Tuesday, October 28, 2014

My celebrity friend & four brushes with fame

I’m not famous, but I know one famous man. He’s Arnold Palmer, a good guy to know, especially if you’re a blogger looking to add a little sizzle to a line up that sometimes includes mundane topics like socks and potato chips.

I know someone else you’ve never heard of. He’s not world famous, but he is famous to many famous people so today I want to tell you a little about Rudy.

We’ve been friends for 20 years. He’s the only guy I know who says if he hits the lottery he’s moving to Pittsburgh. That doesn’t make him weird.

It makes him tasteful.

He grew up in Puerto Rico and, naturally, became a fan of the great Pittsburgh Pirate, Roberto Clemente. He became obsessed with Clemente and the American city where the great Roberto played baseball.

That was about the same time another team from Pittsburgh started becoming world famous.

It was the Pittsburgh Steelers, teams famous for great players like Jack Lambert, Joe Greene, Franco Harris and a cast of future Hall of Famers.

Rudy eventually moved to New York City and earned a commercial driver’s license.

We met through my old college roommate John, now a long-time New Yorker who is famous among my small circle of blog readers as the friend my Mom mistakenly thinks is gay and who once sat idly by while I nearly choked to death.

John and Rudy are two of the most rabid Steeler fans I’ve ever known. They’re the kind of fans who become furious in any season the Steelers don’t finish as undefeated Super Bowl champions.

Talking football with them always makes my head hurt.

But, naturally, the two were destined to meet. They became friends at a Manhattan bar that was proud to host Steeler fans on game days.
John told Rudy he’d have to come to Pittsburgh to see a game at old Three Rivers Stadium. John knew a guy who was a long-time Steeler season ticket holder.

That’s how I became famous to Rudy.

It’s been for 20 years one of the best weekends of the year. Rudy, John and about five or six other guys storm the city. We stay at a hotel near the stadium and just really whoop it up.

Rudy asks how I’m doing.

I tell him I’m still friends with Arnold Palmer so I must be doing something right.

Then I ask how he’s doing. His answer often sounds something like this:

“Well, I had to drive Streisand to Philly last month and this week I have Reece Witherspoon and Stella McCartney. I was able to squeeze De Niro in between juggling Gwyneth and Chris Martin. That’s been dicey since they split and he started dating Jennifer Lawrence, but she’s cool so it’s all working out.”

Rudy is one of Manhattan’s top celebrity limo drivers.

I knew this when I was working for National Enquirer, but never wanted to impinge on our friendship by pumping him for juicy tidbits on any of his famous passengers. In the world of celebrity journalism, it was a rare instance of someone too ethical to tell colliding with someone too lazy to ask.

One of my favorite things to do is scroll through his phone directory and see my name wedged between Scarlett Johansson and Kate Upton, the only time “Chris Rodell” will ever be wedged between two celebrity babes and the image makes me tingle.

The great thing about Rudy is he’s not an obnoxious name dropper like, say, I am about Arnold Palmer. He’s utterly professional. I can see why people who are picky about what’s reported about them are so fond of Rudy.

So I’d feel sheepish about sharing any of the details he’s shared with me, save one: He says Mike Myers is one of the world’s greatest guys. They’ve become true friends and Myers and he often just hang out.

I find that very cool because I’m a big Mike Myers fan.

I’d like to think that one day Rudy will introduce us and we’ll all be great friends hanging out here in Latrobe. Or the Hamptons, if that’s more convenient.

See, unlike Rudy, I still get starry-eyed around celebrities. So here are some of my brushes with fame four famous and historically-significant Americans.

• Michael Jordan — This was at Mario Lemeiux Celebrity Golf Tournament in about 1999. I was doing stories for Maximum Golf magazine. Jordan  was at the peak of his fame and had ground rules that reporters weren’t allowed to speak to him. We were told he was not to be addressed or approached. I didn’t give a shit. I fell in line with a group of about five handlers who were running interference for him as he walked from the practice range to the first tee. I was holding a copy of the magazine and said, “Uh, Mr. Jordan?” As I spoke, two of the handlers turned to glare at me and shake their heads. They took their jobs very seriously. I continued: “This is a copy of the new Maximum Golf magazine. We predict in six months it’s going to be more popular than Playboy. We’d like to put your picture on the cover. We think it’ll make you famous.” Even the sourpusses cracked up. Jordan, chuckling, told me to contact his management. That was the end of that.

• Garth Brooks — Did you know my wife used to be the country music queen of Pittsburgh? It’s true. She wrote the “Country Connections” column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. I thought it would have been more successful if they’d have called it, “Fiddlin’ ‘round with Val.” But we used to see all the big country acts: Alan Jackson, Reba, George Strait and the great Garth Brooks, maybe music’s least likely superstar until Susan Boyle. Brooks was kicking off a string of concerts in Pittsburgh and Val got invited to a press conference and I got to tag along. It was packed. There were about 50 journalists there so you can guess how stuffy it was. Lots of pretentious questions about his impact, his sales, etc. I couldn’t abide the boredom. So I raised my hand. He nodded in my direction (Val, incidentally, was glaring at me the way Jordan’s handlers did). I said, “Given your popularity with your female fans, have you ever thought of doing a book like Madonna’s?” Madonna had just released her naughty book of nudie bondage shots. I caught Brooks in mid-sip. He nearly shot the water out his nostrils. He howled with laughter. Everyone did. Never underestimate the power of a stupid question asked with a straight face.

• Jimmy Carter — One of my first assignments as a young reporter in Nashville was to cover a symposium featuring Presidents Carter and Gerald Ford. It was 1986. President Reagan was riding high. At the press conference following the talk,  they were taking turns answering questions. That’s when I raised my hand and mustered up the courage to ask Carter, whose turn it was to answer, a real toughie: “Where did your administration fail where President Reagan’s has succeeded and does he ever seek your advice?” It was a ballsy question for a kid to ask a former president. Clearly, Carter’s presidency had been a failure and everyone knew Reagan wouldn’t call Carter for advice if Nancy’d locked him out of the White House and he needed to know where Carter hid the spare keys. And Carter was eager to answer. But then out of the blue, Ford jumps in out of turn. He blusters: “I’ll let history be the judge if my administration was a failure or not, and I’m very close to the Reagan White House, why just the other day . . .” And he went on and on about how buddy-buddy he and the Gipper were. Carter, meanwhile, kept raising his hand to get a word in edgewise. But Ford’s excessive yapping ran out the clock. The session ended. I’ll never forget the friendly smile on Carter’s face as he shrugged and disappeared through the curtain. I’ve always wondered about what he’d have said if that big mouth Ford had shut up for even a second.

• Tone-Loc — I met the rapper at a ’99 New Orleans convention of TV producers where he was promoting a show. Tone had two big hits — “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina.” We talked for a minute and I can’t remember a word he said, but he was kind enough to give me an autographed business card. It read: “Call Tone anytime and get your Funky Cold Medina!”

Someday I’m going to find that card and I’m going to call Tone for my Funky Cold Medina.

It’s not exactly like getting invited to spend the weekend with Mike Myers at his Hamptons pad, but it’ll have to do.

Related . . .

No comments: