It's Good to Be the King
May 19, 2015
When writing my piece about Phil Donahue yesterday, I realized I left a few people of my list of the nicest celebrities I've met:
Larry King, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, and Tim Robbins. Most stars are smart about being nice to fans and they appreciate the attention. And it's usually the bigger, older celebs who are nicest
and "get it." It infuriates me when I read about some of these young actors who refuse to give autographs. (I'll dish on the very few unpleasant stars I have encountered another time.)
I am really remiss about not including King in yesterday's piece. He is a real mensch. He never forgot that he was some kid named Lawrence Zeiger from Brooklyn. I met him in 1991 when I was 18. My mother and I attended an awards ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria where I received honorable mention from the Scholastic Writing Awards for a short play I wrote about a bickering show biz couple (which I now can admit was inspired by the Michael Caine/Maggie Smith part of Neil Simon's California Suite).
We were all decked out, me in my first big boy suit and her in a beautiful purple dress, one of maybe only two or three times I ever saw her in a dress. My mother went to use the ladies room. As I waited for her, I see Larry King walking by. With my teenage, starstruck enthusiasm I stopped him. I told him what a fan I was. He said he was there to speak at some radio convention. I told him about my awards ceremony. I then said I would love a picture with him but my mother is in the ladies room and she had the camera. "That's okay," he said. "We can wait." We can wait??? How many stars would do that?
Luckily my mother was quick. When she saw me chatting with Larry King, she was in shock. She playfully smacked him on the shoulder and said, "What are you doing here?!" She snapped the great photo below, and then the Mednicks and Mr. King went our separate ways. Shortly afterwards I mailed him the photo, told him how thrilled we were to meet him, and that I was starting NYU film school. He mailed me back our photo signed along with a 5x7 of him that read, "For Brian, You'll make it. Larry King." Truly one of the nicest guys in the biz.
There is a reason he - like Donahue - interviewed nearly every major figure of the last fifty years. So what is this sudden admittance to my adulation of former male talk show hosts now in their seventies and eighties? No idea. Maybe I should ask Dr. Phil.
Get Your Phil!
May 18, 2015
While browsing YouTube, I was delighted to find this absolutely priceless video of Phil Donahue's primetime television special from 1992 celebrating his 25th anniversary on the air.
I have always been a huge Donahue fan. I went to see his show three times. The last time was in 1992 and the guest was Jesse Jackson, who was running for president. Donahue always kibitzed and fooled around with his audience during commercial breaks. He instructs the audience to raise their hand during the breaks if they want to ask a question. I raised my hand, but before he let me ask my question, he kept personally addressing me during each break and saying things like, "Young man, I have a feeling you're gonna give me the Gettysburg Address. It's only an hour show." Eventually the person next to me asked if I knew Donahue personally. No idea why he kept coming over to me -though, in all fairness, I was 19 but looked much younger, was thin, adorable, and had a great head of hair. See my headshot below from back then when I was pursuing acting (I am the one on the right - no pun intended).
Eventually he let me ask my question and looked at me with a devilish smile, as if he knew something good was coming. I have the show on videotape but alas, who has a VCR anymore? Anyway, I remember my question to the good reverend verbatim: "A few years ago there was a big controversy when you called Jews 'Hymies' and New York 'Hymie Town.' How do you expect to have any credibility as someone who wants to ease racial tensions when you say something like that, which only creates more hate?"
It was and will be my one moment in the national spotlight. Everyone applauded. Up until me, the audience was asking softball questions. I was the only one who challenged Jackson. Of course, he responded with some nonsense and totally avoided the actual question. They kept cutting back to me, and when he was done they captured a perfect shot me turning my head with a WTF gesture.
After the show, Donahue always shook everyone's hand as they left and posed for pictures. When I shook his hand, I said, "See, it wasn't the Gettysburg Address." Like a Jewish mother, he put his hand on my chin and said, "No, it was a good question." Little did I know I had a bromance with him before the word was coined.
Less than a year later I met him backstage at the Daytime Emmy Awards, which he co-hosted with Susan Lucci. Dick Clark was the producer. Despite his genial on-air demeanor, I heard some stories that Clark was a nasty man off-camera. He seemed very unapproachable and bossy. Meanwhile, Donahue was just standing to the side by himself. I went over and asked if he remembered my question to Jesse Jackson. He said he did and we chatted briefly. I also met Oprah Winfrey, who won that year, and she was actually very nice (but then again, she just won an Emmy).
I have met a lot of celebrities, and Donahue is without question one of the two or three nicest (the others would be Dom DeLuise, Joan Rivers, Mario Cuomo, Dick Cavett, Cliff Gorman, Joe Franklin, Paul Shaffer, Ted Allen, and Linda Dano - okay, that's more than two or three).
Donahue, who turns 80 in December, is one of TV's great pioneers. He developed the format for the daytime talk show that set the standard for everyone else. He has no ego whatsoever. He befriended and even championed rival Oprah, who beat Donahue in the ratings consistently. He is the ultimate entertainer - he can act, he can sing, he can dance, he is even a good cook (according to Marlo). He's also a dog lover and family man who loved his mother.
There was no topic Donahue wouldn't tackle. His show was one of the first to regularly address the AIDS epidemic when so many would not. He interviewed nearly every major celebrity and politician from the last fifty years (he even interviewed then senator JFK while a younger reporter in Ohio).
I know I usually write these long tributes to people after they depart us, but sometimes we need to celebrate them while they are alive. Television is a less interesting place without Phil Donahue. He does still pop up here and there. He kicked Bill O'Reilly's ass regarding the Iraq war (click here to watch). Hell, even Sean Hannity admires him.
Click here to watch the full special. You will laugh, cry, and be enthralled.
Happy Mother's Day, Mom
May 10, 2015
My mother's birthday and Mother's Day were always a week apart. This is my fourth Mother's Day without her and I get so upset when I see Mother's Day commercials on TV that I immediately change the channel. I also delete every e-mail telling me what's on sale for Mother's Day.
I used to tell my mother that as far as I was concerned, every day was Mother's Day for her. May sound sappy but I meant it. If you are lucky enough to still have your mother, call her, visit her, kiss her, hug her, take to her dinner, buy her something nice. You wouldn't be here without her. It all goes by too fast.
Happy Birthday, Mom
May 5, 2015
Sad day for me. My mother would have been 79 today. The pain and loss never stops - I don't want it to stop. She was my world, my everything. I still want to pick up the phone to discuss politics or movies or this new restaurant I tried. But I can't. I lost not only the most caring, giving, loving mother anyone could wish for, but I also lost my best friend. No one will care about me the way she did, and I will never love anyone as much as I loved her. Miss you, ma.
Jerry vs. Joan
May 3, 2015
How disappointing to hear of such nonsense between two of your heroes. In a SiriusXM Town Hall last year, three months before Joan Rivers died, Jerry Lewis said, "I always feel bad when someone passes away...except if it was Joan Rivers." He continued his vitriol by saying, "She set the Jews back a thousand years."
This all stems from a comment Joan once made basically saying he is lucky to have the telethon because it helps his career. Jerry claims to have sent Joan a note saying, "Dear Miss Rivers: We've never met, and I'm looking forward to keeping it that way. If you find it necessary to discuss me, my career or my kids ever again, I promise you I will get somebody from Chicago to beat your goddamn head off." Real classy, Jerry. So macho to threaten a woman. (I doubt he ever had the cajones to actually put those words on paper.)
Alas, I would side with Joan. I never personally saw it but Jerry did have a reputation for having a bad temper and not liking female comics. He was always nice to me, but so was Joan. Joan was always Joan. No phoniness or pretense. If you can't take a joke, you shouldn't be in comedy. Joan was an equal opportunity offender.
Jerry Lewis was always an idol of mine but I have lost all respect for him. At 89, I think he's starting to lose it. He says he never met Joan Rivers. Oh, really? Click here for the evidence.
