Wait, hold the phone, is that who I think it is? Are they really here in person? Or is it someone that looks like this mega celebrity? That's what the people in these stories went through, and it turned out the celebrities they encountered were nothing like they expected. Buckle up, because these stories are going to make for a bumpy ride. Content has been edited for clarity.
Magical Plane Ride
“I was flying back from South Africa with my college students on the London to Minneapolis leg. I was surprised to be bumped up to first class because they oversold coach. Since the seat next to me was unoccupied, I asked the stewardess if it was okay if my students could come up, one at a time, and sit next to me for 15 minutes each, while I talked quietly with them about what they learned on the trip. She said it would be no problem. After about an hour, an elderly lady in the middle section of first class (who had apparently been drinking a little too much) began making loud comments about allowing the riffraff up in first class. We were speaking quietly so as not to bother anyone. But this old gal just didn’t like the idea of sharing first class with any commoners. She continued to get louder, the more she drank.
The stewardess went over to her and explained what we were doing and she began to argue with her. The stewardess finally had to threaten her that she would be arrested if she did not quiet down. At that point, I told the student to go back and that we’d finish our conversation the next day. The stewardess apologized and thanked me. I wondered who this cranky old lady was and went over to her to talk and explain what I was doing and apologized if I had offended her. She’d have none of it and began to curse at me too. So I went back to my seat and ignored her the rest of the trip. She looked vaguely familiar but I didn’t know who she was.
That weekend I went to see the movie, ‘Harry Potter’ and lo and behold, there was my friend from the flight! I saw her on the screen, ‘Professor Minerva McGonagall’ – Maggie Smith! I said to my wife, ‘That’s her!’
She said, ‘Who?’ and I explained the whole thing to her. We had quite a laugh. So I guess even the rich and famous have off days. Dear old Maggie. I felt a little sorry for her, but at least she was flying first class with unlimited beverages.”
What A Great Dad!
“On a flight back from Utah to LA a few months ago, there was a young family on the plane a few seats behind me. It was a small regional jet, so only about 40 seats. The Sundance Film Festival was just wrapping up, so most of the flight was full of industry people. We were all exhausted and everyone was pretty quiet except for the little baby. He was clearly unhappy with the cabin pressure, which was almost certainly painful to the ears of any little one. The baby cried for half the flight, and finally his father in desperation picked him up and started pacing back and forth down the aisles. He was whispering ‘Shhhh’ and holding the baby close. I was impressed that the father was taking the initiative to calm the baby and let his wife get some rest.
When we landed, I was waiting for my bag on the tarmac and the family walked out behind me. As they walked past, I smiled and he immediately apologized for the baby crying during the flight. I said it was a what babies do and wished them well. I heard him apologize to everyone he passed on our flight. I didn’t even recognize who it was until a guy at baggage reminded me who he was.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt. What a great Dad!”
Frightfully Fun Encounter
“Sometimes you get lucky and meet a celebrity who is really nice, and others who are far from it! My favorite was seeing Stephen King on a flight to Boston. It was the first time I flew first class, and I thought he looked familiar. I was only 24 at the time, and happened to be re-reading ‘It’ on the flight. This was 1988, so it was actually the hard cover and not a tablet. The flight was from Tampa, so it wasn’t really a long trip. Just as I was working up the nerve to ask him about signing my book, he leaned back from across the aisle to see if I would like him to sign the book.
Wow! Of course, I said yes, and since the seats were pretty empty, he invited me to sit across from them. He was with his wife Tabitha. They were both so nice and down to earth, and they had some funny stories to tell. Now I have one of my favorite books signed by one of my favorite authors.”
Three-Pointer In The Sky
“Way back when, I flew the red-eye from Vegas to Boston with Magic Johnson. I was coming back from LA and during the layover in Las Vegas, I noticed two very large men standing with their backs to the gate desk, with one only-slightly-smaller man hunkered-down talking to the gate agent. About the time it registered in my mind that it was Magic, there was a murmur of his name and an absolute SURGE of people toward him. The first two guys were his bodyguards/companions and they earned their money in the few minutes it took the agents to deal with him and hustle him off to wherever it is they keep their VIPs.
