by Sally Carpenter
Over the years I’ve met celebrities at book signings, concerts and appearances. Some stars have been quite charming; others apparently wanted me to go away. One particular appearance comes in mind regarding my WIP set in 1967.
In 1967 the entertainment world was spy crazy. Imitating the success of the new James Bond films came the spy parodies “Our Man Flint,” “In Like Flint,” “The Silencers” and “Murderer’s Row.” Television was chock-a-block spies with “The Man From UNCLE,” “The Girl From UNCLE,” “Get Smart,” “The Avengers” “The Wild, Wild West” (secret agents in the Old West) and “Mission: Impossible.”
As a kid I didn’t understand “MI” when it first aired, although I had a crush on Peter Graves. Years later when watching the shows in syndication I became a devout fan. In fact, my WIP works the “MI” show into the story as homage.
On a Friday in 2009, I glanced through the weekend entertainment section of the newspaper and saw that the next day Peter Graves was scheduled to receive an award at the Ojai Film Festival. The event would start with a screening of the film “Airplane!” with Graves in a hilarious comic performance, followed by comments from Graves and an audience Q&A.
Ojai was about an hour or so drive from my town and the festival was open to the public. Why not go, I thought. I thought up an interesting question for the Q&A and pulled out my book “The Mission: Impossible Dossier,” about the making of the TV show, for him to autograph.
Ojai is one of those places you can’t get there from here. To go by freeway meant dealing with heavy traffic, so I opted for the back roads route. What looked like an easy path on the map became navigating up and down steep hills with winding streets and hairpin turns. I was too busy watching the road to enjoy the rural scenery.
Ojai has basically one main street, so finding the location wasn’t difficult. The event would take place inside a drab school auditorium. Hardly the sort of dazzling venue fit for a star of Graves’ caliber. I stood in the long line, waiting for the doors to open. Some people were talking to the man ahead of me. I didn’t pay any attention to him.
Inside the auditorium I took a front row seat on the right hand side on the old-fashioned wooden bleacher-type chairs. The emcee said the festival’s custom was to ask the honoree to select their favorite piece of work to screen. Graves had picked “Airplane!” An interesting choice.
After the movie, Graves came out front along with Robert Hayes, another “Airplane!” star. Also joining them was the man who stood in line in front of me—Rossie Harris, who played Joey in the movie (the kid in the cockpit) and now all grown up. Now I wish I’d gotten his autograph.
Unfortunately, Graves was no longer the handsome leading man. He looked ill, was quite thin and used a cane for walking/standing. His voice quavered a little and at one point he seemed to forget what he was saying. But for the most part his mind was still sharp and his speech lucid.
When the Q&A started, I raised my hand. I mentioned that Peter smoked a lot of “MI.” Was that just for the character or did he smoke in real life? (Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and Greg Morris also smoked on the show).
Graves replied in a strong voice, quote, “I smoked for forty years and enjoyed every puff!” He went on to say he was forced to quit smoking after a skiing accident that resulted in his jaws being wired shut for several weeks. The doctor gave him a set of wire cutters so he could remove the wires in case he needed to throw up (TMI).
The program ended and the audience was leaving. Graves and his entourage headed for the exit. I was sitting between him and the door. I ran up to him and said, “May I have your autograph?”
He said, “I came empty handed,” meaning he had nothing to sign for me.
I held out the book and a pen. He seemed surprise. “Oh, you have the book!” I set the book on the stage (we were on the ground floor) so he’d had a firm surface for writing. He took the pen and signed the page I had opened. I thanked him and he left the building. I don’t know if he was annoyed at me—I was the only one in the crowd that had accosted him—but I was over the moon.
Graves died six months later.
What I’ve learned from meeting celebrities is to always be gracious to a fan. As a published author I haven’t had many opportunities to meet readers, and I’ll never be as famous as Graves, but when I’m “on stage” I strive to be pleasant and accommodating. Once at a writers convention a reader interrupted me while I was eating to sign my book. I was so thrilled that someone actually wanted my autograph that I didn’t mind at all.
But don’t bother me in the ladies’ room.