For Jerry to disparage such a beautiful human being as Joan Rivers shows those legendary stories of his horrible temper, much of it aimed at his sons, who claimed to be terrified when he would arrive home, are likely true. As Don Rickles used to say in jest to his pal Frank Sinatra, "It's over, Frank. The voice is gone. Face it, it's over."
Well, pains me to say this, Jerry, but it's over. When you open your mouth and, instead of jokes, you spew venom about a really NICE LAAAAAAADY, it's time to accept you're no longer the nutty professor, you're just plain nuts!
Michael Douglas: Mensch
March 14, 2015
You must read this brilliant piece by Michael Douglas about his son being harassed for being Jewish. I have a newfound respect for Douglas. Bravo, you mensch...a horny mensch, but a mensch nonetheless. Click here to read.
Joe Franklin: 1926 - 2015
January 26, 2015
Joe Franklin the legendary talk show pioneer who was a fixture in New York for more than half a century, died on Saturday at
88. He had been ill for some time with prostate cancer.
Joe was a friend who I often spoke with on the phone. He interviewed me in early 2011 about my Gene Wilder book on his Bloomberg Radio show. It was a great interview, and we became friendly after that.
We had a marvelous time together a few years ago at a Gene Wilder tribute event in Stamford, Connecticut (Gene did not show up but Kelly LeBrock did). He was warm, funny, feisty, and knew everybody in the business. From his early days with Jolson to his historic WOR-TV show where he interviewed everyone from Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Debbie Reynolds - well, the list is too long. He also featured lesser known talents whom he let shine, if only for a brief time in the early morning hours.
He probably received his greatest honor in the 1980s when Billy Crystal impersonated him regularly on Saturday Night Live.
In 2013, Joe gave me a great quote for the back of my first novel, Unnecessary Headaches. He always thrived on helping out other artists.
His Midtown office was famous for being cluttered with showbiz memorabilia. It seems everyone with even a slight connection to the "biz" knew Joe Franklin. He was as New York as they came. We are a lesser city without him, and I have lost a dear man I called my friend.
Mario Cuomo: 1932 - 2015
January 3, 2015
2015 is not starting off on the right foot. Mario Cuomo, the greatest governor the state of New York has ever had, died on New Year's day at 82, just hours after his son was sworn in for a second term as governor.
I loved the man. On July 9, 2004, I interviewed him in his office at Wilke Farr & Gallagher, where he was a partner. I had to wait over an hour because he was on an unexpected conference call. His secretary came out several times and asked if I wanted to reschedule or do it another time by phone. I defiantly said no, I was happy to wait.
When she finally brought me in to meet him, Mario was so apologetic. "I'm so sorry to have kept you waiting," he said. "It's okay," I said. "It's not okay!" he fired back.
Then he immediately started asking me questions. Where ya from? Oh? My brother-in-law had a house there. This was a man who genuinely liked people and was interested in them.
Once I started the interview, I was in awe. This guy could answer any question about anything. You could see the wheels turning in his head. I had to keep myself composed as I realized I was sitting two feet from a man who could have very well been president of the United States. Not asking him why he did not run was my only regret.
As our interview concluded, I told him that my boss loved him, said she would have worked on his campaign had he run for president, and thought he should still run for president. His response: "Oy gevalt!"
"You like Lincoln?" he asked me.
"Of course," I said.
He then conveniently took two copies of his then new book Why Lincoln Matters and began to sign one for me. "It's Bernard, right?"
"I'm all right," he said.
He signed it, "To Brian, Thanks for your patience, Mario Cuomo. 7/9/04."
"And your boss is Audrey?" he asked.
He signed the other book to her (yes, big brownie points).
He then leaned over and said, "Look, if this isn't enough - if you need more stuff - just call me and we can talk some more."
Can you say Mensch City?
I then asked if he would sign an 8x10 photo of him that I had brought. "I'm not signing that!" he said of the lousy photo. "Mary, get me an 8x10," he said to his secretary.
