Monday, September 8, 2014

Crum's Handy Guide to celebrity interview no-no’s

By Steve Crum
Having not interviewed many celebrities, but more than the average Kansas wheat farmer, I nonetheless have experienced being prepped by a showbiz interviewee’s publicist regarding what NOT to bring up in conversation. On one occasion, the star himself reminded me to steer away from a line of questioning. (More on the Peter Falk story later.)
During my interview with Jerry Lewis, I asked a question that should have been nixed before-hand, but I was unaware. (More on the Lewis faux pax later.) 
Press conferences are arranged for actors and actresses as they travel city to city while promoting a movie, stage appearance, or TV show. When entertainment writers travel to, say, Los Angeles or New York City to interview cast members in mass, it is called a press junket. I have never attended one. My experience has mostly been with celebrity interviews in Kansas City and the Kansas cities of Emporia and Iola. Sometimes they were one-on-one interviews, but more often I have been part of a roundtable of perhaps six interviewers. In the case of Jerry Lewis, there were probably 30 of us gathered, and Lewis stood before us at a podium. 
Therefore and to with, heed my quick guide to “What Not to Say, Ask or Suggest During Either Celebrity Interviews or Chance Meetings.”
•ED ASNER Advice: DO NOT BRING UP POLITICS, unless you want some caustic, opinionated, liberal  remarks. As it turned out, I should have tapped into Asner’s political side since the hour I spent with him was unplanned, and we both were grasping for conversation. [See my Ed Asner story elsewhere on this site.]
•ROBERT CORNTHWAITE Advice: DO NOT COMPLIMENT HIS LOOKS. A star of the highly regarded 1951 sci-fi movie, The Thing (From Another World)—Cornthwaite played the lead scientist driven to madness. The aged actor was less than polite when I complimented him at the Area 51 movie event in Independence, Mo., during the summer of 2001. After shaking his hand, I told him, “You look no older than when you made The Thing.” His reply: “Bullshit.” What I really meant to say was that he portrayed a gray-haired old fart in The Thing, and he looked the same. So much for bullshit. 
•DAKOTA FANNING Advice: DO NOT JOKE DURING AN INTERVIEW. During an interview with then 11 year-old Dakota, in town to promote the horse racing movie, Dreamer, I tried to get her to laugh. She was so focused and serious for her age, and she reminded me of my own daughter. Here we sat at a table in a suite at a Plaza hotel. She said she just traveled from Chicago, and was on a multi-city tour to promote her film. I asked if she had a chance to see Kansas City yet, and she said, “No.” So I pointed to a nearby window overlooking the Country Club Plaza and said, “Well, take a look. There it is.” She did not crack a smile. Now that I think of it, I don't blame her.
•SKITCH HENDERSON Advice: DO NOT ASK HIM ABOUT HIS GOOD TIMES ON "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON." After several years as band leader on Carson’s show, Skitch had left, and was obviously bitter about his exit when I interviewed him in Emporia, Kansas. Evidently it was his choice, because he cracked that “The Tonight Show has been a sinking ship for some time, and it’s about to drown.” That was in in 1967. Johnny continued for many years thereafter, maintaining high ratings.
•JERRY LEWIS Advice: NEVER EVEN HINT AT ASKING ABOUT HIS INFAMOUS, NEVER-TO-BE RELEASED MOVIE, "THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED." Of the room full of interviewers asking Lewis questions when he was in town starring in Damn Yankees, I was the one who asked him about the movie no one was supposed to mention. A collective gasp was heard when I did pop the question, and Lewis gulped, smiled, and proceeded to politely answer my question. Later I found out from several reporters that no one ever refers to this movie in Jerry Lewis’ presence. It is an extremely sore spot. [Read more details in a separate Jerry Lewis story on this site.]
•BILLY GRAY Advice: DO NOT EXPECT WARM AND TENDER STORIES ABOUT HIS YEARS ON TV’S "FATHER KNOWS BEST." I talked to Bill Gray when he guested at the Area 51 Sci-Fi event in Independence, Missouri in 2001. His most famous acting portrayal as a child was in 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, which was shown at the festival. I later regretted having him sign a photo of him with his Father Knows Best co-stars, which he graciously signed. 
I have since discovered Gray looks back on his Father Knows Best TV stardom (as teen son Bud) with disdain: "I wish there was some way I could tell the kids not to believe it. The dialogue, the situations, the characters…they were all totally false. The show did everyone a disservice.”
•ELEANOR KEATON Advice: LITERALLY COME DOWN TO HER LEVEL TO CHAT WITH HER. I consider it an honor to have talked to Buster Keaton’s widow, Eleanor, a couple of times. Once was at a private home in Iola, Kansas, around 11 p.m., in September, 1995. There were a dozen or so of us gathered, and Eleanor was sitting in an overstuffed chair. To make it comfortable for both of us to converse, I got down on both my knees, pressing the left side of her chair, which elicited a smile and raised eyebrows to her nearby lady friends who were also seated. “Are you proposing?” she asked. We then talked about Buster, eye to eye. [In this case, my advice is what to do rather than not do. It could easily have become a no-no.] 
•DE DE PIERCE Advice: FIND OUT AHEAD OF TIME THAT YOUR CELEBRITY IS SIGHT IMPAIRED. In 1967, while attending Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University), I interviewed the husband and wife team of Billie and De De Pierce, two elderly New Orleans musicians touring with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Introducing myself backstage before their concert, I held out my hand to shake De De’s. His wife quietly said to him, “He wants to shake your hand.” De De was totally blind, and I was unaware. 
