Joel Grey: Master of Ceremony and Celebration

By Patricia Danflous

“Hello there.” Joel Grey greets me from his New York home with the energy you would expect from the award-winning master entertainer. Yes, this is the talented Tony, Oscar and Golden Globe winning performer who mesmerized audiences on stage and film in Cabaret and George M.  

Who smiled to standing ovations in Wicked, Goodtime Charlie and Chicago, and charmed young audiences on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Grey’s Anatomy.  This is the mature adult who brought thousands to tears – and awareness of AIDs – as Ned in The Normal Heart and later as its director.

The youthful voice that responds,  “I’m doing great,” belies his 83 years of living.  In the midst of promoting his autobiography, Master of Ceremonies: A Memoir, he is completing a fourth book of original photographs.

Answering questions that he has surely been asked hundreds of times, even more so since the release of his to-the-bone memoir, Grey is refreshing, polite, sincerely pretending that no one has ever asked, “what is your favorite role?”  (The answer is the emcee in Cabaret and Ned, the central character in The Normal Heart.)

He sounds as if he has all the time in the world and not a care to go with it.

“I’m a happy guy and I laugh a lot,” he says.

He wasn’t always happy.  It is no easy road to Broadway stardom or taking home a Oscar, but those accomplishments are mild when you have lived a life of turbulence.   Growing up with a demanding, mean mother and balancing a “normal” life with a gay heart and soul, it took Grey time and maturity to embrace his sexuality.

“Life is always a challenge. It is the way you accept those challenges and take them in, make them part of you.”

Grey’s autobiography details his struggles along the way, the young crushes, early heartaches and attraction to girls, all while battling a confusing attraction to men.

Married for 24 years and the father of two, Grey carefully kept his orientation secret as he grappled with his personal and theatrical life.

He grew up when parents of gay children looked the other way. Grey understands the pain that some parents might experience. “I think it is all about love. About how much you love yourself and more importantly, how much you love your children and how much you want the best for them. Sometimes, those feelings can be mixed.”  He talks freely about his resolution to say, “I am a gay man.”

“Today I have a sense of peace with myself, absolutely,” he says, adding that there was no exact moment when he realized life was good. “I think it was a gradual realization. It really is the way life works. If it is gradually good, then you end up good. But if it’s gradually bad, you know. You know that you are not having fun. The more people are free to accept themselves as they really are, no matter what age, no matter how long it takes, that is freedom.”

“Life is always a challenge,” he emphasizes. “Sometimes the challenges are big, sometimes they are less serious, but everyday there is something. It is the way you accept those challenges and take them in, make them part of you.  In that way you can be of value to others being a parent, a husband or a director. You may eventually come to be who you are.”

You won’t find Joel Grey dancing on a regular basis these days, but just ask him to perform and he won’t hesitate.  Always an entertainer, he remains focused on keeping in shape, working out three times a week. “No special diets, I just try to watch what I eat although sometimes I don’t always do that so well,” he laughs.

Naturally, he is still a Broadway fan. “I love to see the new works, off-Broadway sometimes. Hamilton is as good as anything as I have ever seen; so original and inspiring.”

Ready to accept another stage role, Grey is also eager to continue directing, hinting at an upcoming project.

Meanwhile, he is focusing on his photography talent. “I’ve always taken photographs and have been a collector for years,” he comments. “About 12 years ago, someone asked me to participate in a photography book. The art director liked what I did and asked for more. I had piles from just the joy of shooting, never thinking that anyone would take my work seriously. Six to eight weeks after delivering the photos, I had a mock up of my first photo book. Then there was no stopping.”

“I really have devoted a lot of time enjoying life,” he reflects. “That’s relaxation for me, doing what I enjoy.”  And a great way to stay young.