And he proceeded to sign the photo below. "To Brian, Excelsior, Mario Cuomo." "Excelsior is the state motto," he told me. "Not a lot of people know that."
The man was amazing. He was 72 when I interviewed him. Not as tall as I would have imagined. Beautifully dressed in a light blue shirt, tie, and suspenders. Photos of Andrew and the grandkids all over.
I ran into him at a restaurant a few years later. Always curious about people, he asked what I was up to. I told him I had just lost my job. He shook his head in despair. "We just let fifty people go from my law firm," he said. (So much for hitting him up for a job.) He had lunch with some lady. It was a Friday. We both had the fish.
Confession: growing up, my family was not in the Cuomo camp. I voted for Pataki in 1994 and still regret it. Sure, I did not agree with Mario on most issues, but his integrity, his decency, his drive, his compassion - well, that means more than anything. I left his office that day walking on air. I even contemplated becoming a Democrat. I said it then and I say it now: we are a lesser country to not have had him as our president.
Rest in peace, you wonderful, kind man. Deepest sympathies to Matilda, Andrew, Chris, Maria, Margaret, Madeline, and his grandchildren.
I Love Dick!
December 14, 2014
At 78, Dick Cavett has recently had a well-deserved career resurgence. Earlier this year he appeared in a wonderful off-Broadway play as himself called Hellman v. McCarthy (and he is bringing it to L.A. very soon). And now he has written another can't-put-down book of his writings for The New York Times online.
Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments and Assorted Highjinks (Henry Holt) contains so many engaging, thoughtful, and witty observances and memories of everything from sex, politics, aging, alcohol abuse, celebrities, and everything in between. Cavett has met everyone, and his stories about Groucho, Liz Taylor, Mel Brooks, Jonathan Winters, and so many others are just thrilling.
Cavett refers to our current climate in this country as post-literate (he's right) but praises those readers who thoughtfully reply to his columns. He is a stickler for spelling and grammar (as I is) and a self-admitted smarty-pants, but he also happens to remain down to earth and real (met him in April after the play and he could not have been nicer - can we say bromance?).
Dick Cavett is a national treasure. I am glad he is back in the spotlight. Now will someone please give him a new talk show?
Mike Nichols: 1931 - 2014
November 20, 2014
RIP Mike Nichols, one of the great American directors, who died suddenly last night of a heart attack at 83.
Now on to me: I met him around 20 years ago when he was directing Death and the Maiden on Broadway. I did not see the show but was passing by the theater as a weekend matinee had just ended, and lots of people were waiting at the stage door to hopefully see Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss or Gene Hackman. None of them came out but Nichols did and signed autographs.
As he signed my piece of paper, I told him, "I loved Gilda Live." No reaction. Then I said, "I loved Heartburn." He looked at me, totally amused, and said, "You like the obscure ones." "No," I said. "The Graduate was good."
I later dropped off a copy of my short film to his office but he never responded. Maybe he was too busy pasting his eyebrows on. Whatever. He was an exceptional director with a truly amazing filmography.
Coming to "Terms"
October 24, 2014
Was speaking to a friend the other night. Remembering my mother. For a bunch of nobodies, I made us so showbiz. Oscar night 1984. One of the only times me, my mother, and my father all went to the movies together was to see Terms of Endearment. We all loved it and rooted for it on Oscar night. But after Nicholson won, The Right Stuff seemed to dominate the night and we thought we were in trouble.
The show went on forever. I had to go to sleep. My father left for work very early in the morning, and, however it happened, I wound up in my parents' bed. My mother woke me the next morning with the news. "Shirley won," she said. "The movie won too."
You would think we lived in Beverly Hills and had a lifetime subscription to Variety. I was thrilled. We won! We beat those macho astronauts! Must be like what those nutty sports fans feel when their team wins.
I miss not having anyone to wake me up to tell me something like that. These were our "terms." Miss her so much.
30 Years Ago Today...
September 18, 2014
...these wacky kids named Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner were married in the south of France.
Sadly, it was a short-lived union lasting only 4 1/2 years after Gilda's death from ovarian cancer at age 42 in 1989.