•BERNADETTE PETERS Advice: DO NOT EVEN UNINTENTIONALLY MISLEAD BERNADETTE. During the hour I spent in Bernadette Peter’s dressing room following her concert in KC in 1995, I complimented her on the wonderful performance of “When You Wish Upon a Star” she sang at the AFI Salute to Steven Spielberg broadcast a few days earlier. Her eyes lit up, and she excitedly said, “Oh, you were there?!” “Er, no,” I said, “I watched it on TV.” Bernadette’s expression changed from ecstatic to pleasant as she then said, “Oh,” turning away to talk to someone else. 
•BILLY TAYLOR Advice: DO NOT TRY TO OUTTHINK THE BAND LEADER. While in the U. S. Army (and in uniform) in late January, 1971, I was in New York City sitting in the audience of The David Frost Show. Billy Taylor, the pianist/band leader, did the warm-up with the audience, and called on me. “Where are you from?” he asked. My reply: “You mean…now?” It got a big laugh from Taylor and the audience. Since I was in transit from Fort Dix, New Jersey to Germany, I wasn’t sure whether he wanted my itinerary or my home town.  
•JASON PATRIC Advice: DO NOT MENTION JACKIE GLEASON. When actor Jason Patric was in town promoting his new film, Narc, in 2002, his publicist sternly told me and other critics to not bring up anything about his grandfather, the late “Great One,” Jackie Gleason. It stemmed from Gleason deserting Patric’s grandmother and her kids (one was his mother, Linda Mae) many decades ago. He and his family never forgave Gleason. 
•FRANKIE THOMAS Advice: DO YOUR HOMEWORK BEFORE MEETING FRANKIE. I ended up spending lunch in downtown Kansas City, Kansas with Mr. Thomas in 1997. He was part of an area comic book festival being held at Jack Reardon Center. I stopped by to meet my childhood hero (Tom Corbett, Space Cadet), who also co-starred in all those Warner Brothers Nancy Drew movies. Since it was around noon when I approached his table, and no one else was around, he asked if I wanted to have some coffee with him in the break room. Small talk ensued, and he talked about his admiration for John Litel, who played Nancy Drew’s father in the series. He also told of Bonita Granville’s having to tape down her breasts to look younger as Nancy Drew. I would have had much more to ask about Thomas’ career had I researched it before meeting him. (This was an impromptu interview, in other words.) 
•GLENN YARBROUGH Advice: DO NOT PHYSICALLY ABUSE YARBROUGH’S PIANIST. Meeting the “Baby, the Rain Must Fall” singer and former member of The Limelighters folk trio happened at the Civic Auditorium in Emporia, Kansas, in 1967. He had just finished his two hour concert, and I wrangled my way up on stage to meet the man himself. In the process of shaking his hand, I backed up and squarely stepped upon his pianist’s left foot. As I repeatedly apologized, Yarbrough kept laughing at the incident. His pianist painfully smiled. 
•LARRY KERT Advice: AVOID TELLING HIM YOU ARE MEMBER OF THE INTERNATIONAL AL JOLSON SOCIETY. Outside his dressing room at KC’s Starlight Theatre in the summer of 1980, Larry Kert had just finished performing his Al Jolson Tonight! show when I complimented him. He shared a Jolson scrapbook I had brought along, chatted for about 15 minutes, and autographed a program. However, he was initially put off by my presence when I told him I was a member of the International Al Jolson Society. He said, “I’m surprised you are complimenting me. I’ve heard nothing but complaints and criticisms from other Jolson Society members while I’ve been on tour with this show.” Indeed Kert was definitely not a Jolson soundalike, but he had the drive and enthusiasm of Jolson, and connected with the audience as he sang Jolie’s songs. I told him as much, and he appreciated the positives. 
•PAT PAULSEN Advice: DO NOT EXPECT A REAL AUTOGRAPH. The late Pat Paulsen was a very funny comic with a distinctive style of delivery and humor. A running joke was his comedic presidential campaigning, which he did every four years for a decade or so. In 1990, I interviewed him in his dressing room at the Civic Auditorium in Emporia, Kansas. It was essentially a comedy concert, since he would not answer one question seriously. Then, when it was time to get his autograph (yes, interviewers are fans too), he stamped my blank paper with the inscription, “Stamped By Pat Paulsen.” I reminded him of this hilarious incident years later when I happened upon him at his winery in Napa Valley, California.
•PETER FALK Advice: DO NOT STRAY FROM THE PURPOSE OF THE INTERVIEW. The Sept. 1, 2005 45-minute roundtable interview with Falk was all about his starring role in The Thing About My Folks, which was soon to open nationwide. KC was part of a cross-country promotion for the movie in which he played Paul Reiser’s father. We were supposed to have a separate half hour with each actor, but Reiser could not make it. 
So Falk’s time was extended. The half dozen of us were seemingly blessed with getting to pick Falk’s brain for an unexpectedly lengthy time. There were questions ranging from Columbo to John Cassavetes to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to his numerous movie and TV parts. Falk would start to answer, say, one about his work with John Cassavetes. Then he would catch himself, and say, “Naw, naw…let’s stay with the reason I’m here. Let’s only talk about The Thing About My Folks.” After a couple of mundane publicity questions and answers, one of us would stroll back into Don’t Ask territory. “Mr. Falk, your years on Columbo were….” And Falk would interject, “Er…that’s all covered in my upcoming book, Just One More Thing. Now let’s get back to The Thing About My Folks, which is one terrific motion picture, maybe my best performance.” 

