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Suffice it to say, this wasn’t how Gary Alan Coe expected to spend his first week as a free man.
Two Sundays ago, Coe — better known as #GaryFromChicago — was strolling down Hollywood Boulevard with his fiancee, Victoria Vines, just days after spending 20 years in prison for stealing perfume from a department store.
Thinking he was taking a complimentary bus tour of Hollywood, Coe and Vines instead ended up on the world’s biggest stage — the Oscars — as part of a prank dreamed up by host Jimmy Kimmel.
Relaxed, enthused and gentlemanly, the 59-year-old Coe was the indisputable breakout star of the bit. But then, amid the uproar over the best-picture flub, it emerged that he had a criminal rap sheet, including an attempted rape charge at age 18.
As you’ll read, Coe had been very open about having just being released from prison when he was unwittingly recruited by a Jimmy Kimmel Live! producer. The producer wasn’t dissuaded. On the contrary, Coe was so charming in the bus that they pushed him to the front of the group at the Dolby Theatre.
But Coe, who is now in the process of reintegrating and hopes to help others do the same one day, isn’t interested in looking backward. Through the help of his newly acquired publicist, Coe spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his hardscrabble past and unexpected celebrity.
Sounds like you’ve had quite the hectic week.
When you come home from prison after 20 years and then get exposed to all this, it makes life really interesting. You know, I’ve got a book in me. It’s in my head. There was this guy, white guy, I forget his name. He wrote a book called A Million Little Pieces. And he got on Oprah and he shared his story.
Right. OK, well, I come to find out that he lied. Now, I’m a voracious reader — and that book was just quite boring. I’m like, what the hell? If he can write a book like that and make a million dollars and be lying, I can make a book and tell the truth and get — you know, it’s not always about the money, but money comes with anything you do.
What was life like in jail?
I got 25-to-life for a petty theft with a prior and they used my attempted rape charge and a robbery from Illinois years ago. Unarmed robbery, mind you — white boy gave me some money for dope and I ran off with it. It’s the oldest trick in the book.
What was the attempted rape charge about?
[The victim] was actually one of the girls that I dated in high school. So she invited me to the house where she was babysitting. She came from a real well-to-do family and didn’t want her mom knowing that we were having sexual relations. It just went bad because when I got there, one or two in the morning, drunk, and she’s in her bra and panties. Sometimes you think girls, when they’re saying no, they really mean yes. And I’m 18 years old. I’m loaded and we had sex. I don’t think she wanted her mother to find out and her dad. So she concocted this story.
I was originally charged with rape, but the charge was reduced to attempted rape, which is why I got two years and never had to register as a sex offender. But now California wants me to register for the rest of my life — which I think is a turn-off. But that’s the law.
Back to my question, though. What was life like in prison?
When I first came to prison, ’97 to ’04, I was quite the troublemaker because I was really angry at the world. I had a fresh 25-to-life sentence for stealing $279 worth of perfume and I was hurt. And so I was still drinking and still using drugs. I just thought it was hella unfair. And then in ’04, my cell mate jumped me and I beat him up basically. He’s bigger than me, so I was scared. Ain’t my fault he had a glass jaw. [Laughs.] “Down goes Foreman.” So I sat back in that one cell for two years by myself. I was going crazy.
You were in solitary for two years?
Yes sir. Twenty-four months.
What’s that like?
Well, it’s horrible. That’s why they just changed it. It’s inhumane.
Do they take away your books?
No, they give you books. You can go outside and they’ve got a little play area, but it’s like a dog kennel. Think of a grown-up dog kennel.
But the last 12 years were productive because I got a chance to mentor and facilitate different groups. One thing I had control over as a prisoner is how I felt every day. I chose to feel good. Some of the guys used to call me “Mr. Positivity.” Everything else, they took from us. I made, like, a little slogan: “Anybody can change, why not me?”
Watch this: Yesterday I’m in a restaurant. This lady walks up, about 40 years old. She’s got about seven, eight little daughters and asks me can if she take a picture. I was just overwhelmed. I almost cried. I knew she had heard something about that rape stuff and she didn’t care.
What were you doing when you went onto the tour bus?
They tricked us. My fiancee and I had been out walking. I had been in prison for 20 years, so I wanted to get outside. And we were in a hotel close to the Hollywood area because my parole agent was nearby. I had to register as a sex offender and I wanted to get that out of the way. After registering Saturday, Sunday we were just walking around. And Craig [Powell, one of the producers on Jimmy Kimmel Live!] was masquerading as a tour guide.
So he walks up and says, “Look man, I was watching you and your girl and it was kind of romantic and kind of cute, the way you were holding her hand and you led her to the seat where she could rest her feet.” I’m like, “OK, well thank you, bud.” He says, “Would you like to go on a tour?” I said, “Well, I just got out of prison, man. I’m not really financially stable.” He goes, “It’s free. We’re doing a first-time-ever exhibit show of the Oscars where we’re going to show dresses and diamonds.” They even told me we could hold a gold statue.
How did you end up at the front of the pack?
As you can see, I’m not one lost for words. And the people in the tour kind of took a liking to me. So the lead tour guide says, “Hey Gary, why don’t you and Victoria come to the front?” I’m like, “No, no, I’m OK back here.” But I think he knew that I was going to kind of act the way I did, because he insisted. He called me up to position me right in front. I’m like, “OK, well that’s going to be cool. I can get my pictures, get them out the way and then sit down.” And you saw what happened next.
Where did you get your “Hollywood” sweatshirt?
I had just bought it. I’ll tell you, I got it from the Walgreens right there around the corner from where we were standing.
Why did you buy it?
Well, because I had just got out of prison. I didn’t have any sweaters and it’s nice and warm. And you know, I’m living in California now. Why not have a Hollywood sweatshirt on? I’m in Hollywood.
A costume designer couldn’t have given you a more perfect sweatshirt.
Wow. I never thought about that like that. You know what I mean? I’m just out, basically just got out of prison, trying to get the least expensive stuff I can wear.
And the selfie stick?
They gave the selfie stick to Victoria. She was the only one out of all of us that they gave the selfie stick to. Maybe they figured that she was going to do just what she did with it. It all went beautiful.
Did they give you the phones?
Yeah, they have us [Samsung Galaxy] S7s. They played that off as well, saying “the picture that you guys are about to take of the Oscar, we want to control.” So they took our phones back for a bit. They wanted the option of keeping anything on it. But then they gave it to me to keep. I’ve still got mine.
Did they tell you to video the whole time? Or were you clowning around a bit, because you knew it would be funny?
It wasn’t a video. It was pictures. That’s why you see my tongue hanging out of my mouth like Michael Jordan, because I was having problems taking my pictures. I got about 70 shots. And I saw Janelle Monae. I kissed all the women’s hands.
How did you know who some of the younger celebrities were?
Well, I watched TV in prison. That’s all we do. That’s the babysitter. So I knew who Octavia Spencer was, Taraji P. Henson. We watch ET. We watch the Oscars every year, the Grammys because, you know, there’s nothing else to do in prison.
So you knew the Oscars were happening that day.
Yes. In fact, we walked up and I said, “Babe, we’ve got to turn around.” I said, “I forgot the Oscars was going on.” Lo and behold, I end up on the the Oscars. Wow.
Did any of the stars say anything to you we couldn’t hear?
No. I basically said, “God bless you, hi,” and kissed their hands and kept going. I didn’t want to make small-talk because I didn’t want to be rude. What I really found amusing and made me feel really at home: None of the women rejected my kiss on the hand. Even now, even after they heard that stuff about me.
Yet a lot of media reports were jumping on your record the next day.
It’s kind of weird how, you know, for me, it’s like they hate to see a black man shine. Because I didn’t do anything. I didn’t bother nobody, wasn’t trying to get to the Oscars, wouldn’t bother nobody. Somebody picked me to go. And my question the next day was, well, why would they have to go and say something negative about my past?
But everyone involved [in my Oscars moment], they were all white people. Craig, a white guy, picked me to go on the Oscars. It’s like I tell people all the time: Assholes come in all colors.
When did you find out about the mistake at the end of the show?
You’re not going to believe this, but like yesterday, because there’s so much going on. I didn’t see myself on Entertainment Tonight. I haven’t seen any of the things of us on TV because I’ve been so busy going to the police station, registering. I’m homeless, so I’ve had a whole bunch of other things to do that are more important than going to watch me on TV. What happened?
Well, they read the wrong name for best picture.
Oh, OK. It sounded like Steve Harvey when he called out [Miss Colombia].
Did they pay you for your screen time? SAG minimums and whatnot?
No. I didn’t know I could get paid. I’d like just to get the story out there and see if we can get some movie studios or somebody to see that story and be like, “Wow, hey, this might be interesting.”
Denzel could play you.
Yeah. Hello. There you go. For real.
How did you get hooked up with a publicist?
Karen Nash, my public defender, is such a sweetheart. She got me a publicist. I got a real publicist.
You’ve gone Hollywood.
Yeah. Ain’t it something?
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