Buy your copy of Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad to read about their funny, loving but far from perfect marriage.
September 13, 2014
I had never watched the bonus features on Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work until last night. The scenes that did not make it to the finished film are amazing! In one, Joan eerily says she does not want to be revived if something were to happen to her. Pull the plug, she says. She said she did not want to be left a vegetable, and only would want to be revived if she could be 100% and be able to perform a solid hour of standup.
In another scene, she is rushing between gigs and stops at a hot dog stand. She orders two dogs - one with mustard, one with mustard and ketchup. I hope the latter was not for her. And she got a whole bunch of sodas and asked the whole camera crew if they wanted a Diet Coke. Total class.
In the limo, she is practically orgasmic as she enjoys the frankfurter, saying - as any real New Yorker knows - there is no better hot dog than the "dirty water dogs" you get in Manhattan. I was drooling and dying for a hot dog, so went to the store and that's what I shall have tonight - mustard, onions, and sauerkraut. Never ever ketchup!
And one more thing: in the supermarkets near me, almost all of the hot dogs are skinless. Why? I am all for circumcision, but not when it comes to franks. You want the natural casing for that crunchy first bite. My first choice is usually Nathan's brand but Boar's Head is excellent and has the skin on, so that is what I got. As for the buns, that's none of your business.
September 8, 2014
Yesterday was Joan Rivers' funeral. Approximately 1,000 people gathered at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side for the private, invitation only service. Joan was cremated the day before, and you can obviously see the pain on Melissa and Cooper's faces from the photo below.
The New York Gay Men's Chorus sang, as did Hugh Jackman and Audra McDonald. There were scores of famous faces, and a lot more laughs than at your typical funeral.
Thousands of fans lined Fifth Avenue just to get a glimpse of the event.
Joan is gone, and I suppose life must go on, but it won't be as funny.
My Memories of Joan
September 6, 2014
Where do I begin? When I was a kid, I had several heroes: Gene Wilder, Gilda Radner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis, Liberace, Johnny Carson, and, yes, Joan Rivers. In fifth grade, I used to do an impression of her, complete with her jokes and her distinctive clapping. At a parent-teacher conference, my teacher grabbed my mother and said, "Mrs. Mednick, Brian is naturally funny! Just like Joan Rivers!"
I longed to see Joan perform live, but that did not happen until I was an adult. I saw her act numerous times, saw her brilliant turn on Broadway as Lenny Bruce's mother, went to a taping of her morning talk show, and wound up personally meeting her five times over the years. There was never a nicer, more down to earth person.
When I saw her perform at The Duplex - a tiny venue that seats only about 70 people - I was up front and she bantered with me (she even asked if I was circumcised). After the show, we all gave her a standing ovation, and she came over and kissed me. That still remains one of the great thrills of my life.
The loss of Joan Rivers is just inconceivable. Andy Cohen told Anderson Cooper on the eve of her death, "I don't want to live in a world without Joan Rivers." I could not agree more. As I previously said, I viewed her as a friend.
The woman was a dynamo, never stopping to take a break, constantly performing, flying cross-country twice a week, writing, hocking her jewelry, and cementing her legacy as the hardest working woman in show business. Her death was unnecessary. Like my mother, she was done in by the incompetence of so-called "medical professionals." I hope that endoscopy place gets closed down, and Melissa collects as much as she can from them.
As sad as I was when Gilda died, I had never met her, so it was not the same. I feel I knew Joan. Hell, I did know her! This might be a terrible thing to say, but I have been crying over her in a way I have not cried for anyone since my parents died.
The last time I met her was exactly two years ago today when my friend Scott and I saw her perform at The Venetian in Vegas. He had never seen her live before and fell in love with her. She was brilliant. Afterwards we had a meet and greet. I gave Joan my first two books, and she said she loved Gene Wilder and that he was a nice man (yeah, unless you're his biographer). I asked if they ever met since they both did the voiceovers for the Letterman cartoons on The Electric Company. The voiceovers were done separately so they did not meet, which she said she regretted. I also asked if I could interview her for The Jewish Voice, and she had me speak to her assistant, a very nice guy named Graham Reed. We exchanged contact info but after numerous e-mails with Joan's publicist, sadly the interview never happened.
