This week, we’re mourning one person who bucked the PR handbook, curious about another who might’ve put a crack in his carefully-shaped image and scratching our heads over a third who may or may not have committed suicide.
Not necessarily who you think.
As an entertainment writer for a daily paper in the 1980s, I went to countless network TV junkets. The ritual was a screening, press conference and nice meal where each talent was instructed to join a table of journalists and continue plugging the project. Some actors undertook the assignment with the same enthusiasm they’d muster if forced to share a Jacuzzi with lepers. Others were standoffish, buried in hushed conversations with their publicist-companions.
Most picked at food and politely made small talk — the same time-killing mindless chatter between airplane seatmates. They did it to keep their distance from us scary reporters, but we were left thinking they were just vapid.
A few were memorable for being authentic, including David Carradine.
We met when he was on the other side of the “Kung Fu” fame, showing years of hard living and getting by on TV movies. I’d hoped one of the junket’s hot young actors would settle in next to me and was disappointed when Carradine landed instead.
Little did I know I’d won the night’s empty seat lottery. He launched into a casual conversation about real life stuff, freewheeling and unfiltered. He ate enthusiastically (including throughout the executives’ speeches), talked about restaurants and favorite meals. He offered opinions on endless subjects, some of which reminded him of anecdotes he shared with us.
I don’t remember much more except that he’d ordered one of the meal choices and I’d taken the other. And I guess he decided we knew each other well enough to ask, “Can I try that?” I said sure and he dug his fork in.
Some obituaries have mentioned Carradine’s shyness. I have no idea whether the persona I encountered was the real one or what he mustered for appearances. But I enjoyed a dinner with a rare celebrity totally unconcerned with PR protocol and the dangers of media interaction. And he was a delight.
While Mel Gibson is fortunately healthy, he appears intent on killing his career.
For years, Gibson topped the short list of actors with loyal female fan bases: guys like Patrick Swayze, Dennis Quaid, Hugh Jackman, Tom Hanks. Post-Sugar Tits, Gibson got stuck in that other fraternity where Kevin Costner’s been a longtime brother: men we used to love who broke our hearts.
Gibson seemed to be quietly rebuilding his impressive career and good-guy image. But he’s back in the spotlight since his wife of 28 years, who bore their seven children, is divorcing him just as the tabs uncovered a mistress who’s pregnant with his eighth.
Yet he's not managing this gracefully. He swaggered around someone else’s film premiere hand-in-hand with his botoxed baby mama. Did weird schtick about being Octo-Mel on Leno. And last week, showed up — in a Viking helmet and on horseback — at the Spike TV Guy’s Choice Awards to present the Discretionary Guy Movie Hall of Fame honor.
Gibson seems to have dismissed any chance of winning back women and instead is courting those guys who mourn “The Man Show” and count the days until Carrie Prejean joins Fox News. Who knows if this strategy will work, but we doubt that his new target demographic can persuade dates to come along to Gibson’s next release.
Finally, amidst the Susan Boyle saga, the U.K. show “Britain’s Got Talent” offered us one of the great PR moments for Simon Cowell.
In the semi-finals live broadcast, 10-year-old singer Hollie Steel forgot her lyrics and burst into hysterical tears. As she cried, the show’s hosts told her there wasn’t time for a do-over. Anyone with a child, or with a heart, was uncomfortable with the scene being played out.
Apparently including Cowell. From the judges’ area, he contradicted the hosts and told Steel that the show would indeed find time for her to redo her performance.
Granted, Cowell is one of “BGT”’s producers, a brilliant manipulator of publicity and a music executive always on the lookout for rising stars. And the show’s taken hits from experts and the public for exposing kids to such pressure. So maybe his kindness was calculated or self-defense.
But I’ve decided to believe that Cowell might simply be a mensch. Just like Carradine was at that dinner long ago. And just the kind of image that Gibson might consider strategizing for himself these days.