Before they pre-boarded the flight, a scrum of Delta people and Magic’s friends appeared and boarded the plane, then reappeared. I never actually saw him board. Then they began pre-boarding, first class, Delta preferred, with an announcement that we would be boarding from the center door and NO ONE WOULD BE ALLOWED IN FIRST CLASS WITHOUT THE PROPER PASS.
As we were queued, a good number of people were stopped and sent to the end of the line. A snooty woman right behind me asked, ‘First or preferred?’ assuming I was neither. I got to answer, ‘Both.’
As luck would have it, my seat was right next to him. As I got seated, I told him I wouldn’t bother him, and he asked me my name and shook my hand. This was before cell phone cameras, but I probably wouldn’t have asked him for a selfie anyway. We briefly chatted about why we were in Vegas (he spoke at a conference for minority franchise owners) and what we were doing in Boston (me: home, him: analyst for a Lakers/Celtics game). Shortly after I arrived, he asked one of the flight attendants to collect any autograph requests, and tell people he’d take care of them.
The flight was uneventful. He listened to his Walkman CD player and slept. I read and slept. In the morning, I awoke to watch him signing some 250 boarding passes and slips of paper. When we deplaned, we finally stood together and I realized how tall 6’9″ really is (I’m 5’10”). On the way out of security, my wife and I met eyes, then her head tilted up. Magic clapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Great flying with you, Tim!’
I was really impressed. Not only that he remembered my name after such a short interaction so many hours before, but that he spent a significant portion of his morning signing all those autographs.”
“Herschel Walker and I were on an American Airlines flight from Dulles to DFW. This was after he was retired from the game. Before the details, I just want to say I was never a big American Football fan. I grew up in Latin America so soccer was, and continues to be, a religion. Ask me about a soccer player and I probably have heard of him or her. Ask me about an American football player and, more often than not, I would probably not have heard of him. Growing up, I was aware of some of the teams, watched a few games, but was never one that would look forward to Sunday and spend most of the day watching the games. I was not very familiar with the players.
I was in first class because I used to fly a lot for a couple of jobs and I was upgraded. I was in the first row, aisle seat, and started reading a book I wanted to finish. Soon thereafter, this big dude comes by and sits right next to me on the window seat. He was super fit, so I figured maybe he was a personal trainer or something like that. It never occurred to me he was a famous athlete.
We started talking. He asked me what I did and what I was doing in town. I told him how I was working for a startup in Silicon Valley and visiting customers, and I asked him the same thing. He says, very nonchalantly, something along the lines of, ‘I was here to lobby people up on the hill about an initiative we are promoting.’
I was then sure: a lobbyist of some kind!! He then said, ‘By the way, my name is Herschel.’
I introduced myself and then asked him what he did before he was lobbying politicians and he said ‘I played some football.’
I still didn’t get it and asked him if he did that full time, he smiled and said, ‘Yes, I was a pro for a while.’
I then said something stupid like, ‘Good for you.’ We continued to chat a bit more about his initiative (don’t remember what it did), and he then asked me if I could switch seats with his wife, who was a couple of rows behind us. I said sure, no problem. He thanked me, we arrived at DFW and said goodbye to each other. I continued on to SFO and that was that. Very nice guy, very down to earth, no arrogance whatsoever.
It was not until I got to SFO and I was telling my girlfriend about the trip and ‘my buddy Herschel the lobbyist’ that she mentioned she thought he was some sort of famous person. She’s also not big into football, so she knew the same or even less than me about American football. She called her brother (who is really into football) and asked him about ‘Herschel, the lobbyist’, and he told us the story of this super popular running back. That’s when we realized he was a celebrity.”
Holiest Of Seat Neighbors
“Spring, 2008. Morning flight from Tegel Airport in Berlin to Heathrow on British Air. Tegel then had a separate security check at each gate instead of one big one. Waiting in line for security to open up, not too many people. Road is visible from the line through the glass walls behind us. Polizei cars pull up and maybe twelve officers get out and enter the terminal, focused but not hurrying. They split up, do a quick circuit of the immediate area, meet up again, and then come over to our gate. They politely ask us to step aside. We politely comply. Gentlemen in dark suits appear from around the corner along with men in saffron robes. They look at us, the gate, the room inside, and then us again. And then step aside.
Yup. His Holiness the Dalai Lama strolls up, smiling to everyone. We’re all pretty surprised.
He and his entourage go straight through, with no inspection. The rest of us are left standing around looking at each other, unaware of proper protocol in this situation. Eventually, the citizens are let through security and on to the plane. I’m in one of the back rows of first class, window seat on the right side. Suits come in, look around, and take seats near the front. Saffron robes come in, escorting his holiness. He looks pretty happy, almost like he’s surprised to get a window seat in first class. There is an empty row ahead of me, and then some of the guys in suits, and then him, also right side window seat. The flight is uneventful, although it’s hard to avoid staring. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so safe in the air. He looked out the window a lot.
In Heathrow, we all wait while he’s ushered out. One of the suits looks kind of irritated when I clandestinely try to take a picture. It turned out blurry anyway. Seems disrespectful in retrospect. Dalai Lama bows to the flight stewards, the pilots, the girl who drove the jetway to the plane, and then smiles back at us.
I didn’t get to interact in any way other than watching, but he seemed kind, truly serene, and gracious/respectful to everyone.”
Hit Me Baby One More Time
“This isn’t my story, but my sister’s encounter with Britney Spears. Many years ago, my sister was flying First Class Business from Vancouver, Canada to Las Vegas. Ms. Spears had performed the night before in Vancouver and was on her way to Vegas for the Grammy Awards. This was at the peak of Britney’s fame. My sister ended up seated next to Britney and Britney’s best friend. My sister is a discreet and professional woman, but did acknowledge to Ms. Spears that she recognized her. My sister chatted briefly about normal mundane stuff and asked her for an autograph (which she got) for our niece.
My sister told me how Britney could likely travel by private jet, but didn’t. She could have bought up the seat next to her for privacy, but also didn’t. Britney was travelling with a young lady the same age, that was clearly a childhood best friend by the conversation. Britney and her gal pal had completely normal, fun, light conversation, to be expected between any happy young friends travelling together. Completely down to earth and positive. Britney was social and kind and humble, and in my sister’s words, ‘adorable.’ My sister found her to be the opposite of a diva. In fact, she found her to be a positive character straight out of a Disney movie. Sweet and nice and seemingly innocent.
A positive impression of a super star at her peak fame and wealth, on her way to a televised awards show where she was the star performer and likely major recipient!”
How Is This Passenger So Lucky?
“The rule of thumb has always been to be polite and give celebrities space, just as you would anyone else. From what I have observed, your typical borderline famous rock star/rapper/actor is usually just trying to keep a grip on things, not always successfully.
I was in a business class section with the band One Direction about 20 months before they broke out of boy band fame to Really Big Legitimate Fame. I had no idea who they were, but clearly these kids with the crazy hair were some sort of band. I asked the flight attendant and she said, ‘The American Idol guy discovered them. They’re supposed to be the next Beatles!’ or something like that. I chortled into my glass, thinking they were just another silly boy band soon to be forgotten. Guess I was wrong. The funny thing is the guy across the aisle from me (Zayne, I found out later) was in fact watching the Beatles movie ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ on a giant MacBook during the flight. We ended up talking for about 20 minutes, and he seemed reasonably well grounded and polite. In fact, they all were.
Danny Glover was next to me in business class when my daughter was a toddler. At one point she crawled over on my lap during the flight, and accidentally woke Danny up from his slumber. Danny was plenty upset, glaring at me and my daughter after I apologized and went back to sleep. We did not exchange a word on the flight, he spent time reading books and magazines. This, plus all the political buttons/slogans on his clothes gave the clear message to leave him alone.
