‘Who the Hell Do I Think I Am?’: Joel Grey on Coming Out, Cabaret, and His Yiddish ‘Fiddler’
In a candid interview with Tim Teeman, the Oscar-, Tony-, and Golden Globe-winning Joel Grey talks sexuality, winding down his stage career, and his Yiddish ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’
Sometimes it’s for playing the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret, sometimes it’s for Chicago, sometimes it’s for playing the Devil in Dallas. And sometimes, Joel Grey noted with his mischievous smile, people recognize him on the street for dropping his pants in Sex and the City.
It took a moment. Oh, I remembered, that episode when Carrie goes to visit Vogue, and Julian, the suave, older male editor, tries to seduce her with wily charm and cocktails, and then…
“I was never in Sex and the City!” exclaimed Grey. He's right: That character was played by Ron Rifkin.
This repetitive case of mistaken identity tickles Grey hugely.
The first time we met, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Lox cafe, the Oscar-, Tony-, and Golden Globe-winning actor and director took authoritative charge of my order: a cup of Borscht and some cheese blintzes. Sour cream with both. Delicious toasted rye bread.
It was late June. The handsome, impish 86-year-old performer—famed for his performances in Cabaret, The Normal Heart, and Chicago, and who came out as gay in 2015—was taking his lunch break from rehearsals of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, which this reviewer found a moving triumph when it opened on Sunday at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in New York City’s Battery Park.
Even though the production is off-Broadway, the New York Post’s Cindy Adams called for Grey, its director, to be awarded a Tony for his efforts.
It is the first time the musical has been performed in America in Yiddish, the same language Sholem Aleichem used in his stories, Tevye and His Daughters, written between 1894 and 1914, and which formed the inspiration for the musical when it was written—in English—in 1964. Grey’s brilliant production returns the musical to its linguistic source.
“It’s kind of amazing,” Grey said of the project. “Maybe more than three-quarters of the cast doesn’t speak Yiddish, and are under 30. So they’re learning it and being coached, and that’s how they’ve cut the mustard. We’re very fierce about that here. We know the general audience will be on it, and all these young actors and singers are in love with this piece.”
That’s certainly true: This reviewer was surrounded by older audience members humming along, and echoing Yiddish phrases back to the actors.
The story of Tevye the dairyman and his family and friends being forced to vacate their shtetl in Russia’s Pale of Settlement in 1905, as so many Jewish communities were forced to do, strikes a profound contemporary chord, said Grey, especially in light of the images of family separation and demagoguery and actions of President Trump.
“Fiddler is about today. I watch the news every day and it’s horrendous, dreadful, ’tis a nightmare. I think it has reverberations of the most serious anti-Semitism there ever was in 1905, when my grandmother came by boat from Russia to America. She was 16 years old, alone, and she and so many others ran for their lives. And here we are.”
His grandmother didn’t speak about her memories of the time, said Grey. He figured she’d blotted them out. From Ellis Island, she had gone to Cleveland to stay with her uncle and cousin. She married Grey’s grandfather, a fruiterer, and they had five girls—one of whom was Grey’s mother, Grace.
He wrote about their rocky, charged relationship in his memoir, Master of Ceremonies. She had rejected him after, aged 16, he had an affair with a cantor from their local synagogue, who subsequently “disappeared from the face of the earth,” as Grey put it. Grey had dated the cantor’s wife before the cantor dated her.
“I probably thought I was in love with him,” said Grey. “I had no idea I was being, what would you call it, ‘predat-ed.’ I didn't know what the world was about. I tried to act like I did.”
“Charged is right,” Grey said of his relationship with his mother. “The thing is, I’m understanding her so well now. I have a lot of sadness for her—that she wanted too much and she did not ever get it. Money was short. It was not easy. Out of the five daughters, she was the good-looking one and the ambitious one, and she left when she was 16 practically to have a romance with my dad [the famed clarinetist Mickey Katz]. She got married when she was 18 and he was 20. Then there was the Great Depression. I feel very compassionate about her.”
His mother was very dramatic and beautiful. “My father was mesmerized,” Grey recalled. “Movies were the thing: Everyone wanted to be a movie star, so why not her, she thought. She had no talent. Luckily enough she realized that and became an artist.”
