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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

The kindness of strangers

Joel Grey Photo: George Seminara

Joel Grey: Actor, Singer, Dancer, Director, and Photographer. He came from Cleveland but made a life in New York City, on Broadway. It’s only a cliché because it happens so often. I could tell you about his awards, The Tony, The Oscar, Emmy, and Possibly a Grammy. He also has a Drama Desk and tons of nominations. He has published three books of his photographs, one which is just his iPhone shots. (Like that would ever happen to me!) He is the father of two and another example of the complexities of life. He is also a kind man.

I like making these statements. He is a kind man. What do I know? Is he my friend? Everyone knows I have mixed feelings about Cleveland. Let’s examine the evidence. First of all, I have never taken a picture of anyone who has had a cross word to say about Joel Grey. They wax rhapsodic about his talent and energy and commitment to his art… Blah, blah, blah! What they didn’t say is he keeps guinea Pigs in his dressing room and stomps on them. I never heard it. Have you? Never. So his a beloved figure in the business they call show.

How I know, is this:

When I was in the Eighth Grade, or as they say elsewhere, year nine, like all New York City kids we had to choose and apply to the High School of their choice. (for you people, and you know who you are, Grade ten (key stage 4) through 6 Form)

We all take a test of our intelligence hoping for a spot at one of the “Special” schools. When I applied it went a little something like this: For Scholars at the top of the heap lay, Stuyvesant, the lofty academy that only let girls into the school starting in 1972. Next was Bronx Science, and finally Brooklyn Technical High School. These were at the top of the heap. Now each borough has its own high school’s of merit for residents of the said borough.

But if you were not interested in scholarly pursuits, New York City catered to you as well. There was, Art and Design if you were a hoping to become a professional artist, Music and Art, for creatives of a more refined nature, Performing Arts, if you wanted to be on the stage or screen, documented in the film FAME. There was one if one was interested in the ocean or being in the merchant marine and there was Automotive High School and Aviation High School. I may have forgotten one or two. Those prats from Aviation High were always harshing my vibe. Of the first ten young ladies, I ever asked for a date, at least seven told me they couldn’t because their boyfriends went to Aviation and they wouldn’t like it. There was a threat that was implied by the word "Aviation." Were they going to drop a plane on me just because I took you to a movie? Besides, I was never interested in a girl who wouldn’t date me because her boyfriend wouldn’t like it. Yes. If I'm going to date someone they better be their own person with or without a boyfriend.

I decided I wanted to go to Art and Design. But my mother wanted me to go to Performing Arts she thought I could be a whiz in the cinema. So she and I practice a Shakespearian speech. An important speech. The kind of speech a soon to be 13-year-old shouldn’t be trying. The kind of speech that can make or break a career. My mother had been an actress in her youth. Her most famous role was that of Medea. If I live long enough, I might tell that story. So anyway, Months drag on as we, meaning me, learn the speech. My mother directs. Now she couldn’t tell you how to get to the corner store much less help me find the nuance of the speech. I just have the speech, a copy of the speech. I did not even know what the play was about, just that I was playing a king. I’ll give you a taste. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.” That's right, a four and a half foot tall, pre-pubescent boy was going to perform THE speech from Henry V.

At my school, we had two “Actors” Larry was doing Tom's “Opium Dens” monologue from Glass Menagerie and Anita, frankly, I don’t remember her monologue. She might have danced her audition. I had my own troubles. Firstly, it’s a speech, not a monologue. Secondly, it's 34 lines. I repeated it over and over. Until I dreamt those words. Finally, I take the book out of the library and read it on the subway home. I read the play. Now it all started to make sense. I started to think about the thought that went on behind each sentence. What does he want? Is he trying to talk these guys into something they don't want to do? I wasn't sure. What was a difficulty was I read the encyclopedia and they actually win at the battle of Agincourt. If they are going to win why don't they want to fight? Just after I think this I realize that no one know that they are going to win before the fight. So Henry is pretty slick. He's conning them. I’ve been talking myself out of trouble with my silvery tongue for ages by then. Hey! No judgments. I was short and slow. It was either fight or start talking. So I started talking.

Finally, I got it. I had it memorized and knew how I was going to do it. I was ready.

The day rolls up. I’m nervous I get to Performing Arts two hours early. So I wander around Times Square. Nice place for a twelve-year-old. I’m looking at the theaters and the winos and the morning hookers and I can’t help but notice the peep shows. Just walking by was an eye-opening experience. As I’m walking towards 7th Avenue who’s walking towards me, Joel Grey! (You guessed it.) So I walk right up to him and say, “Are you Joel Grey?” to which he replies, “No, but I get that all the time.”

