"If you don't tell the whole truth about yourself, life is a ridiculous exercise." By the time Joel Grey comes to this conclusion, he has put in 238 pages of autobiography and some seven decades of searching for his authenticity as a person and performer.
He calls his memoir "Master of Ceremonies" after the evil, seductively seedy emcee in Cabaret, unarguably his most iconic creation. "I was always going to use that title," he says. "It's about both types of mastering: mastering a life and mastering a career.
"The fundamental job of the actor is to tell about the human condition, to be a voice for the truest ideas and deepest emotions. Sometimes they are big ones, such as the nature of death in On Borrowed Time [his first play, at age 9] ... or they are painful, such as in The Normal Heart, where I first talked to the world as a gay man."
I like how things that gnaw at you in life surface in this book. You're very frank and frontal about how gayness evolved for you. It reads like a human history.
Joel Grey: Writing this was hard and, at the same time, inevitable. I'd been thinking about it for a long time. I wondered, if there were a right time, when would that be? If it's not a tell-all, it's certainly enough of a tell-enough.
JG: Really? I thought it was tell-all. I needed to say those things. It was never my idea to expose or hurt anyone. There's a civility that has always been a part of me. I don't like books that ''out" people and broadcast stuff like that—even if they do sell well.
Your fame as an actor really pushed you farther back into the closet, didn't it?
JG: Living in the society that I was living in at the time, being gay was not an option. If you were gay, you had to be terribly, terribly discreet. Being seen in the wrong place or with the wrong crowd could wreck a career back then. It was just too risky.
Midway through life, a wonderful thing happened: Love found Joel Grey. You married actress-singer Jo Wilder, who gave up her career to be your wife and the mother of Jennifer and James. But, in your 24th year of marriage, in your nagging quest for self-authenticity, you told her of your past. Had she no clue?
JG: None. Know why? Because I was totally in love with her. We were living totally a heterosexual life. I made a decision what I wanted in life: a family and a career. As a small boy, I always was attracted to babies. I knew I would be a dad, never knowing anything else or that this might be difficult. It never occurred to me because it was such a powerful force in me. Today, of course, you can be gay and have babies.
Nobody — nobody — could ever believe Jo and I would split. We were the couple.
When you saw The Normal Heart, you told the author, Larry Kramer, you'd like to be a part of it, and a few weeks later, Joe Papp took you up on it because the lead actor had AIDS. Was the play something of a coming-out moment for you?
JG: Not really. I was strictly The Actor doing The Play. Politically, I was very motivated, and, personally, I was devastated. By then, I'd lost a lot of friends.
It was a very frightening time. You even asked the AIDS researcher who'd treated Rock Hudson if there was a threat in having to kiss your co-star.
JG: And the doctor said, "I wouldn't do it."
But you did it anyway.
JG: As you well know! It was like being a part of helping, of alerting. The New York Times was not writing about it, except in the back pages. People just didn't believe it.
When The Normal Heart finally got to Broadway — 26 years later (!) — it won the Tony for Best Revival (Play), and you and George C. Wolfe shared a nomination for directing it.
JG: I'd directed benefit readings in L.A. and New York — both with a genius group of actors — and suddenly people remembered and could take it, so it went to Broadway.
When we first did it at The Public, people could barely survive watching it — it was so immediate, so scary. Now they could see it more dispassionately and still be moved.
Did this memoir make you want to do more writing?
JG: I've been thinking of it, so maybe. Right now, I just focused on launching the book. I'm doing Terry Gross' radio show this week. There will be a piece in The New York Times on Sunday. Gay Talese is interviewing me at the 92nd Street Y on the pub date, Feb. 16, and three days later I get an evening at The Ridgefield [CN] Playhouse.