Ladies and gents,
If there’s one thing we could all use right about now it’s a genuine reason to celebrate. Well, chill the champagne and pre-heat the oven because Saturday, April 11, marks the 88th birthday of Joel Grey himself. Those who’ve encountered Joel Grey will find that number hard to fathom; the word “spry” could have been invented to describe him. His gifts are as present as ever, that mischievous sparkle in his eye refuses to fade, and — even in the midst of a global pandemic — he hasn’t lost one iota of joie de vivre. He’s also just as restless as ever, never without a project in the pipeline or a creative endeavor to tackle. True story: Joel and I used to share a doorman; my weekend guy was his weekday guy. When said doorman discovered that Joel and I were old pals, I endured the following interaction, weekend after weekend, for years:
Me: Good morning.
Doorman: Joel’s busy, man! Joel’s very, very busy!
The doorman didn’t lie. In all the years I’ve known him, Joel has never not been “very, very busy.” From acting to directing to photography, Joel is a true renaissance man. And when he’s not making art, he’s consuming it — at museums, arthouse cinemas, and, of course, the theater. He’s as much a part of New York’s cultural landscape as Lincoln Center and The Met! (And this isn’t my opinion. The New York Landmarks Conservancy named him a bonafide “Living Landmark” in 2013.)
There aren’t many Joel Grey’s left in the world. He hails from a different era of show business, before social media and reality television, when talent ruled and professionalism was a prerequisite. Over his decades of performing, he has — like a skilled artisan passing down his time-honored traditions to new generations of apprentices — served as a mentor to scores of younger talent, including the likes of Bernadette Peters, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Sutton Foster, and Bebe Neuwirth. His social life, centered around a love for good food in comfortable surroundings, is populated by these people, along with lesser known folks from all walks of life: dermatologists, visual artists, authors, and chefs. Agents, publicists, and media types. His dance card is rarely open.
So, in the midst of COVID-19, I found myself worrying about Joel. Not about his health — the man is likely to outlive all of us— but rather his spirit. What kind of toll would “social distancing” take on someone whose engine is refueled by boisterous dinners out with friends at favorite boîtes, creative collaborations, and absorbing all the culture Manhattan has to offer? What is Joel if not a perpetual and tireless man-about-town? Well, I’ll tell you, because I spoke to him. He’s doing one-on-one personal training sessions in his apartment thanks to the wonders of FaceTime. He’s in the process of rescuing a dog. He’s keeping up on the news, but not obsessively so, while catching up on last year’s screeners and some acclaimed television series. He’s catching up with old friends on the phone. He’s writing. And he’s working on plans for the postponed-but-still-happening National Tour of his revelatory, Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof. He’s carved out a version of quarantine that suits him just fine, and is staying occupied and engaged. In other words, as he turns 88, “Joel’s busy, man! Joel’s very, very busy!”
So, this weekend, a toast of something sparkling to Joel!