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“I didn’t ever think it was important or relevant, particularly,” the legendary actor Joel Grey says of the fact that he is a gay man — which he revealed in a January 2015 People interview and writes about in his new memoir Master of Ceremonies: A Memoir — as we sit down to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “I still don’t, particularly. But I think it is important on another level: if one person — one young person, who maybe admires my career — feels a kinship with me and more positive about themselves, then it’s worth it.”
Few actors have ever been as associated with a single part as Grey, 83, is with the emcee of Cabaret — for the original Broadway production he won a Tony in 1967 and for the Bob Fosse film adaptation he won an Oscar in 1973 — hence the title of his memoir. But what’s fascinating to learn, in the book and on this podcast, is that Grey spent years yearning to escape nightclubs and to be taken seriously as a legitimate actor — “I hated the whole idea of having to stand there and maybe make something up,” he says — before landing the part in Cabaret, which, of course, takes place in a nightclub!
Grey, whose father, Mickey Katz, was a musical-comedy performer, dabbled in performing himself for the first time when he was nine and began to appear in productions of the Cleveland Play House. “I always knew, from that moment on, that I wanted to be an actor,” he says. Grey convinced his father to include him in his 1951 Broadway production Borscht Capades, in which he proved to be a hit. From there he landed bit parts in a few small movie musicals, but soon fell into the world of nightclubs — achieving great success over roughly a decade, but always wanting to be elsewhere. “It took a long, long time for me to show them,” he says. “And first of all I needed something to show them in.”
Grey, who married actress Jo Wilder in 1958 and soon after had two children, began landing jobs replacing others on Broadway. The one that he thought might lead to a bigger break was the 1962 production Stop the World — I Want to Get Off, which he joined midway through its run and with which he then toured the country. “I thought that was the turning point for me to then get my own part,” he recalls, but after it ended he still found that “there was no work” — at least for a while. Then he got a call from Hal Prince, who had caught the show on tour, and who told him that he had a major part for which Grey would be perfect and wouldn’t even have to audition: the emcee in Cabaret, a new musical with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb — friends of Grey’s — set in Germany during the Nazis’ rise to power. Grey was sold.
The boorish emcee has no dialogue, only songs, so Grey had a bit of a hard time wrapping his head around him. He wrote a complete bio for the character to fill in some backstory in his own mind, but then arrived an idea: “I could use, unbeknownst to me at the time, all the dark stuff that I’d ever seen in the nightclubs,” he says. He specifically drew from his memories, from more than 20 years earlier, of a nightclub performer he’d seen in St. Louis who “did everything I detested in terms of currying favor from the audience… he would practically take his pants down to get a laugh… and worse than that was that the audience loved that, loved him, even though he was sort of dangerous.”
At the first run-through of the show, Grey recalls during our conversation and in Master of Ceremonies, “Out came this horrible man in my body!” He recalls doing “every rude thing I could do, that I would never think to do” — lifting up the girls’ skirts with his cane, making obscene gestures, putting his head down girls’ breasts — and then fled to the wings in shame, fearing that people would mistake the character for him. It was there that Prince found him — and told him he’d “got” it.
Cabaret took Broadway by storm and turned Grey into a Tony-winning star. He left the show after a year to star, for the first time, in an above-the-title part, in George M. as George M. Cohan. But he would soon return to the emcee when a film adaptation went into production — even though Fosse had initially wanted to turn the emcee into a character played by Ruth Gordon, before the studio intervened on Grey’s behalf. Grey and Fosse clashed during the production, but acknowledges that the finished film is a masterpiece — although he refuses to compare it with the Broadway production. “They’re really totally different animals,” he says. On Oscar night, he was nominated for best supporting actor, and “was sure [The Godfather‘s Al] Pacino was gonna win,” but it was his own name that was called from the stage.
To this day, only nine others (only one of whom is still alive) have won both a Tony and an Oscar for performances as the same character:
- Jose Ferrer as Cyrano de Bergerac in Cyrano de Bergerac (Tony in 1948, Oscar in 1951)
- Shirley Booth as Lola Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba (Tony in 1950, Oscar in 1953)
- Yul Brynner as King Mongkut of Siam in The King and I (Tony in 1952, Oscar in 1957)
- Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker (Tony in 1960, Oscar in 1963)
- Rex Harrison as Prof. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (Tony in 1957, Oscar in 1965)
- Paul Scofield as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (Tony in 1962, Oscar in 1967)
- Jack Albertson as John Cleary in The Subject Was Roses (Tony in 1965, Oscar in 1969)
- Lila Kedrova as Madame Hortense in Zorba the Greek (Oscar in 1965) and Zorba (Tony in 1984)
- Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (Oscar in 2007) and The Audience (Tony in 2015)
Over the ensuing years, Grey sometimes felt that the role of the Emcee “was so specific” that people had a hard time seeing him as other characters. Even so, he has appeared in memorable movies (ranging from 1976’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution to 2000’s Dancer in the Dark), TV series (he was the guest star in the 1991 series finale of Dallas), Off-Broadway productions (in 1985 he replaced Brad Davis in the role of a gay man — before he ever acknowledge that he was one himself — in the original production of The Normal Heart at the Public Theater) and Broadway productions (including the 1996 revival of Chicago, the 2011 revival of Anything Goes and 2003’s Wicked, in which he originated the role of the Wizard). He’s also directed, winning a Tony for his co-direction of the Broadway revival of The Normal Heart.
For much of this time, he thought about writing down his life story, and he was finally inspired to do so by, of all things, Andre Agassi‘s 2009 autobiography Open. “I identified so strongly with it,” Grey says. “The pain of practice and the pain that was inflicted on him to be good, and that pressure — that I could relate to. And his difficulty with relationships, and then ultimately living his life.” He spent three years working on Master of Ceremonies, during which he put much of the rest of his life on hold. Now that he’s told his story, and revealed his greatest secret, how does he feel? “I’m the same guy,” he says, “but I don’t feel that little bit of not saying who I am. That little bit apart is no longer there.” He pauses and adds with a smile, “I feel included.”
With his 84th birthday coming up on April 11, Grey is as busy as ever. A doting father (his kids are actress Jennifer Grey, best known for Dirty Dancing, and chef James Grey) and grandfather, he’s now at work on his fifth book of photographs (all written in the last 12 years) and mulling a return to directing. He’s also a frequent theatergoer — of Hamilton he says, “It’s perfect, I’ve seen it twice, can’t wait to see it again” — although he tends to pass on the many revivals of Cabaret, “not for any other reason than we did it.” Of what is he proudest? Not Cabaret, nor Master of Ceremonies, nor any other work that he’s done, he insists. Rather, the fact that the following is true for him: “Looking back on so much difficulty and challenge and pain, I’m still joyous in my life and can’t wait for tomorrow to see what’s gonna happen.”
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Paul Walter Hauser