90/50: Joel Grey Celebrates His Birthday and the Anniversary of Cabaret

Grey takes a walk down memory lane with TheaterMania.

Today — Monday, April 11 — Broadway legend Joel Grey marks his 90th birthday. At the same time, two of his best-known projects, the film of Cabaret (which earned him an Oscar) and the revival of Chicago (where he originated the role of Amos), are marking their 50th and 25th anniversary years, respectively. To commemorate the occasions, we're taking a walk down memory lane, led by Grey himself.

Joel Grey
Joel Grey
(© Tricia Baron)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Happy 90th birthday! How do you feel?
It's bizarre. It feels like an out-of-body experience. I know it's just some crazy number, 90. But I didn't have it in my front burner.

You never would have known this, but I proposed to my wife after we saw Fiddler in Yiddish in Battery Park. We both really loved that production, so it had to factor into it somehow. And thank you.
Come on! I love that. That's the best news today. I'm honored.

Your birthday coincides with the 50th anniversary of the release of Cabaret. I just watched it again recently and I still marvel at how they kept the essence of the show while completely reworking the story.
Right. They totally rethought the narrative for the movie, and it was right. It was time to make a "new" movie musical.

How did you get involved with the show itself, and were you automatically cast in the film?
There were no auditions. Hal Prince and I knew each other. He had seen me in Stop the World, I Want to Get Off and I was in a kind of clownish, white-face makeup. So, I think he went there in his head. But this was quite different. Fosse didn't want me for the movie. Fosse was not enthusiastic about Joel Grey, but everybody else was. When it came time to making a decision, and the producers said, "Today's the day," Bob Fosse said, "Well, it's either Joel Grey or me." Then the producer said,"Then it's Joel Grey." And we had to live with that for the shoot.

What does that mean?
Well, knowing that he saw it another way, and we're in Germany…It was tricky. The only thing I can think of…he was a wonderful performer, too. Maybe he thought of himself for the part. Nobody's ever spoken, since then, of what he had in mind with another actor.

But the results were there. You got the Oscar.
That's true! That was supreme. It was a wonderful moment when Diana Ross said, "And the winner is Joel Grey!" Hooray for Hollywood!

What was Oscar night like?
Oh, I was sure Al Pacino would win. He was, too! [laughs]

I want to talk about a different Kander and Ebb show — Chicago — that celebrated its 25th anniversary on Broadway in the fall. What was your favorite memory of doing the show?
My favorite memory working on Chicago was standing backstage opening night at City Center and hearing the ovation after the opening number. The opening number stopped the show. And the next number stopped the show. And the next number stopped the show. I looked at Jimmy Naughton and I said, "OK, the people have spoken!" It was shocking and thrilling and satisfying.

Did you have dream roles as a younger actor?
Everybody kept telling me I needed to play Richard III. It's a good, very dark, rich character. But it just didn't happen.

Do you look back and say there are things that you wish you had done?
I don't think so. I've been so fortunate. It would be piggy of me.

When younger performers ask you for advice on longevity in this business, what do you say?
Oh, don't do it. No, no. Make sure that it is the most important thing in the world to you. Otherwise, don't bother. It's so hard and demanding.

Do you have a favorite project?
Fiddler has to be among the top. It was a great experience and it needed to have a bigger life. And it may yet. I'm hoping we get to do it in Los Angeles, and they're also talking about a tour. And it was not something that I was necessarily prepared for. I didn't speak Yiddish. But I knew what that story was about, in my bones. So that's what really animated me and made it so powerful. I had to tell that story.