Monica Bellucci, the well-known Italian model and actress, sat across from me in first class on a flight to London. I did not know who she was, but the flight crew certainly did, as one of the stewards told me I was very lucky to be sitting next to Monica Beautiful. Even dressed in casual clothes, she was clearly some sort of very high end model. We exchanged pleasantries and small talk at different points during the long flight, and she was very polite and friendly. I am sure a pleasant demeanor helps in dealing with the unwashed masses such as myself. When we landed after the overnight flight, I looked scruffy and washed out while Monica looked like she walked out of a photo shoot.”
“I fly a lot for business, so I am often upgraded to business or first class and I encounter celebs from time to time. One time I was seated in first class when Robin Williams boarded the plane with a male friend, and they sat across the aisle from me. It was right after the cartoon movie Aladdin came out. I had seen the movie and thought Robin was hilarious in it, but I didn’t want to bother him and be a fawning, obnoxious fan. Besides, he spent most of the flight talking to his companion and reading what looked like a screenplay. So I didn’t say anything at first. It was interesting to see him so relaxed and quiet because his public persona was so manic.
But at the end of the flight, I found the courage to say something to him. Everyone was standing in the aisles waiting for the flight attendants to open the door. So I said to Robin, ‘Can I ask you a question?’ He said yes, and so I said, ‘What was Aladdin really like?’
I thought it would be funny to ask him what it was like to work with an actor who was in fact a cartoon character. But Robin didn’t understand the question and said, ‘You mean the story?’
I think he thought I was asking him what the story of Aladdin was about. I tried to clarify my question, so I said, ‘No, the character,’ which didn’t really clarify anything. Then the plane door opened and everyone started exiting. Robin looked at me and smiled in the way you might smile at someone you think is a doofus, which is exactly what I felt like. I had tried to be funny with a comic genius and failed miserably. It was a lame joke to begin with and then I couldn’t even say it right.”
“The Most Awkward Hug Of My Life”
“I think the only celebrity of any importance I ever traveled next to was John Kerry, while he was on official travel, a couple years before he became Secretary of State. It was my job to make sure John Kerry got to all of his appointments on time and had his needs attended to. It wasn’t easy. At all.
Senator (now Secretary) Kerry seemed to like to be completely silent for 20 minutes at a time and then look at me pointedly and say, ‘Annika, tell me what the inter-tribal faultlines are in the Abyei region?’ I’d stammer something about that not being my area of expertise and he’d fall silent for another 30 minutes or so before lobbing another impossible-to-answer question at me. ‘What size hat does Salva Kiir wear?’ Yes, he literally asked me that. Then, a little while later, ‘How much does this plane weigh?’
This was back in the dark ages before Quora, mind you, so I had to live by my wits–or lack thereof. Sometimes he’d ask me to look something up on a Blackberry, but mostly just silence. He read a lot. He kept a large stack of papers on his lap. Big manilla folders stuffed to bursting. And silence. And questions.
By the end of the trip I was sweating profusely and mentally exhausted. He kept strange hours and seemed to not require food or sleep like normal people. He spoke very rarely (I’m not sure he’s always like that, but that’s how he was around me) and when he did speak, it was the kind of stuff that was really difficult to respond to.
There was only one time when I felt like I could relate to him during this trip. He asked me about whether or not I thought he should take malaria prophylaxis. Another impossible question (I’m not a tropical disease nurse). Then he asked me if I took malaria pills. I said no, but I probably should. He kind of smirked and said, ‘I never took the quinine in the Mekong Delta, either, and I made it out OK.’ And then we both had an awkward laugh.
At the end of the trip, he said he was extremely pleased with my work and when I reached to shake his hand, he surprised me by wrapping both his arms around me in what was probably the most awkward hug of my life (I don’t think either one of us are really huggers), and someone took a picture of it, which I promptly deleted from my email because the whole John Kerry experience was not something I was eager to relive.
I got to see a lot of his more statesmanly skills at work when he was off talking to high-ranking government officials. He was good at his work, a smooth talker, very logical and strategic in his presentation. And more than charming enough to get the job done.
But, one-on-one, it was a different story.”
Totally Lost Him
“As I boarded my flight back to Ft Lauderdale from Seattle, I passed a guy sitting in first-class that looked familiar. As I climbed into my window seat a few rows back and across the isle, I noticed I had clear view of him. It took only a couple more minutes before it dawned on me, ‘Whoa, it’s John Locke from Lost!’
Yes, actor Terry O’Quinn, who played the iconic character of the one of American TV’s most popular shows, was sitting just a few rows away. I won’t lie, seeing John Locke on my plane did give a moment concern as to fate of my flight. I quickly double check my ticket to make sure I wasn’t on Oceanic Flight 815. I was surprised to see only one other passenger give him a second glance of recognition. But, given how self-involved we often get in these situations, I guess I shouldn’t have been. Being trapped by the window back in coach, I didn’t have a chance onboard to say hello. So I thought I’d try catch him as we got off the plane.
We’ve all experienced what feels like an eternity disembarking as those in front of us seem to take their sweet time pulling themselves together and moving on. In this case, it felt twice as long as eternity. When I finally got off the plane, Terry was nowhere to be seen. The only good news was this particular terminal is that was a single straight line from one end to the other. I thought for sure if I looked in all seating areas, into every store, and restaurant I could find him. But after reaching the other end of the terminal (about mile long walk) I had not, but the story isn’t over yet.
This was a red-eye flight, so I decided to grab some breakfast before boarding my connection. I was almost done eating when I looked up from plate and saw Terry walking by. I waved for the waiter to get my check, I shoveled the last of my bacon and eggs into mouth, paid, and ran out. It wasn’t more than three minutes. But just like an episode of Lost, he disappeared. It was only a couple hundred feet from where I was to the end of the terminal. I looked again in every seating area and store but he was nowhere.
Just as I was about to give up, I turned around and there he was walking in my direction. I walked over introduced myself and had a short pleasant exchange with him. I found out this was already the second of three connections he was making on his way home from Hawaii after filming scenes for the TV series Hawaii 5-O. He was gracious and friendly, even after being accosted at 7 a.m. by a complete stranger, and took a moment for the selfie. I had been a fan of his work years, now I’m a fan of the man himself.”
There Was No Stopping Him
“While in my 20s and 30s I traveled a lot, working for a major Military Contractor. This was back in the 80s when flying was still cool, the planes still had leg room, upgrading to First Class was easy, and you could arrive a half an hour before your flight and still make it. Heck, they still allowed SMOKING! I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world as my Frequent Flyer Air Mileage began to rack up. It was in the spring of 1987 when my luck ran out.
I was flying from San Francisco to Washington D.C. and had just arrived in Atlanta. It was about an hour before my connecting flight into DC, so I stopped by the ticket counter to see if there was any room in First Class. The smiling ticket agent informed my there was, but it was a window seat. ‘Sure, sounds good to me,’ I said.
So with a newly issued ticket in hand I happily headed to my next flight. One thing about First Class that you learn early on is that Coach Rules do not apply. It was not 5 minutes after being seated that I was taking the first sip of my drink and was watching the luggage being loaded from my window. As the warmth of the beverage filled my throat, I was interrupted by a voice to my right. ‘Excuse me son, looks as if we will be flying together!’
I turned to see a pale faced man with graying hair, rosy cheeks and a toothy grin offering me his pasty white hand. Polite instinct took over as my hand reached out to his. ‘My name is Pat Robertson, pleased to meet you,’ he said.
Honestly I cannot remember what I said as the infamous televangelist took his seat next to me. I tend to be a pretty friendly guy. But this guy was one of the HUCKSTERS that led the innocent down the road to nowhere. On top of that, this plane ride happened when he was running for President. During the flight Robertson for some reason kept trying to chat me up. Asking what I did, where I was from, was I in the military, was I a Republican, and where I went to school. He wouldn’t shut up. He went on and on about his old college fraternity when we got word that we would be landing soon. I could escape this horror ride!
