The year was 1990. It was the summer before my senior session at the University of Florida, and I was having lunch with some friends at a cafe across from campus after one of our late live-music Friday nights at the Hardback Cafe.
I had only once before brushed with fame — if you don’t count my tête-à-tête with one-hit-wonder Stacey Q that night after she performed at Central City earlier in my college career. River Phoenix, my first brush with true fame, was a major star, an Academy Award-nominated actor and a Hollywood heartthrob. He was living in Gainesville at the same time I was in school there, and his band, Aleka’s Attic, used to play in venues around town. A friend of mine had met him once before I did after an AA performance at the student union, and when she requested his autograph and a photo, he sniffed, “I’m not Goofy at Disneyland.”
I met him twice. The first time I would have been nervous, but too much beer had made me fearless. As River walked by me on his way into the Hardback Cafe, I grabbed him and told him that I liked his shirt. I think I may have been hitting on him. Whatever I was doing, it worked. He was incredibly friendly and stuck around to chat for a little while. The next time I saw him, I cornered him and asked if I could interview him sometime for the college paper’s entertainment section, which I edited. He seemed a bit disappointed that I was approaching him as a star and not as a regular guy the way I had before, but he agreed to do the interview to promote AA’s next performance.
But we never did the interview. He probably saw me from across one of those crowded rooms and ran in the opposite direction. Maybe interviewing River Phoenix was never meant to be for me. He died before I could land him for a proper national publication. Interestingly, the night after he died, Halloween 1993, I met another one of my longtime crushes, Michael Hutchence of INXS, at a release party for the band’s Full Moon, Dirty Hearts album. Four years later, he’d be dead, too.
That Saturday afternoon at lunch, I wasn’t about to miss my second brush with fame. Across the room I saw that familiar goofy-handsome face. Could it be? No way! But wait, they were filming the Michael J. Fox movie Doc Hollywood in Gainesville, so that very well could have been his costar Woody Harrelson who just walked in. My friends confirmed.
At the time, Woody was still on Cheers, and although I wasn’t a huge fan of the show, it wasn’t every day that famous people walked into Gainesville restaurants. And if I was to someday become a big celebrity journalist, I’d have to get used to this. So when Woody made his way to the men’s room, I saw my chance. I followed him.
I washed my hands over and over until Woody emerged from the stall and then I pounced. “What’s up, Woody. How are you?” I acted like we were old chums (this is the same technique I’d later use on people like Marie Osmond, Reba McEntire and Natalie Merchant to immediately put them at ease). He couldn’t have been more charming. I wasn’t expecting him to be so nice and actually engage me in conversation. I didn’t know what to say. I had nothing.
So I made it up as I went along. I asked what he was doing in Gainesville and how he liked our little college town. Then I started asking him about his Cheers costar Kirstie Alley. Kirstie this. Kirstie that. Kirstie Kirstie Kirstie. “What’s it like working with Kirstie? I love Kirstie!” I don’t know what got into me.
Woody looked confused and maybe a little bit amused. Perhaps he was annoyed, too. God knows I would have been. But he played the good sport. What an actor, I thought, as he exited the loo. Who knew that the rest of the world would soon come to see things as I did? Twenty years of career ups and lulls (mostly lulls) later, he’s about to score his second Oscar nomination for The Messenger.
And I can say I knew him when.