By: Randy Dotinga

Journalists Recall Celebrity Encounters

Virtually all journalists run into celebrities now and then. If they’re lucky, they get to go home with a memorable story. E&P Online asked some reporters and photographers about their most memorable brushes with fame.

Mandela’s pool photographer

“About three years ago, a former colleague of mine, photographer Jean du Plessis, was covering the visit of German chancellor Helmut Kohl to South Africa. Du Plessis was walking backwards, shooting as the two statesmen were coming towards him, having a chat. Not seeing the elevated pond wall behind him, Du Plessis fell in Mandela’s parliamentary fish pond with cameras and the works. Kohl did not quite know how to react, but a concerned Mandela, with that trademark naughty smile, was quick to literally offer the photographer a hand to help him out of the pond. Since that day, Mandela would always refer to Du Plessis as his ‘pool photographer.'”

Johann van Tonder, photographer, Die Burger newspaper, Cape Town, South Africa

Al and Tipper calling

“It was shortly after 7 p.m. on Nov. 15, the night that Vice President Al Gore had announced he was going to make an offer (to resolve the Florida election mess). For us here at the editorial page, we were really hammering deadline. When the phone started ringing on my desk, I was still tinkering with one of the editorials to include some of what Gore had just talked about moments before. The phone rings, and my first thought was to ignore it and let it go to voice mail. My fear was it would be some disgruntled voter or someone annoyed because their paper was wet.

“There it was, as cheerful a voice as you could imagine, as if you ran into an old classmate at a ball game. ‘Hi Tom, how are you doing, this is Al Gore.’ My response was, ‘Who is this really? Come on.’ I figured it was somebody just showing me how well they had picked up the Al Gore speech pattern. He said, ‘Here, let me put Tipper on.’ And on comes a woman’s voice. I thought, this is a little tougher to do. Tipper said, ‘No, no, this is Tipper. We’re here watching Florida and thought we would check with you. It really is Al. I’ll put you back on.’ We talked … and he was quite up to the moment on what had happened in the recounts in the small north Florida counties. I realized this is no act; it was Al Gore at his most wonkish. We talked for a few minutes until I had to go and he did too. I just asked him in passing, do you ever call and get hung up on? ‘Well,’ he said, ‘only (by) the L.A. Times.'”

Tom Fiedler, editorial page editor, The Miami Herald

Hanging up on Heston

“Years ago, my telephone rang and I picked it up. A guy said he was Charlton Heston and was calling to hype his guest-hosting shot that week on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah? And I’m Moses parting the Red Sea,’ and hung up. He called back. Hearing his unmistakable deep voice, I believed him.”

Gail Shister, television columnist, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Bette and young reporters

“It was 1976, as I recall. Bette Davis was about to be honored by the American Film Institute with a lifetime achievement award. People magazine assigned me to interview her at the La Costa (Calif.) celebrity spa where she was prepping for the big occasion. I arrive to find one of America’s most glamorous movie stars, Bette, age 68, in a straw hat and wearing a Hawaiian style cover-everything mu mu! We begin what turns out to be a wonderful all-day schmooze interview, which gets randier once the tape machine is turned off and a bottle of scotch is proffered by her.

“The conversation has long since turned to off-the-record goodies, when Bette suddenly confesses, ‘I like younger men, you know. But it’s hard as hell to get close to younger men – they’re either unavailable or gay. I know some wonderful gay men and they’re great fun to be with, but that’s not really what I’m looking for.’ I gulp, realizing that I, age 43, am being cruised by Bette Davis! ‘What about you?’ she went on. ‘I assume you’re married.’ ‘Uh, n…n… no,’ I stammer. ‘I … I’m involved with … a girl right now.’ ‘Ahh, tell me about her,’ Bette demands. I mumble a few things about a friend of mine and the conversation veers off elsewhere, to my relief. If times were different, I might have blurted the truth, but this WAS only the ’70s. If I were straight, I have always wondered, would I have…? After all, this was … Miss Bette herself, the one and only.”

