From The A-List to the F-List With a Guy Who's Unlisted
In L.A. you can meet the stars. I've met a few my self, but my
celebrity run-ins are peculiar and random. I come across the
rich and famous despite-- not because of-- my social routine in
the City of Angles. So come along and enjoy a chapter from my
star-studded path of serendipity, awkwardness and occasional backhanded fawning...
I was having a drink one night in the Formosa Café, the Chinese
restaurant and bar/lounge made famous by decades of Hollywood
hangers-out, and also as a notable backdrop in the film
Standing next to me was actor and comedian John Henson, Talk
Soup's host at that time. I found his hosting on that show
to be hilarious-- an accomplishment considering he had to
fill the giant shoes left by the previous and original host,
Greg Kinnear. I tapped Henson on the shoulder and said: "I
really like your show, man. It's great." He seemed genuine
and warm: "Thank you." Then I threw in this quick
addendum: "Is it still on the air?" He registered a
slight awkward stutter: "Uh... yeah. It is" and then
turned away in a manner of surprise bordering on outright befuddlement.
At that instant I realized that perhaps my question made me
look like a jerk and a wise ass, trying to take a backhanded
swipe at a TV celebrity. In fact I was just curious and ignorant,
since I had previously lost my cable service when the company
caught me pirating it out of the building's splitter box and I
hadn't seen the E! Network for months. This incident taught
me something about financial prioritization in Hollywood--
The cost of getting Cable TV: maybe $40 a month. The cost
of looking like a jackass in front of an entertainment celebrity: Priceless.
CELEBRITY LEVEL: C+, WHAT I LEARNED: Do your TV research
before you approach a TV personality.
My sister was visiting from New York and house-sitting in
the Hollywood Hills home of a vacationing producer friend.
Staying in the guest house in the rear of the property was
Molly Ringwald. I stopped by one morning and the anticipation
was palpable and electric as we quietly wondered if and when
this goddess Athena of 1980's teen-movie culture would appear.
It seemed highly likely that Molly would come by the main house
for some reason or other, or maybe she'd just enter our line of
sight while walking down the driveway, which would still have
been mind-blowingly fantastic. It was as if we were waiting
for a fabled and skittish chinchilla to pop up out of its hole
and make a cautious appearance in our backyard-- except in
this case it was the extremely rare specimen known as 'Brat Pack actress.'
Sure enough, the North American Redheaded Ringwald crept out
of its lair and scampered toward the main house, where we all
waited, nearly drooling with starstruck anticipation. Molly
agreed to my sister's invitation to have coffee and breakfast
with us. With the house refrigerator and countertop fruit bowl
both virtually empty of produce, I came up with a clever plan
to remedy the situation. A large grapefruit tree brushed up
right against the rear of the house. I ventured out onto
the overhanging roof under one of the second floor bedrooms
and shook the tree until a fruit or two fell to the ground.
Then I reached out daringly-- risking a Jackie Chan-like
fall onto the paved patio below-- and snatched a few more of
the grapefruits, tearing them off their twigs and tossing
them down to land at the feet of the auburn haired ingénue.
The scene felt somehow exotic and Blue Lagoonish-- except
with clothes on.
We sat around in the backyard and listened as Molly told
us of her recent life in France and her "amazing"
French fiancée. Of course, this latter subject stabbed my
heart like a rusty bread knife, because all men are susceptible
to the grand delusion that any woman-- no matter how famous or
beautiful-- could be theirs if they merely turn on the charm
and make eye contact. I must say, Ms. Ringwald was looking
very good. A little maturation has worked well for her features,
because whereas she was a cute-as-a-button girl in the 80's,
she is now quite an attractive grown woman. I managed to get
a few sentences out of my mouth, but was intensely self-conscious
and judicious with my words, as one part of my brain kept on
screaming at the other: "You're talking to MOLLY F*%$#*ING RINGWALD!!"
At one point, she mentioned that her eyeglasses were broken,
specifically the hinge where the earpiece meets the lens frame.
I had some experience dealing with this problem on my own
glasses, and so I volunteered to fix them for her. I managed
to do the old paper clip trick, which not only works well,
but gives the wearer Weezer-like nerd-punk credibility.
Molly thanked me heartily. This woman brought out both the
Robinson Crusoe and the McGyver in me. Perhaps she was meant
to be my muse. Who the hell knows what I could accomplish with
her at my side?
CELEBRITY LEVEL: B, WHAT I LEARNED: Not all child actors lose
their looks as they get older.
