Easy. Jack Lemmon comes to mind immediately, of course. After that, I surprise even myself because two encounters of which I have particularly fond memories involved John Wayne and David Niven, especially Niven.
But more about David Niven later, in another essay. Today, I'll share my John Wayne reminiscence, a situation that was unexpected and wholly memorable. It was July 1976 and Wayne was visiting Philadelphia to promote what would be his final film, Don Siegel's "The Shootist."
Paramount welcomed Wayne, celebrating his arrival by staging the event in the massive John Wanamaker department store, specifically with a luncheon in the store's glittery eighth-floor Grand Crystal Tea Room.
The place was packed, overwhelmingly so. (For a time, the Grand Crystal Tea Room was the largest dining venue in Philadelphia, accommodating sit-down receptions of up to 1,000 people.) The late Linda Goldenberg, who was the Paramount rep in Philly at the time, was in charge of seating and sat me next to Wayne, whom I had interviewed a bit earlier in a more subdued location in the store, Wanamaker's Board Room.
Hold on. Lunch with John Wayne. (Which turned out to nothing like my unfortunate encounter with Shirley MacLaine which was covered here a few essays ago.) Lunch with a mythical screen presence, a situation which made it difficult for the person sitting opposite him to be professional and controlled.
It is here that he became Marion Mitchell Morrison (his real name).
For a while, it was just the two of us sitting at the table, making largely small talk. Wayne was soft-spoken, relaxed and courtly. Uncommonly modest and deferential. An actor and man whom critic Richard Schickel once astutely described as "the unacclaimed hero." The Quiet Man.
It wasn't long before we were approached by a Wanamaker executive who I recognized as Benjamin H. Doroff, the store's Executive Vice President, who asked me to move to another chair or table so that he could sit with Wayne. Doroff was a nice man but he was getting adament. Would there be a scene? To quash that possibility, I simply referred him to the table's place cards. "Perhaps you want to check this out with Linda," I said. This is when Wayne intervened. "She's over there," he said, pointing at Linda.
After Doroff left, John Wayne patted me on my hand and said "Well done."
Other people were now sitting at our table. One woman showed up with the July issue of Cosmopolitan to have Wayne autograph one of its stories - a piece titled "Wayne, Westerns and Women" by the feminist film critic Molly Haskell.
Wayne was surprised that the piece was positive. "She likes me?," he asked of Haskell.
Before we got around to lunch, there was another autograph request - of a terrific (and, again, unexpected) 1979 Phil Stern shot of Wayne vacationing in Acalpulco, providing a side of the actor removed from The Duke and closer to Marion Mitchell Morrison. Softer.
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~John Wayne between interview sessions in 1976
~photography: Clayton Davis/Getty images1976©
~One of the logos for The Grand Crystal Tea Room
~poster art: Wanamaker 1976©
~A different John Wayne
~photography: Phil Stern 1959©