I stared out the window and felt Robertson on my side. I turned to him, leaning into his shoulder and putting my mouth close to his ear…
‘Pat?’ I whispered, mouthing his name.
I told him, ‘Your fraternity was garbage!’
I had a chance to make a statement, critique him on a variety of issues. Not about being a fake war hero. Not about stealing from people who could not afford to give. Not about his problematic views towards race. I just told him how pretentious his fraternity was. I turned back in my seat, looked straight ahead, and closed my eyes. I wasted my chance, but nothing I could say would matter. Pat Robertson wasn’t living on the same planet that we were.
Robertson perked up but was unfazed, he just kept talking. Honest truth. I can’t make this stuff up. 30 minutes later, I staggered off that plane. Right behind me, step for step, was Robertson. Was I in Purgatory? Was this the Twilight Zone? My savior came via a film team at the exit signalling for Robertson’s attention. Believe it or not, he patted me on the back and said, ‘Take Care Son.’
Four Weddings And An Awkward Spill
“Not quite sitting next to a celebrity, but while working for an airline, I was at the back of a BAC 1-11. We were boarding. I noticed a man in dark glasses and a baseball cap fighting his way towards the rear (where the toilets are). He appeared to have some sort of back deformity, as he was hunched over and seemingly limping. The man disappeared into the toilet and emerged a few minutes later, returning to the front, still walking like he had some serious condition, but now more hurriedly, as most of the other passengers had taken their seats. Once the aircraft was in flight and the crew had been released from our seats, the flight attendant came flying down to the back to report she had spilled a load of milk into Hugh Grant’s lap.
This was around the time of ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ when just about every female in the UK was mad about him. She was so embarrassed and star struck, we had to do the entire service making sure she didn’t have to face him again. I think before she realized it was him, she may have made an automatic response to wipe the spill and touched an area she shouldn’t have, but that could have been exaggerated.
The man walking bizarrely up and down the cabin had been Mr. Grant obviously, not wanting to be recognized. If he had walked normally then he would have looked like he had wet himself.”
In the early 90s, I was flying from Dallas to Atlanta. When I boarded the plane, the stewardess told me that Mickey Mantle was going to be on the flight and sitting in first class with me. I was never a big baseball fan, but knew who he was of course.
He entered the cabin after everyone else boarded the plane. He was smaller than I would have expected. He had a large belly with stick legs and skinny bruised arms, that made him appear very awkward and sickly. When he saw me sitting in the seat next to his, he scoffed with obvious disappointment and looked at the passenger behind me as if to say, ‘You see this?’
I offered to switch seats if they wanted to sit with each other and he said, ‘No, its fine.’
During the flight, I purposely avoided talking to him, out of fear that he would get irritated. He eventually began to speak to me, making small talk. The thing that stands out about the conversation was his incredible voice. He had a very deep, smooth voice that sounded like a newscaster. I assume he had taken voice lessons along the way for broadcasting, if he ever was one? He asked me about general conversation topics, my major in college, favorite sports teams, etc. He asked me where I was going and I told him my hometown of Thomson, GA. He said he had a place close by in Greensboro, GA.
Near the end of the flight, he asked me if I knew who he was, and I acknowledged that I did indeed and was flattered to have met him. He thanked me for not being a ‘fan’ and asking a lot of questions. I would not have known what to ask. I at one point almost asked him about Marilyn Monroe, thinking incorrectly that he had been married to her. He offered me an autograph, which I graciously accepted. I only had my boarding pass and offered it to him. Instead of taking it he handed me a pen and ledger and said, ‘Write your name and address. I’ll send you something special.’
Ten days later, a package arrived from a sports memorabilia company that contained an autographed baseball.”
They Better Enjoy That Offer!
