Celebrity Sightings of the Highest Order

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Alex Rocco as Moe Greene in The Godfather.

When I was in my 20s, I lived in the Hollywood Hills with two roommates. We kept a list of celebrity sightings on our refrigerator door. We rated the sightings on a scale of one to five, based on star status, location and details. The best sightings were the obscure ones like seeing Tom Waits eating a cheeseburger at a downtown Tommy’s. Other five-star sightings included Billy Barty buying Rolaids at a 7-Eleven, Sophia Loren picking apples at a local Ralphs and Scatman Crothers scraping gum off his shoe at a Chevron station. A cliche sighting like Eddie Murphy driving his Rolls Royce down Sunset Boulevard earned just one star.

One night I was having dinner with my parents at an Italian restaurant. A man started coughing at a nearby table. It soon became clear he was choking. One of his fellow diners patted him on the back and the man spit out a large piece of steak. As he regained his composure, I recognized the man as Alex Rocco, the actor who played Moe Greene in The Godfather. This was a sighting of the highest order.

I had another Godfather sighting. While getting my brakes fixed at a Firestone Auto Center in Studio City, I saw Abe Vigoda drive his Cadillac into the shop. We sat together in the waiting area reading old magazines. I was about to quote a Godfather line to him (“Tell Mike it was only business”) when Vigoda got up for some coffee. He became irked at the lack of creamer at the coffee table.

During college, I had a business videotaping weddings, Bar mitzvahs and birthday parties. One night I was paid to record a charity fundraiser at the Beverly Hills Friars Club. Several celebrities attended including 82-year-old Milton Berle. Berle told a few bad jokes, urged the crowd to donate money then walked off stage. At the end of the evening, he came up to me as I was putting away my equipment.

“What are you going to do with that tape,” he asked.

“It’s for the charity organizers,” I said.

“You know who I am, right,” he asked.

“Of course, Mr. Berle.”

“If that tape ends up on television or if I find out you’re selling it for profit, you’ll never work in this town again.”

He walked away in a huff. This was a three-star sighting plus an extra star since I was threatened.

Some of the most memorable sightings involved film personalities I admired. I saw Faye Dunaway getting yogurt at a kosher dessert shop in Hancock Park. I sat in a booth near David Lynch as he sipped “damn good coffee” at the Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank. I looked on, mesmerized, as German acting legend Bruno Ganz flossed his teeth outside a West Hollywood taco stand.

Ancillary sightings included Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch) eating shawarma at a Zankou Chicken restaurant. Donny Most from Happy Days buying cleaning supplies at a Sav-On Drugstore. Alan Hale, Jr. (the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island) at a newsstand on La Cienega. And Mike Connors (star of Mannix) buying a putter at a Roger Dunn’s golf shop in North Hollywood.

I’ve only been star-struck twice. Both incidents involved players from my beloved Los Angeles Lakers. Once I stood behind Magic Johnson at a Starbucks on Melrose. I wanted to tell him what a huge fan I was. Instead, I merely shook in my shoes unable to find words. I also sat next to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at a valley Thai restaurant in Sherman Oaks. His long legs stretched to the edge of my table. I waited for him to finish his meal then found the courage to thank him for the joy he’d brought me. He said, “You’re welcome,” nodded, and left.

Inevitably I’ve had a few sour celebrity encounters. When I was in my 20s, I worked at a spiritual bookstore in West Hollywood. Film director Peter Bogdanovich was such a profound prick toward the staff we wanted to kick him out of the store. Action film director Brett Ratner drove me off the road on Mulholland. Actor Jeremy Piven cursed at me at a market for having too many items in a 10-items or less line.

The strangest celebrity sighting was not a celebrity sighting at all. In the 80s, I used to get my hair cut at a salon on Ventura Boulevard. There was always an old man seated on a couch near the front door. I assumed he was related to the owner but one day my barber pointed to the man and said, “You know who that is? That’s Larry from The Three Stooges.” I stared at the man. He looked nothing like Larry.

I drove to the local library and found a book on the Stooges. I learned Larry died of a stroke in 1975. He was born in 1902. He’d been a talented violinist, was once a boxer and spoke fluent Hebrew and Yiddish. His real last name was Feinberg and he had burn scars on his right arm from a childhood acid accident.

When I returned to the salon for my next haircut, I saw the old man seated on his customary spot on the couch. I sat next to him while waiting for my cut. I looked at his arms. There were no scars.

“How are you, sir,” I asked.

“Wonderful,” he said with a New York accent.

“Tony tells me you’re a famous Hollywood actor,” I said.

The old man smiled. He looked toward the movie star photos on the wall.

“Are you up there,” I asked.

He pointed toward a photo of the Stooges.

“I know you’re not Curly. You don’t look like Moe. Are you Larry?”

“I’m Meshugah,” he answered.

I knew enough Yiddish to know this meant he was “crazy.” I smiled and shook his hand. This was truly a five-star sighting.

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