A few summers ago, my friend took me to an outdoor pool party
organized by a local public radio station. It was held on the
ornately tiled back patio of an old Downtown hotel, and on this
sweltering day the place was crammed with edgy artistes,
bohemian socialites and socio-politically informed Rage
Against The Machine listeners. They all looked oddly out
of their dark, cavernous element, socializing on the
blazingly sunlit Mediterranean tiles or frolicking in the
sparkly pool, clad in flowery bathing suits, t-shirts and shorts.
While in the pool, I noticed a guy holding an underwater
camera. He was having trouble seeing under the surface.
It was the actor Richard Edson, whose work I greatly enjoyed
in Stranger Than Paradise, Do The Right Thing and Strange
Days. I trudged over and offered him the use of my nine
dollar Speedo goggles. He was grateful. He then asked me
to pose underwater for some experimental sub-aquatic shots.
I gladly obliged, as one never knows which photo opportunity
may launch one to stratospheric success. I figured that my
exaggerated faces, wild-limbed gestures, and suspension of
my body upside down-- all of it eight feet under water-- may
have been what some talent agent needed to see in order to
visualize the superstar potential of Adam Gropman. For Lana
Turner, it was Schwab's Drugstore. For me it would be the
Hotel Figueroa swimming pool.
I gave Richard my contact information and he promised to
send me the photos. I never got them. Has he sold them to
a respected photographic magazine? Are they on a pay website
for people who dig looking at guys in bathing suits? All I
know is, I could use a free underwater head shot. Or at
least a gag photo for my next holiday card. Richard-- if
you read this, "do the right thing" and send me the photos!
CELBRITY LEVEL: C, WHAT I LEARNED: Successful Hollywood
actors sometimes maintain interesting, offbeat hobbies .
I was sitting in the Urth Café on Melrose, the best place
to overpay for a latte and a vegan brownie-- if you're inclined
to do such things. The place is full of vaguely Madeline Stowe-ish
and Darryl Hannah-esque actress/yoga instructor/convertible BMW
owner-types. It also has a fair share of cosmopolitan Persians;
soap opera actor guys in sweatpants; purposeful, crisply serious
script development women; and the odd computer consultant or
corporate lawyer hoping to inhale some of that Melrose/Robertson
If you go to the place with any sort of frequency, you will
occasionally spot a genuine celebrity. This is like the bonus
platinum crouton on top of the gold-leafed arugula salad that
is already your Urth Café visit. On this aforementioned day
I found myself sitting next to actress Camryn Manheim and her
gaggle of middle-aged women-friends. She was recounting a pro-Bill
Clinton speech she had delivered on a televised event and the
torrent of emails she received afterwards.
I engaged her in a brief conversation and told her that both
the entire movie "Happiness," and her specific role
in it were phenomenal. In it she plays a lonely, eccentric
apartment-dweller that turns out to be a psychopathic murderer.
I must say, she was nothing like that in real life. In fact, she
was quite amiable and appreciative that I had even seen the movie
at all. She told me that strangers always approach her to talk
about The Practice but never "Happiness". I told her
that I'd never even seen The Practice and said: "That's
the lawyer show, right?" She actually smiled and said "Yeah,
that's it," as if to say: "You dear, sweet pop-culture
ignorant boy! God bless you for being a non-TV watching freak
and instead seeing the hardcore indy film that's so much closer
to my heart. " Then I shook her hand and retreated quickly
back to my free ice water with lemon wedge before it got awkward.
CELEBRITY LEVEL: B, WHAT I LEARNED: Seeing hip, under-appreciated
indy films sometimes pays off.
I was at the Cafe Bean & Tea Leaf on Hillhurst in Los Feliz--
the one nearest my apartment. I really like the atmosphere of
that location, because it's outdoor sitting area has the perfect
combination of assorted neighborhood characters, semi-pretentious
Hollywood glamour types and genuinely hard-working writers and
actors. A bagel and a latte there on a weekend morning with a
few sections of the L.A. Times has always been an especially
magical slice of heaven for me in this city which often
resembles purgatory's vestibule.
I was standing at the counter awaiting my order and when I
turned my head slightly I noticed that standing maybe five feet
away from me is Leonardo DiCaprio. Let me repeat for proper effect:
Leonardo DiCaprio. The one who seven years ago was more famous
than Bill Clinton, O.J. Simpson or any of the twelve disciples.
I need to make something perfectly clear so that you, the reader,
understands the psychological background of myself, the writer
with regards to this situation. I have never been an especially
starstruck or celebrity-chasing person. I've never done a Star
Map tour. I really do not go to venues and establishments where
one stands a high chance of rubbing elbows with famous people.
When a sighting does happen, it is by accident and is a by-product
of going to a place primarily for a particular activity or type of event.
As far as specific celebrities go, sure, I always expected that
if I met DeNiro or Streep or Oldman, there'd be some kind of
awestruck response on my part, an instinctive respect for
the level of talent and virtuosity before me. But Leonardo
Dicaprio? Never gave him a second thought. I'd barely seen
any of his movies, and I'm clearly not in his demographic.