“A few years ago, I went to a conference in which the keynote speaker was Congressman John Lewis. Aside from being a sitting U.S. Congressman, he also played a tremendous role in the civil rights movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was a conference for social studies educators, so clearly he was a huge draw, and one of the best public speakers I’ve ever heard in person.
At the end of his keynote, he was selling and signing copies of his book, and I was amongst the last in a long line of people. I got the book, his signature, and then waited around a few more minutes for the event to end so as I might take a photograph with him. He graciously obliged, and then headed outside where his car was waiting. My colleague and I too headed back to our hotel, picked up our bags, and headed for the airport. Once through security, we sat down at our gate and who should we see sitting at the next gate but Congressman Lewis.
He was seemingly by himself, without any of his handlers from just a bit earlier, and we were concerned that we’d be disturbing a somewhat older gentleman. After all, he’d just spent the past few hours giving a speech in front of an audience of hundreds, and then shaking hands and speaking to many of those in attendance. But we weren’t too concerned to let that stop us. We only spent a few minutes talking to him, but he was again gracious with his time, gave me a business card, and told us to call his office for a private tour the next time we made it to the Capitol.”
He Shall Not Pass!
“I’m a New Yorker and I have a rule about subway seats. When one guy takes up three seats because he can’t keep his legs together, it’s your duty to push back. If he’s obese, that’s one thing – he probably feels like a misfit, and it’s not as though he can drop 100 pounds on the spot. But when he’s small, skinny or just normal, that’s different. One man, one seat. That’s the rule. And I’m the enforcer.
A few years ago, I put this belief to the test when sitting next to an elderly man at the opening of a play. The theater was filling up, and his left leg was splayed all over the last seat in the row. I asked if the seat was taken, sat down, pushed my leg up against his and kept it there in a quietly insistent way. There was a silent struggle for a minute or two until he withdrew to his own territory. He intruded a couple of times during the first act, but I stood my ground. After the intermission, my wife and I moved to better seats when the folks in front of us left. After the play I mentioned this epic struggle to my wife. And she said, ‘Did you notice that you were sitting next to Ian McKellen?’
I looked up and there he was, coming out of the theater. Gandalf. Magneto. Number Two in ‘The Prisoner’ remake? I felt a chill. Even without his staff, he could have summoned lightning with a single thought. Thank goodness it wasn’t Saruman or Professor Xavier who was trying to take up two seats. I wouldn’t be here to write this.”
A Long And Famous History
With my long career in the airline industry, I’ve had both the honor and the horror of being assigned a seat next to a vast range of celebrities over the years. Some of my experiences have actually been quite enriching, but there are others where those ‘celebrity’ passengers had the grace and comportment of an irritated sphincter.
Firstly, I must share that this has not always been by sheer fortune or luck, but actually a tactical move on our airline’s part to strategically place protective barriers to help provide the celebrity a greater degree of comfort and privacy. Sometimes it has been helpful. However, there have been occasions when it has been utterly deplorable. Just think of having to sit next to a well-known and respected passenger, such as Grace Jones, whose onboard tantrums are legendary. Among those whom I can truly say with hand on heart I considered an honor to sit next to were the likes of Julie Andrews, Jodie Foster, Cloris Leachman, and Mel Brooks.
I was deeply touched after an exceptionally long flight sitting next to Jodie Foster. She told me to tell my wife that I was actually a rather nice chap. I laughed and told her I was certain she would never believe such a thing. And Ms. Foster so very kindly scribbled out a few words on a napkin to my wife and children, warning them to ‘be nice to me because I loved them dearly,’ and signed it. I proudly brought it home with me to share. But my wife responded, ‘Clearly you must have gotten the poor woman wasted!’
I learned several years later that Ms Foster’s autograph is considered rather rare and valuable among autograph collectors. A group of star-struck people who were gathered around the Jetway door were telling me about autograph collecting. While it was nice to have autographs from such lovely people as Michael J. Fox, he was the sort who would happily and politely always sign autographs. But they never could they get autographs from people like Ms. Foster. I’ve never once asked a person for their autograph. It means nothing to me.
