They were shooting a film in a Toronto park in the 1960s and a clump of people were standing around to watch. That's when I spotted him, the guy I knew but didn't know. Who was he? An old acquaintance? Probably, but I couldn't recall even the context in which I knew him. He looked like an alderman I'd covered at City Hall long ago, but that seemed unlikely. Was he a labour leader I once wrote about?
He saw me looking at him. He smiled a small smile, and I smiled back. Unknowingly, I was shuffling both of us into a stereotyped little dance of identity. He knew what was happening, because it had happened before, but I had no idea what was going on. In this dance one partner always understands the steps. The other doesn't even know a dance has started.
His identity was public, but it took me forever to work it out. Eventually I understood that I had seen him only onscreen. He was a near-star, a quasi-celebrity, someone who occupied a fairly low (but not by any means the lowest) place on the food chain of fame. He was one of those thousands of people who nibble at the edges of celebrity, doomed to spend much of their lives returning the puzzled stares of strangers in airports.
During Oscar week, as celebrity journalism explodes all around us, I often think of him. Simon Oakland (1915-1983) and I spent a lot of time together, though he never knew it. I watched him play Ed Montgomery, the newspaperman who tries to save Susan Hayward from the gas chamber in I Want to Live! In Hitchcock's original Psycho he was Dr. Fred Richmond, the smug and long-winded psychiatrist who closes the movie by explaining the motivations of Norman Bates in shrink-talk. He played a tough cop in West Side Story and another tough cop in Bullitt. And he often came into my house playing one of his scores of TV parts, notably as a DA on The Defenders, a terrific courtroom series of the 1960s that starred E.G. Marshall. Oakland was a good actor, memorable but not memorable enough.
In fact, he was one of the Slightly Known, a term invented by screenwriter Josh Greenfeld. "No one pities the Slightly Known," Greenfeld wrote a few years ago. "Those who are truly famous, like anchorpersons or cabinet ministers whose incompetence has reached the level of scandal, regard the Slightly Known with disdain." As for celebrities, they like to stick with their own kind, the Truly Known, the Famous. Nobody enjoys celebrities more than other celebrities, Greenfeld has observed. It authenticates them to themselves. As H.L. Mencken said, a celebrity is someone who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn't know.
For the rest of us, the sudden appearance of a celebrity among unknowns can have a fascinating and unsettling effect. One time, eating brunch at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto, I looked up to see Michael Jordan taking a seat one table away. The Chicago Bulls were staying in the hotel, playing the Toronto Raptors that Sunday afternoon. The team bus was parked outside. Jordan, who wore a sensationally good suit (and of course just a T-shirt under it) was in the restaurant for an hour or so, and the effect on the other diners was striking.
They began shifting slowly toward his (that is, our) side of the room. It was as if we were all on a ship that was listing badly, pushing all passengers to the starboard side. Three or four people, having located themselves near him, got up and went to the washroom so they could thoroughly investigate his tablemates on the way there and back. Others just lurked. Eventually I realized there was no one in the room who did not know we were all sharing a space with the greatest basketball player in the world. Everyone was impressed. It was a startling illustration of a celebrity changing the very nature of a public environment.
Speaking for myself, it is not altogether painful to live as one of the Slightly Known. It has its pleasures, in fact. Once, when I was identified by a Vietnamese woman who owned a convenience store with her husband, it was a happy event for both of us.
When I entered the store she turned to her husband and spoke in Vietnamese. He said a few words in reply while shaking his head, in the manner of someone dismissing a piece of nonsense. So she decided to check with me. "You ... on TV?" I said yes. I was the co-host of an interview program at the time. She turned to her husband with an I-told-you-so grin. When I went to the same store a week later she smiled when she saw me. As she took my money she spoke an English sentence she had clearly prepared for me: "You better-looking than on TV."
Still, on one occasion the temporary inflation of my Slightly Known status led me into total pseudery. Howard Engel, the Fairly Famous mystery writer, called to ask me to take part in a Celebrity Scrabble tournament. People would pay $35 each to play with me. As it happens, my Scrabble skills do not begin to approach competence. Still, it was a good cause and Howard was persuasive. I went through with it.
My fellow players tolerated my gross stupidity at the Scrabble board. This was because, apparently, celebrities are forgiven anything, even if they are only bogus celebrities. But before the start of play, and before the public came in, there was a little stand-around where all the celebrities got together over drinks.
They were all there. The assistant captain of the Maple Leafs, I think, and the fourth-best dancer in the National Ballet, and the star disc jockey on a seldom heard radio station, not to mention the author of a gossip column in a neighbourhood giveaway newspaper. And here was the remarkable thing: Most of us, celebrities though we were, didn't recognize each other. Nor did we recognize each other's names when we were introduced. That night I set to work on a definitive study of our culture, to be titled Canada: Land of the Unknown Celebrity.