Roy Aarons, former executive editor, The Oakland Tribune, and founder of National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association

The mayor to the rescue

“While in college at the University of Florida, I was an intern at The Gainesville Sun. On Jan. 20, 1986, I was sent to Atlanta to cover the first celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday. There was a huge parade that was going to kick off in downtown with Coretta Scott King, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, and Bishop Desmond Tutu. They had all linked arms and were getting ready to start the parade. Facing them was a phalanx of photographers. We had a miniature standoff because nobody had communicated to them that if they started walking, we’d walk backwards. But they thought they’d walk into us.

“A Georgia state trooper broke from his ranks, ran over and picked up the shortest photographer in the group. That would be me. He bodily threw me, and I went ass over teakettle into the crowd. I lost a 35mm lens and everything spilled out of my Domke bag. The trooper is about to do the same thing to another photographer when all of a sudden Andrew Young springs from the head of the parade, grabs this guy by the lapel and spins him round. ‘Brother, brother, brother this is not why we are here today! We’re here to honor a man of peace and vision, and you’re being violent. That is not what we are here to do.’ I got all my stuff together, got back in line, and the parade happened the way it was supposed to. And I apologized to the women I flew into, who probably just wanted to see the parade instead of getting a photographer launched at her.”

David Poller, metro photo editor, The San Diego Union-Tribune

‘I’ve told you a thousand times…’

“Years ago, while working at the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser, I was late arriving at a country club to cover a celebrity golf tournament. The lobby was crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with people mingling, and I was in a hurry to cross it and get to the golf course. I spotted a path on the other side of a coffee table which I stepped over but somehow lost my balance and nearly knocked over someone on the other side of the table. Very slowly he turned around as I was apologizing. I was face to face with Fred MacMurray and he was giving me a ‘Now I have told you a thousand times not to be in such a hurry!’ look straight out of ‘My Three Sons.'”

Mark Kulaw, photo editor, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach

A shared moment

“Back in the early ’90s, I was interviewing Melina Kanakaredes, now the star of NBC’s ‘Providence,’ for Soap Opera Update. At the time, she was on the daytime soap ‘Guiding Light.’ We met for the interview at a classy Park Avenue restaurant, and got a nice table by the window. Our chat was going along just great. Then, we noticed a man standing right outside the window staring at Melina. I remarked that he must be a fan, and we continued chatting. It wasn’t long before we noticed that he was, well, let’s just say he had his hand down his pants. I was absolutely mortified, and my face turned beet red. Melina hardly seemed fazed. The restaurant manager chased the guy away. I, of course, will always remember this incident. I didn’t necessarily think Melina would. But clearly she did. At an NBC press party in 1999, she spotted me, and pointed at me saying, ‘I remember you! I remember you!’ We had a nice chat, and some other reporters joined in, and as I departed, she told me, ‘Every time I see you I’ll think of that guy with his hand down his pants.’ I got lots of odd looks from the other reporters. But, hey, at least Melina will always remember me.”

Christine Champagne, chief TV critic,

Wade who?

“Soon after moving to Florida, I was given assignments to cover baseball spring training. One of my first trips to the diamond was to shoot the Kansas City Royals at Baseball City. The request was to get a shot of Wade Boggs. I didn’t know Wade Boggs from any other player at that time. When I arrived, a nice man walked up to me asking who was I trying to get a shot of today, and did I need any help. I told him since none of the players were wearing any name or numbers on their jersey, I needed a lot of help. He said, ‘Who do ya need today?’ I said, ‘Wade Boggs.’ He looked at me as though I was from Mars and walked away. Way away, into the outfield where I couldn’t go. Another man approached asking me who I was with and could he be of any help. I said, ‘I need a shot of Wade Boggs.’ He said, ‘You were just talking to him.'”

Jay Nolan, photographer, The Tampa Tribune

Was Spock Jewish?

“I was interviewing Leonard Nimoy, an extremely religious Jewish man who’s very active in his Beverly Hills synagogue. He told me that the Vulcan hand salute (which he came up with on the first day of shooting back in the 1960s) is actually a symbol that rabbis in a certain Jewish sect use when they are blessing a crowd. I cracked that maybe he had nothing to do with coming up with the symbol, it’s just that Spock is secretly Jewish. For some reason he found that hysterical and laughed for a good 30 seconds and said nobody had ever suggested that before. He said that was the funniest joke he’d heard in years. Go figure.”

Pam Kragen, entertainment editor, North County Times, Escondido, Calif.
Randy Dotinga ( is a free-lancer based in San Diego.

Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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