This was one of the most memorable celebrity encounters of my life. Perhaps because it was so innocently discovered.
I was on duty early in the morning. The last flight in every morning was the red eye from Hilo, HI. After that flight came in and the passengers all taken care of, it was my time to go.
So here I am one morning and a really old guy comes in smoking a cigar and starts staring at the video display of flight arrivals. I asked him if he was waiting for someone from the Hawaii flight and we began some small talk. After several minutes, there was something very familiar about his voice that I recalled and told him so. He mentioned doing Vaudeville, and laughed saying I would be too young to remember that. That triggered the memory of the Great Ballantine, a character he portrayed while being Lester Gruber on McHale’s Navy and in a David Copperfield Magic special. He talked about his granddaughter and how he spent a lot of time at Hollywood Park “playing the ponies”. I talked about my mom and the reason I was getting all of the celebrity pictures. He agreed that I could take one picture of him if I also took one of him and his granddaughter. The one that I took of him came out all washed out, but I do have it.
I also mentioned to him that the fans of Car 54 Where Are You and McHales Navy deserve to continue to see him and he should keep introducing himself to newer generations of TV viewers. When you look at all that he’s done over the course of his lifetime, he certainly has done just that. While I have appreciated an occaisional cigar myself, I never did find out what kind he was smoking.