Back and forth we went, trying to get to the interesting stuff. But Falk was savvy, and politely balked at answering anything outside of his current flick. It became a game of trickery, but we were up against Detective Columbo. He could not lose. 


  1. I worked for a mid-sized newspaper in the Washington DC suburbs in the early 1990's, and since I hailed from Hollywood, the editor would always send ME out to celeb interviews or photos.
    I got to interview two of my favorite childhood stars from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, one of my all-time favorite shows (I once lived literally two blocks from the Lagoon in the show).

    Well, Russell Johnson who played The Professor was the guy I really wanted to connect with, as he was a hero of mine. He could not have been more off-putting, to be honest. When the owners of the bookstore where he was signing introduced me to him, I had my camera and recorder ready, and before I could say anything, he stopped me and said, "You only get to ask ONE question."
    Now, our paper had a readership of about 200,000 people or so, so we were not a podunk rag here. Anyway, after thinking fast, I asked him, "Whenever you and Ggilligan and the4 Skipper were in shots together, your shirt colors, in order, were red, white, and blue (red for Gilligan, white for Professor, and blue for Skipper). Was this a deliberate choice? Like a subtle form of patriotism? A reminder that these were Americans?" (I was pretty proud of that question).

    He thought about for 0.04 seconds, and then, just like the professor, said, "Pure coincidence."
    He did allow me to photograph him with his bok, and was gracious enough to allow me to direct him and offer suggestions for the image, so together we had fun with that.

    Next came Bob Denver, the Man himself, Gilligan. I was not sure what to expect, but as soon as I was introduced and he greeted me, I asked if I could ask a few questions, and he pulled out a chair next to him AT THE AUTOGRAPH TABLE and said, "If you don't mind some interruptions while we chat, you're welcome to sit with me as long as you like!"

    He turned out to be one of the nicest, friendliest, and SMARTEST actors I have ever met or known, and we filled up 45 minutes of chatting on a cassette.

    So there ya go!

  2. Fascinating insights here, Pony. I love to hear stories like this one. Thanks.