Monday, April 11, 2016

Grey Days

A few weeks ago I read Joel Grey's memoir Master Of Ceremonies, but held off discussing it until today, his birthday. Happy 84th, Joel.

Certain actors are blessed, and cursed, with roles that become so iconic it's hard to imagine them as anything else.  Yul Brynner in The King And I comes to mind, as does Robert Preston in The Music Man.  And Joel Grey knows it's his Emcee character in Cabaret that made him, and will memorialize him (hence the book's title).

Most of his memoir is about getting there.  In fact, there's so much set-up that there's relatively little after he makes it.  It's as if he had a deal to turn in a 250-page book and had to cut the stories from his later years short.

Grey (born Joel Katz) was raised in Cleveland.  He remembers the big meals with his Jewish relatives, but not fondly.  There was plenty of in-fighting, and his mother Grace (born Goldie) had sisters who picked on her, perhaps because she acted like she was better than they were.  He sought his mother's approval, but she could be withholding--he got along better with his father, musician and entertainer Mickey Katz.

Joel found solace in the theatre.  He started working at the Cleveland Play House where, even as a child, he was treated as a professional, with dignity and respect.  It was an exciting world, too, getting the approval of the audience onstage and forging close relationships off.  He also discovered he preferred boys to girls, though that wasn't something you could easily talk about in the 1940s.  One time, late in his teens, he was caught in a scandal and his mother turned away from him--she never fully accepted his sexuality.

When Grey's father joined Spike Jones' novelty band, the whole family moved out to Los Angeles.  Katz recorded his own highly successful English-Yiddish comedy records and started a revue, the Borscht Capades.  Teenager Joel performed in it--under the name Joel Kaye, so no one knew he was the son of Katz--and was a hit.  He'd always seen himself as an actor, but now he was a song and dance man.

From there, Joel was "discovered" by Eddie Cantor and signed by William Morris.  His agents created a nightclub act for him and he traveled across the country for much of the 50s.  But he always wanted to get back to the theatre.  He also wanted a family, and married fellow performer Jo Wilder in 1958.  There was friction between them since she wanted to continue acting and singing, while he imagined she should stay home and raise their family.  Their first child, a son, was born prematurely and died a few days later.  Their second, Jennifer, was born in 1960 and grew up to become a famous actress herself.  A few years after that they adopted a son, James.

Grey did what he could to earn a living in the early years of his marriage, including a lot of TV work.  But when he got a chance to be on Broadway, he and his family moved to New York.  First he replaced the lead in Come Blow Your Horn, Neil Simon's first hit.  Next he toured for a while in the Anthony Newley show Stop The World--I Want To Get Off.  Then, as happens in so many actors' lives, he couldn't find a job.

But he was rescued by an old friend, producer-director Harold Prince, who wanted him for the role of the Emcee in his new show Cabaret.  No audition required.  Grey was thrilled, but looked at the script and saw he had no lines, and in fact only appeared in in Act 2 for one section where he performed a medley.  He was deflated, but his wife assured him he could score in the role.  In rehearsal, it was decided to spread the songs throughout the show, and open with the big number "Willkomen."  Suddenly, the Emcee became the symbol of the show--the decadence of pre-war Germany, the cheap thrills and the danger underneath.  Grey himself channeled the sort of crass, desperate emcee he'd seen in his nightclub years--the very thing he'd tried to avoid in his own show--and created the famous character.  Cabaret was a smash and Grey got the best reviews, winning a Tony.

At this point, the book starts speeding through Grey's accomplishments.  He spends some time discussing his first starring role on Broadway in George M!, a show that wasn't loved in New York where it seemed too patriotic for the late 60s, but was a smash everywhere it toured.  And he goes into detail discussing the filming of Cabaret in the 70s.  The movie was directed by Broadway great Bob Fosse, who had nothing to do with the original production.  He wanted everything changed--major characters were cut, plot songs were tossed, and an entirely new cast was chosen.  Almost.  Fosse was forced to take Grey.  The two were at odds for much of the production, but in the end Fosse created a film memorable enough to win eight Oscars, including Best Director for Fosse, Best Actress for Liza Minelli and Best Supporting Actor for Grey (beating out, among others, Al Pacino in The Godfather).

With the kids growing up, and a successful career going on, Grey decided, after 24 years of marriage, to tell his wife about his sexual feelings about men.  Her reaction was to leave him. Grey would go on to have more relationships with men, and also perform in the play The Normal Heart, that took on the AIDS crisis in the mid-80s as few works did.

However, if you want to know about other theatrical work, this is not the book for you.  He dispenses with shows like Goodtime Charley and Chicago in a few paragraphs, and Wicked and Anything Goes in a few sentences.  The Grand Tour isn't even mentioned.  For that matter, his film and TV work for the past 30 years is barely brought up.

As I said, an oddly-shaped book. But a fascinating one.


Anonymous Lawrence King said...

When I think of Joel Grey, I always think of his role in season five of Buffy. But I suspect I'm in the minority here.

4:26 PM, April 11, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I doubt that would be in the top ten of Joel Grey's best known roles, even though most people couldn't name ten roles he's played.

4:44 PM, April 11, 2016  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He'll always be the Chinese guy in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (And Ends) to me.

9:38 PM, April 11, 2016  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

He pulled a Mickey Rooney?

2:49 AM, April 14, 2016  

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