Joan was a fighter. She overcame enough personal and professional obstacles for two lifetimes. She never got over the suicide of her husband or being shunned by Johnny Carson. When I saw her at The Duplex, she took questions from the audience. Carson was still alive then, and one guy shouted, "What do you think of Johnny Carson?" Without missing a beat, she said, "Fuck him!" The whole audience applauded and was hysterical. Carson was warm and loveable on-camera, but, unlike Joan, he was an unhappy, lonely person in real life. Showing how classy she was, Joan never stopped crediting Carson for making her a star.
In 1990, Joan won a well deserved Daytime Emmy Award for her morning talk show. Click here to watch. And notice two real mensches - Phil Donahue, who kissed her and was beaming with pride, and the late great Jeff Smith, who gave her a standing "O."
When you think of the great funny women of all time - Gilda, Lucy, Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin, Madeline Kahn - you must remember - as brilliant as they are/were - they were comedic actresses. Joan was a true standup comic in a field that was dominated by men. And she was the best.
Joan loved dogs, she was a great friend to the gay community (she became an ordained minister and performed two gay weddings), she was a staunch supporter of Israel, and she always appreciated how lucky she was to be rich and famous. She said she thanked God every time she got into a limo. She also believed in giving back - every Thanksgiving she and her grandson volunteered at God's Love We Deliver, bringing fresh hot meals to homebound people who were ill.
For most people, living to 81 would be considered a pretty good run. But Joan was spry and healthy - she easily could have lived another dozen years, and I bet she would have never stopped performing.
My heart goes out to her daughter Melissa, who, like me, is an only child and was incredibly close with her mother. I also feel for Joan's handsome grandson Cooper, whom she doted on. There is a scene in the documentary about her where she and Cooper are riding in a limo, and she is holding his hand. You could just see how much she loved him.
Life stinks. As Woody Allen once said, "Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon." But people like Joan Rivers made life a little more bearable. In this age of political correctness, Joan said what she felt and did not care what anyone thought. The people who did not like her because they thought she was mean just did not get it. Joan's detractors were small-minded and humorless. As she would say, grow up! It's a joke!
We lost a true legend, an icon, a trailblazer - and I feel I lost a friend.
Good-bye, funny lady.
Flowers for Joan
September 5, 2014
Just got back from Joan's apartment building where I left flowers and a note to Melissa and Cooper. Was very moving to see so many flowers and notes. There were two cops and lots of camera crews.
One reporter said Melissa had pizzas and bottled water sent down to the fans and news people who had gathered outside yesterday because that's what Joan would have wanted. Melissa is carrying on Joan's spirit of appreciating her fans.
Temple Emanu-El, where the funeral will take place on Sunday, is a few blocks from Joan's building on Fifth Avenue. Already there are blockades up, for there will no doubt be thousands of fans who will want to have a small part in saying good-bye to her. I am guessing it will be a private funeral with a public memorial hopefully in the coming weeks.
Joan Rivers: 1933 - 2014
September 4, 2014
At 1:17 p.m. today, the world became a less funny place. I am too upset to write a proper tribute now but will soon.
Rest in peace, you dear, wonderful, kind, funny lady.
September 1, 2014
I do not know what to say. I am just devastated. I have never shed tears for a celebrity the way I have the last few days for Joan Rivers. I met her so many times - she even kissed me once - that I feel like she is a friend.
I am too upset to say anything more than that I am hoping for a miracle. I cannot imagine a world without her in it.
My thoughts are with her daughter Melissa and grandson Cooper.
August 24, 2014
Today is the third anniversary of my dear mother's death. Words seem so futile when trying to describe the pain of losing her. She was my best confidante. As my alleged "friends" prove over and over, no one will ever care about me the way she did. And I will never love anyone as much as I loved her.