I was placed in an extremely uncomfortable position on a short-haul flight from Dublin to Heathrow years ago, in the midst of the battles that broke out between Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley. Even as the two stars were escorted to the gate by airline staff, they were bickering. But almost immediately after the aircraft backed off the stand, Ms. Hurley’s voice could be heard throughout the cabin, and most likely down into the back of the aircraft, as she launched into a diatribe over some rather personal matters. I was directly across from them.
Upon hearing this explosive set of expletives, Mr. Grant flew out of his seat and popped into the Galley. He just stood there, looking like a trapped animal with nowhere to go. I didn’t get to hear the beginning of his conversation with the crew, but I could hear him say he, ‘Was not going to sit beside her for the rest of the flight!’
Hearing this, I got up and entered the galley, introducing myself as ‘crew.’ I asked whether it would help if I were to surrender my seat and I’d sit next to Ms. Hurley, and Mr. Grant could have my seat.
I was thinking to myself how petty all of this was, as the flight was so short and couldn’t they just fight it out once they arrived at Heathrow? Mr. Grant looked at me for a brief second and said ‘Fine.’
I turned around and now sat myself next to Ms. Hurley. She only briefly glared at me, then turned her head to the window. I don’t recall her even actually facing fully forward as we landed. However, the moment we were on the stand and the door opened, Ms. Hurley jumped out of her seat and stepped over me so fast I honestly didn’t have the second to get up to politely let her pass. She wanted out and she wanted to be far ahead of Mr. Grant.
Mr. Grant also noticed this. All he said to me as he stood, standing next to me as he was remembering that his personal bag was over his old seat and not where he had finished the flight. He was kind enough to look at me and with one word uttered a monosyllabic ‘Thanks.’
One of the outright oddest experiences I had on a ‘celebrity’ flight was on a flight from MIA to LAX. I wasn’t immediately next to him, but on the aisle seat directly across from him. The passenger was Jermaine Jackson. He was exceptionally quiet and was always smiling at the crew who’d come by to offer him drinks. He never ate, and throughout the flight he held a rather lovely leather Gucci attaché case in his lap. Now and then, he would slowly open the attaché. I couldn’t help but look over at the man. Inside the case all I could see were crumbled up tissues. Mr. Jackson would take one of the tissues, dab his nose, then place the tissue back in the case and close it.
It was both an unreal and hilarious sight to see. The aircraft still used the old tubular earphones, and Mr. Jackson had worn them throughout the flight. And I noticed that there were times when he would move his head in sync to whatever it was he was hearing.
But about three or four hours into the flight, after I had gotten up to go to the lavatory, I looked in Mr. Jackson’s direction and noticed that his headset wasn’t even plugged into the armrest! Yet his head continued to move slightly; he was clearly in the groove. He looked up at me and politely smiled. I said to him, ‘Are you enjoying the music?’
He just smiled at me as he moved his head up and down.
‘Perhaps you would like it better if I were to plug these in for you?’ I asked. And as I spoke, I reached down and grabbed the base of the headset and plugged it into the armrest. He never missed a beat. Mr Jackson just continued to smile and move his head to ‘the music’.
The crew thought he was lovely and so did I. Who of us in the world don’t hear our own music? So I cast no aspersion upon whatever it was that made Mr Jackson so mellow. And as all veteran fliers know, excessive air travel can really do a number on your sinuses.
As I wrap this up I fondly remember sitting next to Florence Henderson. She was so lovely and a wonderful conversationalist. And whilst I didn’t get to set next to her, I did get to stand and sing with Shirley Jones. And I had a rather ‘interesting journey seated next to Bob Hawke, the former Prime Minister of Australia in the 80s. He actually asked me what I thought of sitting next to him. And whilst I meant absolutely nothing rude whatsoever, I told him I thought it would have been much more interesting if I sat next to someone I was more familiar with. Thankfully, he did chuckle.
May all your journeys be ones of discovery!