I am not a celebrity hound. Honest. But I DO enjoy meeting people I really admire and look up to. There is a sense of satisfaction to be able to tell someone who has influenced, inspired, or entertained you how important they have been to you and to thank them.
Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to do this with some of my favorites over the years--Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall, Harvey Korman, Bob Newhart. Authors. Actors. Athletes. Statesmen.
One of the most gracious people I have EVER met was Jay Leno.
I saw him in the late 90s in Sparks, Nevada. It was his one man stand-up show.
To be honest, I can't remember how funny the show itself was.
But I DO remember meeting him backstage before the show and that 10 minute encounter will be something I will never forget.
Leno popped out of his dressing room and said, "Come on back."
He didn't know me from Adam. I couldn't even claim national talk show notoriety because at the time I was a local host in Sacramento. And here was the host of THE TONIGHT SHOW, taking me in like an old friend.
I sat with him on a couch and he insisted on pouring ME a Diet Coke.
"Do you mind if I tie my tie?" he asked. He was serious. He was concerned that I--an absolute nobody--would be put off by the fact that he was going onstage in 10 minutes and had to get ready.
Most other celebrities wouldn't have even agreed to meet with me, let alone served me refreshments. A quick handshake and a hollow "thanks a lot" would have been the standard.
I will never forget what he told me after I told him I couldn't believe I was in his dressing room chatting with him. JAY FREAKING LENO.
"Nah. I'm just a guy who happens to be hosting THE TONIGHT SHOW for awhile."
Talk about down to earth. Everybody I have ever talked to that knows him well says that's the real Leno--down to earth and accessible.
On the way out I thanked him and shook his hand.
He said, "Now get big and famous and we'll have you on the show," he said. Then he put his coat on and literally went up some steps and straight to the stage as the spotlight came on.
He was cracking his first joke before I even made it to my seat. Another shocker. Jay Leno talked with a stranger for 10 minutes right up to the time he had to perform. He didn't give himself a one minute window or anything. That really impressed me, and still does.
I am sharing all of this because I was saddened to see Jay Leno checked himself into the hospital with a "mild" illness, missing the taping of his show for the first time in 17 years.
I wish him well and will keep him in my prayers.
Thanks, Jay, for being such a neat guy. We need more people like you in show biz.