Fame Isn't the Prize; It's the Price

I have an actor friend who gets through a crowd and gets through life with one over-riding rule: don't make eye contact. It's a great and effective policy, especially for stars who inspire a dangerous sense of possession in fans when in the open public. Audience respect and approval are a necessary, if not welcome, part of the job of stardom. But close encounters of the BFF and selfie kind can ignite a feeding frenzy and derail a moment or even a sense of safety. Eye contact is a signed invitation to admirers who might otherwise not intrude. Having legions of fans attracted to the flame of your talent or acclaim is a valuable career asset, but it can be a very mixed blessing. Fame isn't the prize, it's the price.


Often stars are betrayed by their own good manners and wind up being held hostage by intrusive fans. Gene Hackman and I were on a flight to Buffalo for the "Superman II" press junket. One might think that "civilians" (Hollywood-speak... anyone not in the entertainment business) in first class might be a tad more considerate of a celebrity's privacy, but some of these privileged individuals presume. For the last hour before the Chicago stopover Gene was prisoner of a large and noisy man pitching his ownership of the film rights to the life of "the greatest baseball star of all time." "Well," Gene said, too polite to tune the guy out, "I'm too old, unless it's Satchel Paige." The wannabe producer didn't get the joke and didn't blink. He kept going on about how it was the role Gene was born to play, finally revealing that the player was Ernie Banks." "Are you aware that Ernie Banks is African American?" Gene asked with greater civility than was called for. "So is Satchel Paige," the guy persisted, "Five minutes ago you were DYING to play HIM. The miracle of movies, Gene! The miracle of movies!" At which point the pilot mercifully set the plane down. "Chicago," Gene smiled, "I guess this is where you get off." "I'm gonna sell you on this," the guy said, "I'm not getting off." "Then I will," Gene mumbled, and we exited into the terminal.

Now here is where the story takes a turn which confirms that Fate is indeed gracious and where it bestowed upon us one of my favorite moments. Hackman and I had a particular affection for the late and lamented critic, Gene Siskel, whom we suddenly saw walking ahead of us, obviously on his way to join the plane that would take us all to Buffalo. When you really like someone and he really knows that you do, you are free to pull really mean jokes on him. I don't know how we decided it, there was no discussion, not even a nod. It was just something we simultaneously understood we would do. Gene and I came up behind Siskel and each of us clasped him firmly under an elbow, while Hackman held Siskel's neck from behind in a firm grip that defied the turning of the head. We lifted him a few inches off the floor and started scooting him across the terminal. Siskel, in a strained voice about an octave higher than his handsome Midwest baritone on Siskel & Ebert, began to explain to whoever we were that his paper had an absolutely ironclad rule against paying ransom, "actually to discourage situations exactly like this. And I don't have the kind of money you might think I have" and so on with a very convincing recitation of why this crime would not pay. At short length, we set him down at the check-in counter for the flight. A little dazed, Siskel turned around to see us. "I knew it was you guys," he said with a grandly stated nonchalance.

Dick Guttman is the author of "STARFLACKER: INSIDE THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD," the memoir of his continuing 60 year career as press agent to hundreds of the greatest stars of film, television and pop music history. The following is one of "Starflacker's" well over a thousand anecdotes of the wit, antics and humanity of the entertainment world's most lauded legends: