ball for your million-dollar test-tube baby without being followed by a coterie of Perez Hilton’s minions. 

As much of my personality as I air in public, there’s still a large side of my life that I keep just for myself.  It seems nearly impossible to imagine dodging cameras and microphones everywhere you go, all asking the same banal questions and capturing the same lame Kodak moments in the hopes that you’ll spill your coffee and be captured for all time in an awkward “oh-fuck-that-burns” grimace.  I actually kind of understand guys like Alec Baldwin and Sean Penn when they finally just lose their shit and punch out a paparazzo.  (Remember what Michael Jackson once sang: “Leave me alone!!!!”)  It’s also a reason why I understand and respect the odd celebs who up and leave behind the hubs of L.A. and New York.  Sandra Bullock spends most of her year in Austin, where she is considered a part of the community rather than community property

So back to my initial premise, being at Koi: Even though I knew that Cindy Crawford, whose poster I had in my bedroom when I was 14, was dining mere tables away, it never even occurred to me to try and say hello.  Restaurant managers in L.A. live and die by their discretion and keeping the “undesirables” at bay; I’m a veteran (and current soldier) in the restaurant industry, and there’s a certain code of honor when it comes to making guests feel welcomed and comfortable.  This goes doubly for the famous and the infamous.  The one and only thing that matters in that situation is the color green, i.e., the better your treatment of the guest not because they’re a celebrity but because they are your guest means bigger tips and more return business.  This is true for any customer, but celeb-handling is a delicate game in the hospitality industries.  They know that you know who they are, so it need not be said.  Nor do they need to be fawned over.  They get fawned over all day long by flatterers and fans who kiss their asses; sometimes they just want a good meal with their “real friends” without being gawked at by the plebs.  L.A. and NYC restauranteurs who understand this enjoy repeat business and generous tips.  So it is with Koi. 

So I say an emphatic no to bothering someone when they’re dining.  If you want to show your appreciation to a celeb for all the joy and/or masturbatory fantasies they’ve brought you over the years, do what I’ve done: send em a drink (the story of sending Norm MacDonald a cocktail will be posted another day).  If you get waved over in thanks, then you can go say hi, Cindy.  The same goes for stalking someone’s home or office.  It’s rude and obnoxious and will ultimately result in your not getting to meet the person.  If you live in L.A. the odds are so in your favor of running into a celebrity casually that you don’t even need to stalk!  Just live your sunny California life, and I guarantee you that sooner or later, you’ll probably find yourself at the deli next to Ben Stein (that happened to me) or have Christian Slater come into the toy store you’re working at and he being kind enough to sign your girlfriend’s birthday card (which happened to my friend Tiberius). 

(My favorite all-time strangest celeb run-in was encountering Max Weinberg, of all places, on a shark cage tour on Oahu’s North Shore, but that too is for another time.)

I’ve been fortunate enough not only to bump into celebrities on the street or backstage at shows, but also to work with them, be in plays and productions with them, to say I was “on the same bill” as George Wendt, William Atherton, Malcolm McDowell, Michael York.  All incredibly friendly, polite gentleman, all of whom had great stories in answer to my questions about working with Stanley Kubrick, being on the giant set of Day of the Locust, etc.  People love it when you ask them about their work.  Don’t you like it when someone at a party inquires after your business or trade craft?  Why should actors and famous musicians be any different?  Actually, I’d wager they welcome pointed, thoughtful questions far more than the typical Oh my god, I loved you in Carnivore Flying Fish From Mars 6: The Spawning! What was it like to be eaten by mutated, laser-shooting piranhas?  How awesome was it that you got to fondle Susan St. Patricia’s boobs onscreen and get paid for it

Those can be fun stories too, but you gotta know when to time em.  Bring that up later in the conversation, and chances are Malcolm McDowell will spin yarns about filming the orgy scene from A Clockwork Orange that will make your fucking head spin.  He told me about it, and some other day I’ll tell you about it too.


To sum up, then, I firmly believe that saying hi or engaging a celebrity in conversation is contextual.  (Paul Newman infamously talked about being asked for an autograph while taking a leak by the guy in the urinal next to him.)  Be polite and friendly.  Of course, deep down they’re mostly narcissistic, insecure little children whose mommies never loved them and whose daddies got drunk and beat the shit out of them, which is why they do what they do in order to attain the accolades and love of millions in surrogacy, but remember, they’re people too, who sometimes are truly interested in telling you how great they are, but at others time just wish to be left the hell alone. 