Asked if he had laid aside the damage she had done to him, Grey said, “I think she was a definite person of her time, and it was a time of intense anti-Semitism and homophobia, it was just accepted. I accepted the way she was and knew she was stuck in her childhood misery, and yet she was very optimistic-seeming. She was a doer. She was a great painter, and my father was insanely in love with her. He just revered her.”
Growing up, Grey knew the Yiddish of his father’s comedy records; his mother didn’t speak it. “Yiddish was not spoken at home, but it was the source of my father’s artistry. He wrote funny Yiddish parodies of hit parade songs. My instinct and memory is that it was his way of participating in becoming American.
“Suddenly the hit parade belonged to Jewish people too, and the non-Jewish people who heard them thought it sounded funny too. It was a big success.”
He had undertaken directing the Folksbiene Fiddler as a way to honor his father, Grey said: “I felt a tremendous obligation to make it beautiful. When I heard they were doing this production of Fiddler, I had to do it. I’d always wanted to play Tevye. It was always in my mind but the timing was never right and I don’t speak Yiddish fluently. But I knew it was something I had to do, because it clicked.
“I loved the show, I believe in it, and I thought that doing it in Yiddish and hearing some of the songs like ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ becoming ‘If I Were a Rothschild’ was really curious. I thought if I could get a great cast, that’s all that matters—the art of it. I love helping actors. I thought it could be seen differently, and say something to the world at large about anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment—how long it’s been going on, how vicious it was, and how vicious it still is.”
Christopher Massimine, the NYTF’s CEO, said Grey was the most dedicated director he had ever worked with. Watching him had been “like being a kid in a candy store.” Massimine had just watched Grey shepherd the actors through a tough scene, to the point where they “got it, and by the end of it they got it—and the scene finally made sense.”
Putting Fiddler into Yiddish means it is no longer an entertainment, said Grey, but acquires “a ring of truth that is very compelling, hearing it, and knowing about anti-Semitism and what it was then, and here we are in 2018 and it’s still a big issue in the world.”
Grey isn’t sure why racism and anti-Semitism have persisted as relentlessly as they have. “Human nature is not always on a high plane, and there are a lot of people who want to feel better than other people—and Jews have managed to supply that, unwillingly.”
When he heard Fiddler in Yiddish for the first time, Grey realized there were no jokes. “I mean, there’s humor, but it’s way down the ladder. If people are coming to have a good time, they may be disappointed. If you’re coming for a theatrical experience, something that will make you think and feel, you may have a better time.
“I remember when I was in Cabaret, and some people met me at the stage door and said, ‘It was so funny, we had such a good time,’ and I thought that people see what they want, and not necessarily what is being performed in front of them. They do not want to be shaken into reality.”
The young Grey “had no other ambitions, ever,” apart from performing. “Theater was my passion from the time I was 8.”
At that age he joined the Cleveland Play House’s children’s theater, the Curtain Pullers. “I know I never doubted that’s that what I would do from then on. I never faltered. I suffered and wondered. I didn’t know if could make it. It took a lot.”
As a young performer, he changed his name from Katz to Grey because of the then-stigma of names with obvious ethnicity attached.
“I did not want to study music or play instruments,” Grey said. “I never learned to play the piano, I never learned to read music. I didn’t want to be that. I wanted to be an actor, I never thought I’d be in musicals. I thought I’d be doing Richard III.”
Before the fame of Cabaret, Grey was a nightclub singer. “It marked my card. There was a tremendous snobbery towards doing that on the part of theater world. Then again, knowledge of that nightclub thing, and how awful I found it, fueled the emcee. I hated it, and I put all that hate into him.”
The director Harold Prince approached Grey to take the emcee role, when Cabaret was first performed in 1966. Grey keeps his Cabaret gongs in his office; such awards are “touchstones” in the acting world, he said. He knew Cabaret would “change musical theater, whether people liked it or not, although it was far from an anticipated success.”
The company went to Boston for the pre-New York tryout, he said. “We had no idea. A musical about Nazis and homosexuals did not sound like a ready success.”
He recalled performing the opening number. “The audience refused to stop applauding. I remember us looking at each other backstage, asking, ‘Do we do it again?’ What’s going on? So we had a hunch.”