I'm a little crestfallen because I was pretty excited.

“This Joel Grey… Is he any good? “

“Good? The guys great! he won the Tony and the Oscar! He Sings… He, he, does it all!”

“Sounds good…”

“ I saw him in a movie where he plays a Psychic”


“Clairvoyant?” I ask.

“That’s what they like to be called.”

“Oh okay…um, Clairvoyant and Cliff Robertson plays a Cop and he’s getting help from the Psych… Clairvoyant”

“I’m going to let you in on a little secret.” He smiles at me.” I am Joel Grey.”

and because that I, even as a twelve-year-old, was silky smooth said, “Really?”

He laughs and reiterates his identity and asks why I was lurking around Broadway at such an early hour. (it was 10:30)

I tell him about my audition and my speech.

He says, “Do it!”

I say, “Here? Now? On 44th Street?”

“You’re ready aren’t you?” I start thinking about how I can get out of this. How can I slink away slink away and still get his autograph?

“Do you know your lines?”

That got me. I did know my lines. It took the better part of two months to do it, but I did it. A little pride of accomplishment swells in my chest,

“Yeah, I know my… er… lines.” I try to brush it off like it was no big deal, “Of course I do, who wouldn’t?”

And so I begin:

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;

Or close the wall up with our English dead.

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility:

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger;

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,”


I stop, “Huh?”

“What’s this play about?”


“Yes, but they have been defeated and surrounded and all is lost. What do you think this speech is about.”

“Well, he’s trying to get the soldiers moving.”

“Yes, he’s trying to say, that this is just a bump in the road, this is nothing, we can do it.”

I thought about it. “Is it about pride?“

“Exactly!” He claps his hands, “Henry believes that he is the rightful king of France!”

“and he needs these guys to help him?”

“Good, again!”

I begin again and as I act out the speech. He stops me here and there to make a direction. He helps me understand it better. Meanwhile, we're in front of the Lowes Astor Plaza and I'm doing my speech. People are smiling and laughing at me. One guy messes up my hair. (it was when I had hair of course)

"Don't worry, keep going."

I keep going. One joker walking by even says, "I liked the movie better!"

But Mr. Grey urges me on. After at least half an hour, maybe more, it was time to go to my audition.

“Break a leg!” He says as I run off feeling like, now, I’m a real actor.

I get to school. I go to the classroom where my audition is and wait for my time. I enter a King. Because I’m ready and confident. I get in front of the teachers and my mind goes blank.

I got nothing. I start to sweat. My forehead, my palms, everywhere sweat can happen, it was happening.

“Do you need a second?”

Then just as suddenly, the words return. The teachers weren’t there. My army was beaten but breathing. We have a right to France. And we’re going to get it!

(Please read below. William Shakespeare wrote it a long time ago and it's pretty awesome.)

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;

Or close the wall up with our English dead.

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility:

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger;

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,”

Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;

Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;

Let pry through the portage of the head

Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it

As fearfully as doth a galled rock

O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,

Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.

Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,

Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit

To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.

Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!

Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,

Have in these parts from morn till even fought

And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:

Dishonour not your mothers; now attest

That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.

Be copy now to men of grosser blood,

And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,

Whose limbs were made in England, show us here

The mettle of your pasture; let us swear

That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;

For there is none of you so mean and base,

That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,

Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

I gave it my all. For a few minutes, I was a king rallying his troops. I did my best.

50 years later, I’m in a makeshift studio in a hotel room, There is a handful of actors coming to visit me. The third actor was, Joel Grey. Time is a constraint, I only spoke to him about the shot. Being a consummate professional he limbered up stretched his body and face. (I snapped a couple and got one of my favorite shots ever! It’s on my website.) When he was ready. I took the shots I was supposed to. But before he left, I asked if I could move the lights and shoot him again. He checked his phone and replied, “Of course.” Here is my favorite one of those.

Oh, what happened? I'll never say, in the end, I went to Art and Design.

Disclaimer: I based the dialog on what I wrote and drew in my sketchbook in 8th Grade. It was one of a handful of things my mother kept from my childhood. It's been a few years since she left the planet and I've just started to go through her things. The entire speech is what I memorized. I typed it up from memory. I did have to correct it here and there (maybe more) because I had forgotten almost half of it and it didn't make any sense earn I read it back.Thank goodness i have all the plays and sonnets at home. But to my feeble mind, it was as fresh as when Shakespeare put pen to paper or quill to parchment or what ever they did back then.

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