More About Joe DiMaggio

Drum roll, please.  Here are my top five famous people of the many I’ve worked with, interacted with, or simply quivered in their presence.  Famous person number two, Dr. Martin Luther King, I won’t go into details about him because they’ve already been covered in another “More About.”  Famous person number five: Who’d’ve thunk that when I was a kid watching Sammy Davis Jr. on the Ed Sullivan show, the megastar that palled around with Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin would one day come up to me during rehearsal and ask jokingly if I liked the way he was performing the dialogue I wrote in the script.  When he saw in my eyes a look that said, sure, I’ll play along, the legend poured it on thick.  “I don’t give a damn what the director thinks.  I don’t give a damn what my co-stars think.  I only care what the screenwriter thinks.  My god, man, I won’t sleep well tonight unless I’m convinced that the writer feels I captured his dream one-hundred percent as he envisioned.”  Behind him on stage, the director, the actors, were all laughing hysterically.  Going along with the gag, I looked at Sammy Davis Jr. and assured him, “You’re doing a beautiful job.  I couldn’t be more pleased.”  Comically grateful, Sammy Davis Jr. shook my hand and returned to the stage, performing the scene exactly the way he wanted, correct dialogue or no.  Famous person number three, Muhammad Ali, who I actually met twice, once at Century City when I asked him to autograph a piece of paper for my son.  The second time I met Ali was backstage at a TV show I was writing for.  This time we actually talked.  I told him that I saw him box at Madison Square Garden.  Ali sighed, expecting me to say I was at the Joe Frazier fight like a thousand fans before me.  When I told him, “It was the Sonny Banks fight,” Ali perked up.  He’d never heard anyone say they saw him fight Sonny Banks, early in his career, fresh out of the Olympics, still named Cassius Clay.  There was controversy about that fight.  Sonny Banks, a tough-nosed prospect, had a lightning-fast left hook, one of which caught Clay squarely and sent him to the canvas, the first time the Louisville Lip had ever been knocked down.  The controversary.  Many in attendance that night in the Garden, including me, swore that Clay wasn’t knocked down, but that he slipped and fell because of the sweaty canvas.  The debate, pro knockdown, pro slip, went on for years, and I was quick to assure Ali backstage at the TV show that I was dedicatedly on the slip side of the argument.  Ali smiled at me in gratitude then leaned over and whispered in my ear his version of the Sonny Banks debate, “He dropped me.”  An aside:  I grew up in Cranford, New Jersey, middle class suburb of New York City, the biggest celebrity I ever met was the guy that owned the local soda shop, a neighbor once met Buffalo Bob Smith of The Howdy Doody Show and my pals and I couldn’t get over that somebody from Cranford had actually met a star.  Famous person number six (I decided to add one more), David Ogilvy, a name familiar only to those working in the advertising industry, the best copywriter in history, i.e., “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”  Try coming up with that one.  At twenty-three years old I was hired as a copywriter into his New York advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, and was told to show the chief a television commercial I’d written.  Young and cocky, intimidated by nothing or nobody, I strode into his office to face the legend.  I shook David Ogilvy’s hand, he looked me in the eye, and suddenly I found myself muttering, “Gulp.”  Here’s a famous person I could have met but blew it.  Coming off a hit television show, I was approached by the head of an English production company and handed a first draft of a TV pilot written by a Brit looking for an American collaborator.  I read it that weekend but saw nothing there that I could work with.  On Monday I was honest with the head of the production company but thanked him for the opportunity.  What an idiot.  If only I lied and told him I’d like to meet with the screenwriter, he would have flown me to London, and I could have hung out with George Harrison.  What a complete idiot. Another famous person I could have met but didn’t and, under the circumstances, never regretted.  As a thirty-year-old Vice President/Creative Director of the Ogilvy office in Los Angeles, I was creatively in charge of many accounts, one of which was the Universal Amphitheatre.  It was the agency’s task to produce ads announcing big-time concerts, Liza Minelli, Steve Martin, etc.  While the concerts themselves were spectacular, the ads were humdrum affairs with a photo of the performer and words like “Coming Soon,” “Tickets available now at the box office.”   For the most part, I let my staff of copywriters and art directors handle the Amphitheatre advertising.  Until.  I received a phone call from Universal telling me that they just booked Bob Dylan.  Dylan.  My teenage cultural hero.  Coming to the Universal Amphitheatre.  This ad I was going to handle myself.  After several attempts and being manhandled by Dylan’s then-manager Jerry Weintraub (details to follow in a separate “More About”), I finally presented something he approved.  Weintraub surprised me by offering an extraordinary gift, “I’m presenting this ad to Dylan on Saturday at his home in Malibu.  Meet me here at ten a.m. and I’ll take you with me.”   That’s when it hit me.  What the hell happened to me?  My life had transitioned from sixty’s political activist, anti-war, anti-greed, anti-everything, to a member of the ultimate capitalistic juggernaut, an advertising executive, purveyor of greed, power, overconsumption.  I was now shockingly aware about the true meaning of something I heard years before, “We become our enemy.”  Certainly, this was not the person I wanted Bob Dylan to shake hands with; purer-than-pure artist meets shameless huckster.  So haunted was I in facing the reality of what I’d become, I had no problem declining Jerry Weintraub’s offer to go meet Dylan at his Malibu home, and no problem months later leaving the ad business completely.  Famous person number four: Jerzy Grotowski, the Polish theatre director.  I also covered Grotowski in another “More About.”  It’s well worth reading, or, if you’ve already done so, re-reading.   Drum roll.  Famous person number one: I am overjoyed to announce the person, maybe the only one I ever met, that knocked the breath out of me.  To fully understand the dynamic, please travel backward to hallowed ground, Yankee Stadium.  It was there that I grew up watching New York’s baseball championship dynasty, sneaking atop the Yankee dugout, leaning over to see the players sitting on the bench, shouting out, “Hey, Mick (Mantle), Hey Yogi (Berra), before being yanked away by security officers.  Iconic Yankees of yesteryear were only seen at Old-Timers games, with the best since Babe Ruth being announced on the public address system to roaring standing ovations, “The greatest living ballplayer, Joe DiMaggio.”  Two decades later a friend was filming DiMaggio in Washington Square Park.  Still so famous in New York, they had to shoot the baseball legend at midnight to avoid hordes of fans.  I was working late, and my friend told me to stop by and say hi on my way home.  After catching up on each other’s lives, my friend said, “You want to meet Joe?”  Very accustomed to working with celebrities I nonchalantly said sure, only to feel my legs go wobbly when I stepped into the trailer dressing room.  There he was in all his stoic, regal, overwhelming presence.  Joltin’ Joe.  Nine-time World Series winner.  The Yankee Clipper.  Out cold on my feet but still able to ramble on, to this day I have no idea what I said, but I remember Joe DiMaggio laughing and laughing.  The assistant director knocked on the trailer door.  Time to shoot.  DiMaggio and my friend stepped outside to go to work.  I stumbled out of the trailer and wobbled my way home.  The next morning, I received the greatest phone call of my life.  My friend said, “Hey, where did you go last night?  We returned to the trailer and Joe said, ‘Where’s your friend Gary?’”  Joe DiMaggio said that.  Where’s your friend.  Gary.  Joe DiMaggio actually remembered my name.  It’s true.  I’m not shitting you.