The emcee “was very real to me, even though had no lines. There was nothing to tell you who he was—it all had to come out in those numbers, that was the challenge. He was a survivor, terrified and just outrageously wanting to live. And of course, desperation. I think that’s the center of him.”
Grey is still close with Liza Minnelli, who starred in the film version opposite him. “She’s my little sister,” he said affectionately. “She’s very complicated, gifted, and we bonded when we made that movie. She makes you want to take care of her.”
Some have puzzled over why he ended up appearing in the final episode of Dallas, as the Devil, encouraging baddie J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) to shoot himself.
“The unusual thing about it is that Larry and I were very close friends. He asked me to do the role. We lived next door to each other in Malibu. He was one of my dearest friends. We were an unlikely team. Don’t forget he was Mary Martin’s son. He was in theater before moving to California to be a big TV star.”
Later came another burst of Broadway stardom in Chicago, where his Amos was a world away from how the character was originally conceived and acted; a husky, big guy. When Grey finally agreed to take on the role on Broadway, he played Amos as pure; “not dumb, but in love with Roxy.”
For Grey—who as a director has overseen productions of The Normal Heart, Cabaret, and Zorba starring Anthony Quinn—many roads lead back to Paul Osborn’s play On Borrowed Time.
He made his stage debut at the Cleveland Play House in it at 9, while in 2013 he directed a production of the play at New Jersey’s Two River Theater that starred Steven Skybell, who he cast as Tevye in the Yiddish Fiddler, in a minor role.
He is also looking to direct a production of On Borrowed Time on Broadway, Grey said.
The next time we saw each other was at Barbuto, a favorite restaurant of Grey’s near his Hudson River-facing apartment. He had just taken his adorable new puppy, Oliver, for a walk. Again, he was insistent food-wise (luckily for me) that I try his delicious pizza con funghi.
“One is afraid to get up each day,” Grey said of the Trump-dominated news greeting Americans every morning. “I must say the very first thing I do before coffee is put on MSNBC and see if anything drastic has happened during the night. It’s very tenuous.”
Grey talked about his mother more, and how tough her mother, his grandmother, had been. Her sternest instruction to everyone, after wishing them “Zei Gezunt” (“Be healthy”) would be “Don’t disappoint me.”
The effect of that, said Grey, was “probably not very good. Limited acceptance.”
He recalled hearing words like “fageleh” and “fag” as a term of abuse for gay men. “It was enough to hear, but everyone has something. It was the way of the world.”
Did he realize he was gay when he was a teenager, after that affair with the cantor?
“Yeah, and that was not OK,” said Grey. “I would say it was the farthest thing from ‘OK’ you could imagine. So I said, ‘That’s not the life I want. And I always wanted children. And I always loved women. But there was a duality.”
I asked if it would more accurate to say he was bisexual, although he came out as gay in an interview with People magazine in 2015.
“I think sexuality is much more subtle, and really I have to say I was in love with my wife [Jo Wilder, whom he was married to for 24 years], and having children was a high priority.” He had two, the actress Jennifer Grey and James, a chef.
“I feel very happy for my dad that he has come to a point in his life where he feels safe and comfortable enough to declare himself in a public way as a gay man,” Jennifer told People.
“It’s not black and white, any of it, that’s all I can say,” Grey told me of the issue of fidelity within his marriage.
It seems like it got more black and white later on in life to lead him to come out as gay, I said.
“It’s OK. I said it because it’s true. I think sexuality is more complicated for everybody, but if I have to make a statement, that’s it.”
Grey knew Tab Hunter, who died recently and who also came out after a near lifetime in the closet as a Hollywood actor. “He was very charming, and of course I worked with Rock Hudson, and everybody knew about his sexuality.”
Did Hunter’s experience of being in the closet—sketched vividly in the impressive documentary Tab Hunter Confidential (streaming on Netflix)—echo Grey’s?
“No. Every cliché doesn't seem to fit into my profile, which probably means it doesn’t fit into anybody’s.” He laughed. “Who the hell do I think I am?”
Did he, like Hunter, fear his career imploding if he came out?
