One of the terrific things about being on The Cosby Show was meeting genuine stars. I met a lot of famous people – I mean, truly famous people, not people like me who were trying to become famous. Actually, I met some folks like that as well, but that wasn’t so exciting. What was truly exciting was meeting genuine Olympic stars like Greg Louganis, Jackie Joyner, and Carl Lewis (who was sporting a ponytail). When I met Muhammad Ali, I giggled like a kid. I actually got to meet the GOAT several times. I’m not sure he liked me very much. The first time, as I excitedly told him about staying up late at night, with my transistor radio glued to my ear, listening to updates on his first fight with Joe Frazier, he curled his lips and asked me how old I was. The second time, he told my then girl friend, Lee, that I was gay. It was still great to meet him. I also grinned from ear to ear when I met smokin’ Joe Frazier.
“Hey Champ. How ya doin’?”
“I’m doing fine, brother, just fine.”
There was one night I will never forget. I met dozens of huge stars and somehow managed not to act like a crazed fan.
One afternoon, my agent received a phone call inviting me to participate in a semi-annual television special called the Night of A Hundred Stars. The program was filmed at Radio City Music Hall and featured some of the biggest stars in film, music, and television. I was to be featured in the segment featuring new stars. There wasn’t much to do. At the end of the program, I was to dance onto the stage and then be escorted downstage by a Rockette to be featured on camera. That was it. The rest of the time, I was seated backstage talking and trading stories with Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee (whom I had met previously), and several other great athletes.
At one point Rachel Welch asked me to watch her coat while she went to the ladies’ room. Yes, that Rachel Welch, who by the way was just as fine as ever. Jerry Seinfeld was there, but of course, he wasn’t yet the Jerry Seinfeld. I told Jerry that I thought he was a funny guy; he gave me a weird look and said, “Thank you.” There didn’t seem to be much to say after that, so I moved on. Later in the evening, I accidentally elbowed Betty White in the head. She’s not very tall and the backstage was crowded. We were lined up, preparing to go onstage and I was talking and laughing with Luther Vandross – like I said, this was some terrific evening!
Luther had just dropped a ton of weight and looked great.
“Luther, don’t you get weak on a liquid diet?”
“Yeah. I was in Europe and they brought a stool for me to sit on.”
“Why don’t you just work out a bit and eat some food?”
“I don’t have any room in my house for a gym.”
“Luther, I SAW THE HOUSE! It was all over the pages of Ebony. I saw the house!”
The stage manager asked us to straighten the line. I turned around and my elbow smacked Betty White in the head. I was mortified. I apologized profusely.
“Oh my god! I just hit Betty White in the head.” Estelle Getty, Betty White’s co-star on the sit-com Golden Girls, quipped. “Good! I’ve been wanting to hit her in the head for years.”
Thank God everyone laughed.
I got a big boost to my ego when the security guard allowed me back into the green room without asking for my pass, but stopped Dick Cavett and insisted that he show his pass, which he didn’t have.
However, without a doubt the highlight of the day – really the highlight of my tenure on The Cosby Show – was meeting Patti Labelle.
The afternoon of the evening of the event, there was a rehearsal. Following the walk-through, I ended up in a large freight elevator with a bunch of famous folks. But the only one I really remember was Patti Labelle. As we headed up to the dressing room area, Patti and I began to talk about how hungry we were. Before I knew it, Patti and I were holding hands and discussing where in New York one could find the best hamburger. That was a surreal moment. I loved Patti, and discovering that she was real people was thrilling.
I actually learned a great lesson about grace from Patti Labelle.
A year after this event, I was at Madison Square Garden for a Patti Labelle concert. During the concert, one of her fans came to the edge of the stage and presented Patti with a dress, which I assume he had made. The musicians began to vamp, while Patti went backstage and changed into the dress. I have no idea whether this guy was normally a good designer, but this dress was, well, it was ugly. No matter how generous I try to be, there is no getting around the fact that it was just downright ugly. And because the dress hadn’t been tailored, it was also ill-fitting. Let me tell you, Patti wore that dress as if it were a Bob Mackie original. That was grace! Wearing that dress cost her absolutely nothing, but it meant the world to the young man who designed it for her. Seeing Patti Labelle strut the stage in his dress was a moment that he would never, ever forget; I’ll bet it made his year! I learned from Patti that there are times when we do a small thing for someone – that are actually big things to them – and all it costs us is a little bit of time, or an insignificant amount of effort. The unpretentiousness of Patti backstage, holding my hand, talking about hamburgers, and then seeing her give such a tremendous gift to a fan have forever endeared Patti Labelle to me. She is a terrific lady!
Gladys Knight is also terrific. After the Night of a Hundred Stars taping, there was an after-party at a hotel up the street. It was a thrill to walk the red-carpet with a date and have the cameras flash and reporters ask, “Who is she?” (I took Ivory to the event. She wore a beautiful gold gown, which glowed against her dark skin. She didn’t want me to say her name when the reporters asked.) In the VIP section of the party, I turned around and a woman looked at me and got excited. “Well,Hello,” she said. That woman was Gladys Knight. Gladys Knight recognized me! If that doesn’t boost your ego, nothing will. I have always loved her song, “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” I shared with Gladys that her song always made me cry. She took my hands and the two of us stood laughing and chatting. Yep, it was a terrific evening.