Thursday, May 26, 2011

Celebrity Look-Alikes

Has anyone ever told you that you look like a certain celebrity?

Over many years of taxi-driving, I have found this question popping up from time to time between myself and various passengers. It, like the question posed in my last post - "Have you ever met or known of anyone with the same first and last name as your own?" - is a sure-fire conversation spark plug. Really, it never fails to get a response. By actual survey, I've found that the majority of people say "yes" to that question when asked. And then they'll tell me which celebrity it is and I'll usually see a vague resemblance. ("Ah, yes, you both have two eyes and a nose!")

But sometimes the passenger really is a celebrity look-alike. Many years ago (before he died) I had a man in my cab who was a dead ringer for Henry Fonda. This fellow looked so much like Henry Fonda that I thought he was Henry Fonda.

"Uh, are you Henry Fonda?" I asked, figuring the straightforward was the best approach.

"Nope," he said with a smile, "just look like him."

I still wasn't sure. Maybe this was the real Henry Fonda's way of avoiding annoying people. Only after a few more back and forths was I able to discern that, indeed, my passenger was not Henry Fonda. Then he told me a story about a time he'd played in a charity golf tournament in which Henry Fonda himself was a participant. With great pleasure in the recollection, he remembered the reactions of all the people who saw him there and had no questions in their minds that he was the actual item. What an opportunity for the accidental wannabe.

Another time I had a young man in my cab who told me he made his living as Michael J. Fox's body double. Seeing him close-up, you would not have mistaken him for Michael J. Fox. The face was similar, but not convincingly so. However, his height, weight, bone structure, hairline, and hair color were identical. His job was to stand in for the star when only long-distance shots were on the schedule. This enabled the real Michael J. Fox to not have to show up on the set that day so he could do other things. What a gig!

It can also happen that the person you thought bore a resemblance to a certain celebrity turns out to actually be that celebrity! One night I picked up a man coming out of a bar on the Upper West Side who was wearing a skullcap that covered most of his head. He told me he wanted to go to a building on Central Park West, just a few blocks away, and asked if I could wait for him for a few minutes while he went inside, explaining that it was his daughter's birthday and he wanted to drop off a present.

Not a problem. He made his delivery and, upon returning to the back seat, took off his hat. Suddenly his appearance caught my attention.

"Say, do people ever tell you that you look like James Taylor?" I asked.

"Yeah, it happens all the time," he replied, "...I am James Taylor."

I looked at him more closely in the mirror. Goddamn, it was James Taylor!

"Oh. Hi, J.T.," I said.

And then I drove him back to the bar.

It is not always me who brings up this subject of celebrity look-alikes. I have often been told by passengers on their own origination that they think I look like such and such a famous person. Going back to the late '70s, when I started driving, and throughout the '80s, I was frequently told that I bore a resemblance to three celebrities in particular: Dick Cavett (an American talk-show host who peaked in popularity in the '70s); Chevy Chase (the comic actor); and Richard Dreyfuss (the movie star). Of the three, the only one I myself could see a resemblance to was Chevy Chase, particularly from certain angles. In fact, a couple of times people on the street approached me thinking I was Chevy Chase, which gave me a little vicarious thrill. However, as years went by and the aging process affected Chevy and me differently, the similarities kind of mutated and disappeared. Now I have to settle for the occasional half-blind passenger telling me I look like Dustin Hoffman or Woody Allen, neither of whom I look anything like, at all.

Now, to jump back to Karma Versus Coincidence again, what are the odds of this happening? Of the three celebrities I just mentioned whom I'd often been told that I resemble, two them - Dick Cavett and Richard Dreyfuss - eventually became passengers in my cab. What are the odds against that? A million to one? A hundred million zillion to one? But it did happen. And in both cases it gave me an opportunity which I think anyone who's ever been told that they look like a celebrity would love to have: the chance to ask the celebrity what he thinks.

Dick Cavett was first, in the autumn of 1980. He and his wife, Carrie Nye, hailed me as they emerged from a rear entrance to Lincoln Center on Amsterdam Avenue, and jumped in. I recognized him immediately and greeted him with a smile.

"Dick Cavett," I said cheerfully, "hi!"

I've had over a hundred celebrities in my cab over the years, most of them more famous than Dick Cavett, but his response to my greeting put him in a special celebrity category that is his alone: "Snob".

"79th and Park," he replied.

No return of my greeting, no show of being glad to be recognized, no smile, no "hello". Just "79th and Park". No "please", either.

Ouch.

Well, the nuance of his response was clear to even the oft-obtuse me. He was not allowing for the temporary equality of stature between taxi driver and passenger which - it may surprise you - is usually the case with very famous and influential people. (Read my Robin Williams story, for an example.) Instead, he had erected a little wall which said, "I'm on this side, you're on that side. Stay where you are."

Having been put in my place, I drove toward his destination without any attempt at conversation. I was heading for the Central Park transverse at 81st Street when a request came forth from the back seat to make a stop at a building on 83rd and Central Park West and wait there for a minute or two.

Sure.

I navigated the route and pulled up to the apartment house there in two minutes' time. Dick Cavett got out and scurried off into the building, leaving his wife behind with me. Rather than sit there in an uncomfortable silence, I attempted some small talk with her and found her to be a pleasant and conversational person. Perhaps that loosened me up a bit, as when her husband returned to the cab a couple of minutes later, I felt comfortable enough to pose the question to him that had been on my mind all the while.


"Mister Cavett," I said (he is the only celebrity I've ever felt that I needed to address as "mister"), "I have been told by people from time to time that they think I look like you. Do people ever tell you that they think you look like me?"

To his credit, Dick Cavett (who made his living as a quick-thinking wit) was right on it. He looked over at my name on my hack license and said, "Yes, as a matter of fact, I was having lunch with Greta Garbo just the other day and she mentioned to me that I look like that taxi driver, Eugene Salomon."

This was very funny because, in case you didn't know about Greta Garbo, she was a big movie star in the '30s who quit the movie business, retired to New York City, and never gave an interview again in her life. So it was a talk-show host's ultimate wet dream to ever be able to have a meeting with her, as she was so completely unobtainable.

I never did get Dick Cavett's opinion as to whether or not he thought I looked like him, but by this time it didn't matter to me. I was happy enough just to get any reaction at all, so I left it at that.

Richard Dreyfuss, on the other hand, was a piece of cake. As is usually the case with big-name celebrities, he was friendly, courteous, and very easy to talk to. I picked him up in the Theater District, where he was doing a Broadway show, and drove him to the Upper West Side where, he said, he was going to go shopping for a new watch. We chatted it up all the way to his destination on Columbus Avenue and then, just as he was about to get out, I hit him with my big question.
Turning around in my seat so he could easily see my face, I said this:

"I've often been told by passengers that they think I look like you. Do you think I look like you?"
He studied me carefully for a few moments before rendering judgement. I turned a bit from side to side and changed the expression on my face to give him more to work with, the tension mounting. Finally, he spoke.

"Hmmm..." he said, "no... but you've got a Richard Dreyfuss attitude."

And I've been a fan ever since!



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