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Making an Audience Cry

Question: When did you know you wanted to be an actor?

Joel Grey: Well, I didn’t know who I was gonna be and I was actually, I guess, I was questioning that even in my early, early years because I sort of was in a chaotic family.  And I sort of knew that I could sing and dance, you know, around the grandparents and that sort of thing, but I was taken to the theater by my mother—a children’s theater called "The Curtain Pullers," in Cleveland, Ohio—and I watched the show and I said, “I want to do that.”  And that was it.  I mean, it’s never, ever changed.  I knew what it was I was going to do at that moment.  How, I don’t know how to explain that, but it sort of gave me a purpose and a place to put all of my particular chaos into something very productive.  And I loved it.  And I learned so much.  

I think I learned more about the theater and about my craft in those three years between nine and 12 than I ever did again.  And I studied with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and Wynn Handman and I’ve worked with some great people and learned a lot, but I think that what I learned between nine and 12 has had a tremendous impact on who I am as an actor.

What are some of the more memorable things that you've experienced on stage?

Joel Grey: My very first experience in this play “On Borrowed Time” that I did when I was nine.  And I had a death scene, and I actually was on the stage and I heard people sobbing in the audience.  I thought, “Wow.  Wow!  This is the real thing.”  This is what the theater’s about.  And the fact that I can be a part of that.  Because very often when people have an experience in the theater, they very learn some life lessons.  So there’s something that you kind of feel is maybe important, even if it’s to one person.

And then I was on stage with my father who was a great Yiddish comedian, and I was 16 years old.  And I didn’t know how to sing or dance, but I wanted to be on the stage, so he gave me a part in his variety show and I came out and I’m singing this song and the audience is hysterical.  And it wasn’t a funny song.  So, finally somebody in the front row I think went—and I went, oops.  And then I don’t know what made me do it, but it wasn’t just smart.  I said, “I never got such a big hand on my opening.”  And that’s at 16.  

A very strange thing that happened, I was working out in Summer Stock and at the end of the show I was taking a bow and you know, sometimes people reach up to you and there was this young man who reached up to me and as I looked at him I saw in his eyes, there was something wrong.  And he in fact, pulled me off the stage into the pit.  And luckily I didn’t get hurt, but those are some of the chances you take.  And of course, I’ve been injured on the stage and injured in movies and I can... you know, dancing just takes every muscle, especially if you’re not a dancer, a natural dancer.  I’m essentially an actor.  And the fact that I got away with singing and dancing for a long time is still a miracle to me.

Recorded on September 9, 2010

Interviewed by David Hirschman

When he was performing at just nine years old, Grey looked down from the stage to see audience members sobbing. "I thought, 'Wow. Wow! This is the real thing.' This is what the theater’s about."

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