“My God, Barney Miller is alive! And he looks good!” crowed a man in a sweaty T-shirt as his eyeballs burrowed through Hal Linden, demurely seated behind a promotional table.
I hadn’t noticed, seeing as I’d been too busy trying to get Loni Anderson’s attention over by her table, in between wondering if the nearby sign “Take a picture with Jaws for $10” meant the shark or the James Bond star.
This was at Kevin Clement’s “Chiller Theatre” autograph convention in the Parsippany Hilton lobby—you heard me—where possessed swarms plunked down cash for the signed headshots of sitcom curios, award winners, the siblings of nominees, and Willy Wonka child-stars-turned-psychotherapists.
I adore these events, not only because I get a lot of attention there myself, but because you find your favorite old stars in a humbler tone, all engaging in sincere interactions with rabid fans, albeit for an admission badge and a price tag.
In the main area, I asked Brady Bunch perennials Susan Olsen and Mike Lookinland if this is fun for them. “No!” shot back Olsen. “It’s really tiring because you want to talk with everybody and you can’t because you have to keep the line moving, so it’s like giving blood.”
“We meet the stars and then go upstairs and make fun of them,” chimed in Lookinland. “No, we don’t,” insisted Olsen. “But once, I met Malcolm McDowell and I almost cried and wet myself. And Tony Curtis was great. He said, ‘Great bazoombas!’ I said, ‘These old things?’ ”
By piling on the celebrity, these nostalgia marathons always make stars into fans and vice versa. But speaking of old bazoombas, rock divorcee Britt Ekland almost knocked me over while pushing to get back to her nook to make more money. Pulling myself back together, I managed to nab my quality time with Loni, only to spend it muttering about how jealous her onetime beau/co-star Gary Sandy was when she was Emmy-nominated. “We’ve gotten over that!” Loni said genially, as I felt silly; this happened in 1980, LOL.
Still, I resolved, “Keep it obscure, and the stars will know you care.” So I asked 94-year-old Ernest Borgnine about the weirdly enjoyable 1972 comedy Bunny O’Hare, in which he and Bette Davis dressed like hippies and robbed banks. “She was one of the greatest,” Ernie gushed between signings. “Bette was in her dotage,” he added, carefully, “but she gave it her all.” Her dotage? What a scamp! No wonder Ethel Merman divorced this guy!
And speaking of Merman, on came The Munsters, like Butch Patrick, who said he didn’t mind sitting for makeup every day, “but the touchups were annoying. They were always in your face.”
And suddenly in mine was the delectable Bai Ling, dressed in high Bai fashion and the eyelashes of doom. Did she feel typecast as a peepshow girl in Edmond and a prostie in Love Ranch? “No,” said Bai, plainly. “In Edmond, all the women are peepshow girls. And Love Ranch is about a brothel.” Uh . . . OK. Whatever. And we posed for more pictures!
Across the room, my old gal pal Rae Dawn Chong (Quest for Fire, Soul Man) was greeting admirers, and next year she’ll have even more thanks to the flick Jeff Who Lives at Home. “I play Susan Sarandon’s lover,” Rae Dawn revealed. “She works with me and I want her. I make her gay. I tell her she should be gay.” Yikes. I suggested this could be a tad controversial because conservatives would love to believe someone can actually “turn” gay. “I’m bisexual,” she replied, “and there’s a lot of bigotry in the LGBT community about bisexuality.” “Well, then,” I decided, “let’s say her character is bisexual and you bring it out in her?” “Yes,” she agreed. Aw! No toaster oven!
But it’s a great new career chapter for the woman. “Hollywood is about endurance,” Rae Dawn observed. “I turned 50. Hollywood is not nice to 50.”
Wait—so someone can “turn” 50? Fortunately, there are still multiple options. In fact, in a side room, the Go-Gos’ Jane Wiedlin was selling her excellent comic book Lady Robotika and pushing pictures of herself looking flirty, while assuring me, “Compared to seeing Britney Spears’s vagina multiple times, this is safe.” Yes, her lips are sealed.
But not mine. “You were the original drag king!” I blurted to Joyce Hyser from the 1985 cross-dress comedy Just One of the Guys. “No,” Joyce said, smiling, “it was Barbra Streisand in Yentl.” Well, how did they do it? (I meant with Joyce, not Barbra.) “A lot of tape,” she recalled. “We shot the movie in Arizona in 90-degree heat. They used to keep Sea Breeze and ice cubes in a big vat. They’d spray it down my body suit to cool me off.”
And she’d gladly do it again. Joyce said a sequel is in the works called Just One of the Dads. Fine, as long as there’s no Yentl 2: I’m Papa Now, Can You Hear Me?
As the fans started heading home with their Octopussy posters, I breathed a sigh of relief that Barney Miller was alive and Bin Laden wasn’t. That’s one autograph you still can’t give away! But there was one more recovering luminary for me to torture: An ex-TV star currently hawking a CD of standards. Alas, she became all button-lipped after her handler whispered with alarm, “He’s on E!” I wanted to yell, “Don’t worry! Only in reruns! I’m a big has-been just like you!”
Hey, I’m in my dotage, but I gave it my all.