“Absolutely, I had that as a young boy [with the cantor]. I was actually thrown out of the house after that. That wasn’t good at 16. How else could I have thought about it except to think that this, being gay, is not the way to be happy? That continued into my adult life for a long time. It was my reality.”
Grey wrote about its emotional effects in his memoir. “It was difficult for me as a young person. I’m sure I had ambition, to be good, to accomplish. There was no question that I would have lost my career had it became known. Definitely. So it became something I closed the door on.”
Being on Broadway didn’t mean an automatic gay milieu either. “I wasn’t with gay people then. I would never go to those places, the bars. I went to the baths for all of three minutes. Also, a negative thing came from the gay community, who were unhappy that I didn’t include myself alongside them.”
Performing in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart in the mid-’80s, playing its gay lead character Ned Weeks at such an intense time of people dying of AIDS, must have been intense.
“I replaced Brad Davis, who had AIDS. People were shrieking in the audience, weeping, choking. It was very emotional, exhausting. It was like being in a hospital ward.”
At the time Grey was in the closet.
“That was a big moment in my life,” he said.
Did he think about coming out at that time?
“I thought about it and I did to my kids [who were in their late teens at the time]. They came to see me in the play.”
How did they respond to you coming out to them? I asked.
“That’s a good question. Confused, but loving.” As time went on, they became completely accepting.
Grey also co-directed the 2011 production of The Normal Heart, which won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play. The “political attitudes and attitudes in the world” finally convinced Grey to come out publicly in 2015.
“It seemed right. It seemed like the proper thing for a citizen to do. Homophobia here and worldwide made me run from doing it once, and then there just seemed to be no point in running. It was a non-issue. I guess I needed to be counted, in that if you don’t say something you’re maybe seen as negative. It seemed at that moment in time that politically it was the right thing to do.”
In the three years since, life has been easier, he said. The burden of concealment has been removed. I asked if he wished he’d come out earlier. “I never have those thoughts: coulda, shoulda, woulda.”
He’s a pragmatist? “I think I am.”
Today, with his marriage and other long-term relationships behind him, Grey is single “and loving it. I have great friends and a great life. I’m not waiting for anything.”
Pizza now nearly demolished (excluding the crusts), Grey signaled his desire to end, or at least fundamentally reduce, his theatrical acting career. “I don’t think I want to perform anymore on the stage. I would do films, or maybe a short run like the Chekhov I did a couple of years ago [The Cherry Orchard on Broadway, opposite Diane Lane].
“First of all, I don’t want to do anything for a long time, like for a year, it’s too limiting. I would direct another project on stage. I don’t know about directing on film. I’m a stage guy, a theater man. You’re in charge. You have an idea. You can do it. When you’re part of another person’s vision, it changes.”
Would he miss performing on stage? “I’ve really had a lot of pleasure, a lot. And, never say never.”
Away from acting, Grey has been taking photographs for years and has published four books’ worth of his work. Next spring comes the fifth, Sexy Flowers (powerHouse Books), about the suggestive calla lilies and such he finds on his sorties to the flower sellers of 28th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues.
“How can you not?” he said softly when I asked if he contemplated his mortality. “I wake up each day and think about what’s going to happen, feeling excitement at the challenge. I ask, ‘How am I going to solve this?’ along with the general attitude that something exciting can happen today.” He tries to seize the day and admits he has “issues, but for the most part they’re on an even keel with the joys.”
Asked if he was in therapy, Grey said, “I check in, because I think it’s smart.”
Richard III, cited earlier, is one of “hundreds” of stage roles he has not yet done that he would love to. He may write a second memoir to continue his story past coming out and including directing Fiddler.
Ten years ago, Grey said, he might have been the nervous actor, eyeing where the next role was coming from. Not today, he said. He feels satisfaction in his life. No, he wasn’t a glass half-full Pollyanna type, he said, balking at my suggestion. A few seconds later, when I described his looks and bearing as “quizzically mischievous,” he smiled broadly.
“Very good, on the nose,” Grey assented, softly touching his nose.
Then he went home to the happy tyranny of his new puppy.
Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish is at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, Museum of Jewish Heritage, Edmond J. Safra Plaza, 36 Battery Place, New York City, until Sept. 2. Book here.