I'm not a 14 year old girl, a 50 year old bored housewife or
a gay pedophile. At that point I hadn't even seen Titanic.
But here I was standing in the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and I
was FREAKING OUT. I mean, I was beyond trembling. My head
felt as if I'd snorted PCP cut with borax. I was an inch away from catatonic.
At that time, Leo was arguably the most famous human being
in the world. Titanic-mania was still sweeping the land
like an emotional black plague. He was on the cover of
every glossy publication in the newsstands. He was in
every TV news show and every gossip column-- an inescapable
icon that could command a chorus line of agents and producers
to dance at the snap of his finger and a Beatles-size army
of girls to squeal and faint with one ten second live appearance.
As unassuming, regular and almost goofy he looked standing
there slightly disheveled in T-shirt and sweat pants that
afternoon, this guy was by far the most famous person I'd
stood within spitting distance of in my entire life. And
I'd be damned if I was going to pass up the opportunity to
mentally implode and experience an irrational momentary breakdown!
As I clutched my latte on the counter and reached out for my
scone, I felt as disoriented as a bug in a clothes dryer.
"What do I do?" I asked myself, "Should I
lift up the drink? Put it down? Knock it over and scream?"
I experienced that incredibly uncomfortable sensation in which
you want so badly to turn and look at the really famous person
dead on-- to make that 100% I.D. confirmation and also to
mentally record any interesting facial expressions or other
peculiarities-- and yet you feel as if there is powerful and
deadly force stopping you. By turning and staring into the
Leo, I would be blinded, or turned to stone, or worse yet, he
would say: "Hey, why you staring at me?"
I then started to go through the magnificent delusion whereby
I-- the regular person-- turned the entire scenario around in
my mind and imagined that Leo-- the big star-- was looking at
me and scrutinizing my every move. I imagined that every tiny
micro-movement I made would make the difference between a life
of bland normalcy and a speaking role in Titanic II. I vividly
heard this phone call in my mind, with Leo calling director James
Cameron: "Hey, Jim. I saw this guy Gropman down at the Bean &
Leaf. This kid can really handle a coffee and scone. You gotta'
I then started going through the Five Stages of Being Near the Huge
Celebrity. This is an accelerated degenerative disorder of the brain
that passes through its entire cycle in about one minute.
First Stage: Confusion: "Who am I?," "What am I doing
here?," "Did I get my coffee card punched?"
Second Stage: Denial: "That's just a guy wearing a Leonardo
Dicaprio mask," "There is no Leonardo Dicaprio. He's
just a media-created hoax like the moon landing.," "I
don't exist. I'm really a spark on a computer chip."
Third Stage: Rationalization: "OK, he is a really good
looking guy," "He's got the advantage of an unusual
first name," "I'd be that famous if I grew up in Los Feliz."
Fourth Stage: Disappointment: "I feel so unsuccessful
compared to him," "He was in a movie that made $600
million and I was in a short film that played at Pasadena
City College," "He's over six feet tall! Couldn't he at least be short?!"
From here it's a short and slippery slope downhill to the
Fifth Stage: Homicidal Rage: "Why the hell does he have
to come into my goddamn coffee shop and ruin my day?! I'm sick
and tired of the guy and his arrogant, conceited bullshit! He
has to come into my Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and just rub my nose
in it! 'Look at me, I'm so rich, I'm so famous, I'm so handsome!.'
Why can't he just leave me the hell alone and let me feel
marginally OK about myself!!"
Right then, as I seriously considered buying an automatic weapon,
coming back and shooting up the place, I had an amazing moment of
clarity. I calmed down, stepped back and got a little perspective.
Perhaps, I thought, I was being unfairly hard on him. Maybe this
was really just in my head. Maybe it wasn't so much Leo, Maybe it
So I decided I had to go and apologize. I had to set things right
between Leonardo and myself. In my mind I heard my voice saying,
in a cool, nonchalant way: "Hey, man, I like the stuff you've
done in those movies". But when I turned to face him he was
already gone, like a wraith, and I felt horrible about all the
hate, anger and jealousy I psychically assaulted him with. I
knew in my heart that Leonardo was an innocent victim of my own
inner darkness. So I decided to write an apology letter to Leo--
the kind that one doesn't actually send and yet it brings emotional
healing-- and that letter ended up becoming this very essay.
So Leo, if by chance you are reading this, I am sorry for all the
weird vibes that day at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. If I see you there
again I will be friendly and let you buy me a frappuccino. And maybe a
CELEBRITY LEVEL: A, WHAT I LEARNED: Maybe big stars are just people, too.