Portraying the orphan boy Pud in the Cleveland Play House's 1941 production of On Borrowed Time solidified 9-year-old Joel David Katz's calling to the stage. "I was an actor from that day on," says the man now known as Joel Grey (pictured in Cleveland Play House's Grandmother Slyboots). "I started with Curtain Pullers children's theater troupe at the Play House, some of which were my finest work." Yet Grey's portrayal of the flamboyant and sinister Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret is what earned him Academy, Tony and Golden Globe awards. The Cleveland native, who acted in the original off-Broadway production of The Normal Heart and later co-directed the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival, returns Oct. 24 and 25 to help the Cleveland Play House celebrate its centennial with Joel Grey: Up Close and Personal, a retrospective of his 50-plus-year career.
We talk with Joel Grey about his roots, his most famous role and his dancing daughter.
ON THE CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE † "I found myself in great awe of the work of making a play, learning your lines and connecting with the other actors. There was a kind of form and structure that really got my motor going."
ON HIS SHOW UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL † "I talk about my passion for the theater, which began at the Play House. It catches up on my career. There are film clips, and I'll take questions from the audience. In the past couple of years I've been busier than ever. Why? Ask God."
ON CABARET † "We shot in Munich — we were really making a foreign film for the American audiences. Nobody expected it to be as successful as it was. It was a very dark story. A musical about Nazis? What? It was very challenging to find the right darkness and lightness of my character. Audiences were amused by him and sort of trusted him until they realized he was like Hitler."
ON THE NORMAL HEART † "This was at a time , when people were dying left and right from AIDS. I went into this play, and it changed my life in that I was telling a story that needed to be told. It was like being in an intensive care unit every night."
ON HIS DAUGHTER, DIRTY DANCING STAR, JENNIFER GREY † "I wanted her to go to college, but she clearly wanted the theater as much as I did. It was horrendous watching her on Dancing with the Stars. I was watching my child, my baby, dancing with [a ruptured disc]. I was so proud of her staying the course."