Enter me.  Sometime in 2008 or 2009, when I lived in Altadena, I used to take hikes up above the top of Lake Ave., which abuts against the foothills of the lovely San Gabriel Mountains.  There are miles and miles and miles of trails in those foothills that go up as high as Mt. Wilson, at 5,712, and the site from which most of Southern California’s television and radio is broadcast.  The trailhead at the Cobb Estate atop Lake Ave. was about a mile and a half from the “Love Shack” where I lived for seven-plus years at Lake and Altadena Dr., so I used to hike up into the San Gabes from the Cobb Estate on a fairly regular basis and trudge up to the site of the long-demolished “White City” on Echo Mountain.  A hotel was built there in the late 19th century, a marvel of engineering for the time, but time, the fires and the remoteness soon took their toll, leaving behind only a few fragments of the hotel’s foundation, tennis course and tracks for the electric rail line that shuttled guests up and down Rubio Canyon. 

My absolute favorite time of day to be there was later on, especially in the spring and fall, when, on a clear day, you can see as far away as the San Bernardino Mountains to the east, south across the San Gabriel Valley all the way to the spires of distant Long Beach, and west to Palos Verdes and even Catalina Island, a good 30 miles offshore from Santa Monica.  The sun descending over the Pacific turns the distant waters red and orange as the dry winds mellow in the mountainous altitudes.  The view is truly something to see, especially when Los Angeles’s notorious smog layers take the day off.  

One such evening, I pulled my wagon up to Echo Mountain just as the sun was converging with the waters out beyond the Channel Islands.  I’d made good time, but I was puffing and thankful I’d make it to my favorite spot at the top of an old, broken stone staircase in time for sunset. 

As I walked toward the staircase I noticed a lone man seated on a slab of concrete that once served as the loading platform for the incline train that ferried visitors to the White City up Rubio Canyon.  The angle of body and the repose of his face clearly indicated that he was in contemplative, mindfully peaceful mode.  His forehead was high, the skin of his face slightly weathered and taut, but his look betrayed a practiced calmness.  His eyes had a keenness about them that was both piercing and familiar. 

Very familiar, as it turned out. 

The man’s eyes turned to me as I approached.  I’d seen him in many films.  Films I loved.  Filmed I would have given anything to ask about. 

His visage betrayed the realization of knowing that I knew who he was. 

I simply nodded my head and said hello.  He gave a quick “hi” in response.  I continued on past him and ambled up the steps to my favorite spot.  I unslung the backpack from my shoulders and pulled out a bottle of water.  As I settled into my spot, angled myself towards the west, the sun fired the ocean.  It was just the two of us at this particularly busy spot, the only sounds of human activity the constant stream of traffic passing along the 210 freeway in the valley below.

If I were Tim Roth, the absolute last place I’d ever want to be harried would be atop Echo Mountain at sunset. 

And so we two, a fine English star of screen and stage, and a New Jerseyan just trying to make an honest buck or two, sat not 30 feet apart, separately but equally human, and sharing silently this elegiac experience of another’s day finity.  Probably contemplating the same things: life, love, death, art, family, sex, the meaning of it all. 

If Mr. Orange had just shut his mouth at the end of Reservoir Dogs, maybe Harvey Keitel wouldn’t have shot him in the head.  Maybe he’d even have lived long enough to get to a hospital. 


Maybe not.

A view from my "special seat" atop Echo Mountain taken at another date. Photo by Eric Althoff.


Not long afterwards, I pitched a story to Pasadena Magazine about interviewing Tim Roth, who by then, I had learned, was indeed a fellow Pasadena resident.  His turn as the villainous Emil Blonsky in the The Incredible Hulk was soon to hit theaters.  My editor, Sarah, gave me her blessing and go-ahead.  I was able to track down Mr. Roth’s publicist and sent a press inquiry…which was respectfully declined.  (I was actually scooped by Los Angeles magazine, whose profile of Roth ran the following week.)  Had I gotten the chance to actually do the interview, I would have brought up the time we “met” atop Echo Mountain.  Maybe someday I will get the chance.