For everyone I know, seeing someone famous is rare unless you paid to see him or her on stage or at an athletic venue. When it happens, it always seems to give someone a story destined to be repeated.
I still smile when I think of my father telling whoever would listen about his meeting Chuck Connors in a Chicago restaurant restroom in the early 1960s. Each year, my dad would return to my birth city of Chicago for Central Steel and Wire Corporation’s annual sales meeting and receive his Christmas bonus, which was of great interest to his family. After all, the bigger the bonus, the more festively wrapped boxes there were likely to be beneath the boughs of our live Christmas tree.
When Dad entered the restroom, there stood none other than the star of ABC’s The Rifleman. Since the show was one of Dad’s favorites, he was a tad gobsmacked when he saw the imposing 6’6” Connors, who, before turning to acting, was one of the few ever to play two sports professionally, with the basketball Celtics and the baseball Cubs.
Whenever my dad spoke of his chance encounter with Connors in that restaurant washroom, his go-to line was always, “Now I know why they call him The Rifleman,” which always brought a gentle rebuke from my mother, who felt pretty much anything that went on behind bathroom doors shouldn’t really be a topic of conversation.
Dad spoke to Connors for a few minutes and told me he said to the actor that he looked a lot bigger in person than he did on our 23-inch black-and-white RCA screen at home.
Now, over the years, I’ve had my own occasional celebrity sightings from time to time. As for sheer volume, well, that happened at the Atlantic City Convention Center in June of 1987. On a family trip, my bro-in-law John Whittaker and I grabbed a couple 50-dollar nosebleed tickets to see the Jerry Cooney-Michael Spinks heavyweight boxing match.
The fight was billed as “The War at the Shore,” although Cooney, the 6’7” behemoth, didn’t feel much like going to war, finished off in the fifth round by the much smaller Spinks. There to cover the event, the Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith later wrote that Cooney ate so many punches in the fifth “that he certainly figured to skip his post-fight meal.”
While walking around the venue before the preliminary matches were to begin, I rode up the elevator one step behind a future president of the United States. Donald Trump was there with his wife Ivana, who sadly, was in the news this past summer when she died following a fall down her stairs. While The Donald never turned around, I do remember Ivana turning, smiling and nodding a hello to me.
Trump had a vested interest in the fight, paying over $3 million to bring it to the Atlantic City Boardwalk, just paces away from his casino. While that seemed a gamble to some, the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame has reported that gamblers left over $7 million at Trump’s casino tables in the days surrounding the fight.
Also in the lobby before the fight was a 21-year-old Mike Tyson surrounded by a large entourage. I did not approach Iron Mike.
My fourth celebrity of the evening was the most unlikely, since most artists live pretty much in a shroud of anonymity. However, this artist, LeRoy Neiman, did rise to celebrity status, known for his paintings that captured major sporting events with some used by Sports Illustrated as covers.
Neiman walked by me, and I knew instantly it was him. His appearance was so unique I’m certain he didn’t have a doppelganger anywhere in the world. The artist, who passed away at 91 in 2012, not only had a huge coif of salt-and-pepper hair but also a trademark mustache that stretched from one long sideburn to the other.
He passed me back in a time when smoking within the walls wasn’t verboten, leaving a blue-gray plume of his signature cigar smoke behind before he disappeared into the restroom. As an homage to my father, who passed away nine years earlier, I headed for the restroom myself and chatted him up a bit as we washed our hands at the sinks.
Next week, I’ll wrap up my celebrity reminisce by focusing on one particular night in Cincinnati with friends when I had my most in-depth encounters with the rich and the famous.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected].