In 1980, I asked Billy Carter to autograph a can of Billy Beer. He obliged. I still have it. I’ve never asked another celebrity for an autograph.
In 1984, I approached David Brinkley in the lobby of the Savery Hotel in Des Moines IA and made him shake my hand. Brinkley was nothing but gracious. The trouble started when I began to speak: “Hi Mr. Brinkley. I just wanted you to know how much I admire you and blah blah blah…” Because I realized I had nothing interesting to say to this broadcasting legend, I felt like an idiot. The feeling lasted for a lifetime.
It also begat a personal rule: Stay the hell away from celebrities, unless you have good reason to approach them. If you’re interviewing them, that’s a good reason. But avoid “hangin’ with celebs” -type photos, and skip the autographs. I’ve never understood autograph collecting anyway, except as a source of revenue, or as a way to give children a connection to sports figures.
But when I re-entered the news biz last year, I re-thought my approach to certain celebs. In November, I began a collection of photos with civil rights figures. When I explain to them that my wife is an admirer, they seem almost too happy to pose with my handmade sign. In John Lewis and Joe Lowery’s cases, the photos followed interviews. In Jesse Jackson’s case, he was prowling the WXIA newsroom following a talkback with MSNBC.
But last week, I broke the rule that had protected me from the “look – I’m an idiot!” feeling when I spotted a low-grade yet very important Rock Star at Hartsfield – Jackson airport.
I was eating at Paschal’s with three WXIA coworkers. They heard me say “holy shit!” when I spotted Bradford Cox. “Who?” they asked. “He’s the leader of Deerhunter.” I whispered. “Deerhunter is amazing!”
“What? He was in The Deerhunter?” one of them answered, too loudly, referring to the 1978 movie (that I’ve somehow managed to never see). A tall, gaunt man with a bowl haircut, Cox was wandering nearby with a tray of chow, looking for a place to sit. I was rapidly becoming self-conscious at my own shameless hero worship, and my coworkers deduced that I was on the brink of exhibiting foolhardy behavior. They egged me on, of course.
I called the wife, who’d gone with me to see Deerhunter twice this year. Though she lacks my obsession with the band, she appreciates Deerhunter’s music.
“Go talk to him,” she said as I watched Cox wedge himself onto a counter seat between two women.
“No. I can’t. I don’t talk to celebs unless I’ve got a reason. I have no reason.”
“This is different. He’s not a big rock star. He’d probably be amused — having a buttoned-down old guy walk up to him in an airport.”
She convinced me. So did the heckling I was getting from my colleagues, which was increasing in volume and frequency. Though he had his back to us, we were close enough that Cox could have overheard it. I had to make a move. “Here I go,” I said. “I’m going to say hi, then get a cup of coffee.”
He was wolfing down some collard greens. “Hi Bradford. Sorry to interrupt. I’m Doug Richards. I’m a huge admirer of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound (his side project),” I began. Cox is all of 27 years old. He looked up, beamed and stuck out his hand. The two middle-aged women on either side of him did double-takes as I gave their awkward, lanky neighbor the star treatment.
“Anyway – I enjoyed the show you played with Spoon at the Tabernacle this month. I saw you at 529 with the Black Lips earlier this year. Great shows.” He nodded at the mention of each show. “So nice to meet you,” he said, more graciously than I deserved, considering I’d interrupted his lunch.
It was time to retreat, and I moved into more familiar territory. I pulled a WXIA business card: “If you ever hear any news, please give me a call.” Though he’s from Cobb County, I don’t think Cox recognized me as a local TV news goon. I’d given him the card mostly as a joke, and as an exit strategy. He looked at the card and nodded emphatically. “I will. Thanks for stopping by.” He grinned and stuck out his hand again. I shook it and departed.
Given the potential for trouble, I felt pretty good about it. In hindsight, I wish I’d told him that I’ve actually paid cash money for all but one of his albums. Musicians usually like hearing that.
I don’t expect to make a habit of such behavior. My best celeb encounter took place in Omaha in 1999 or so, while there for a reunion of KMTV alums. I was in a bar in the Old Market when one of them pointed out Bob Gibson sitting at the bar, alone, drinking a flute of champagne. An Omaha native, Gibson is my all-time favorite athlete.
“Go talk to him!” they said. “No!” I said, sticking to my rule and knowing Gibson’s reputation as a man who didn’t suffer fools gladly. Once, when catcher Tim McCarver went to the mound to talk to Gibson during a rough inning, Gibson waved him off, growling “the only thing you know about pitching is you can’t hit it.”
Gibson got up and walked to the cashier, which was right in front of us. On impulse, I jumped up, stood next to the cashier and said “I’d like to pay Mr. Gibson’s bar tab, please.” He looked at me warily. “I’m a fan,” I said, tempted to say much, much more about how awesome he is and blah blah blah.
“Well, if I’d know somebody else was buying, I’d have had a few more,” Gibson said affably. He thanked me, shook my hand and left. The tab was less than fifteen dollars.
It was a good investment in my own dignity.