I owe Jake Gyllenhaal an apology.
A few summers ago I was visiting a friend in New York, and we went out to dinner at a small, casual place in Greenwich Village. As the salad arrived, I glanced toward a corner table where a man and an older woman were deep in conversation.
“I think that’s Jake Gyllenhaal,” I said.
My friend glanced over.
“That’s Jake Gyllenhaal,” she confirmed.
“Tell me not to go say hello to him,” I said.
“Do not go say hello to him,” she said.
So, out of respect for his privacy, I didn’t. Not through the remains of the salad, not through the pizza or the dessert or our request for a second glass of wine. Then the bill came and I drained my wine glass.
“I think I’m going to go say hello to Jake Gyllenhaal,” I said.
“I dare you,” my friend said, proof, if more were needed, that alcohol impairs judgment.
Moments later, there I was, interrupting Jake’s conversation, extending my hand, telling him I liked his work, that I knew one of his relatives, and other stuff that retroactive embarrassment has blotted from my memory.
To his credit, Jake was nice. He didn’t seem especially interested, but he shook my hand and let me babble. It was his courtesy in the face of the intrusion that made me think as I turned away, “I am never doing that to a celebrity again.”
This encounter came to mind Tuesday when Jake started trending on Twitter for his role as Mysterio in the upcoming “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”
Remembering that moment in the restaurant, I wondered: How many of us have intruded on a celebrity only to realize later that celebrities deserve their privacy, even out in public?
A certain loss of privacy is one price of fame, and most celebrities, I assume, have learned to live with it. I also assume that celebrities like to hear that people like their work.
But the famous actor who takes the corner table out of the fray and is deep in conversation is posting a “No Entry” sign. So, presumably, is the celebrity who wears a baseball cap and sunglasses indoors in public.
That’s how Martin Clunes, the star of “Doc Martin,” was dressed when Susan Raus Francesconi and her husband spotted him at an airport in Hawaii last May.
“My eyes popped out of my head when I saw him!” Francesconi recounted when I quizzed Facebook friends on their own celebrity intrusions.
“Martin!” her husband said to Clunes, “we are huge fans of your work!” She, in her words, gushed.
“He looked up, smiled and very politely said, ‘Thank you very much,’ “ she recalled. “What else could he say?”
She also confesses that she hid behind a column and took his picture, but adds, “I did feel bad for invading his privacy.”
It’s hard to explain the thrill that zaps us when we see someone famous doing something ordinary, and by “we” I mean most people. I’ve heard the theory that by brushing up against the famous, we feel we’ve had a brush with immortality, but I’ll leave the psychoanalysis to others. Suffice it to say that even the famous aren’t immune to the seduction.
Shortly before the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, I was touring the nearly empty convention site at the United Center when I spotted Aretha Franklin. I was alone. So was she. While I gawked at her from a distance, she was taking a photo of a giant statue of Michael Jordan.
Obviously, photographing a statue isn’t the same as barging in on someone’s dinner, but the fact that Aretha could be as starstruck by Jordan as I was by her speaks to the thrill that even the famous may feel in the aura of someone else’s fame.
Some celebrities don’t seem to mind engaging with strangers. A few years ago, my brother Joe was dazzled to spot Dick Smothers in a Starbucks in Eugene, Ore. This was long past the heyday of “The Smothers Brothers” comedy act that made Dick and his brother Tommy famous, which may be why Dick didn’t mind being recognized.
“Hey,” Joe said when Smothers walked by his table, noting the famous man’s footwear, “you like those 5-finger shoes?”
Soon they’d embarked on a long conversation that eventually took them outside to the parking lot, where Dick showed Joe the custom motor home he was driving around the country.
As Joe’s tale suggests, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to approaching — or not approaching — celebrities in public, but when in doubt, better to err on the side of restraint.
And that’s why today I want to say:
Sorry, Jake. But thanks for giving me a good story, which may be all we’re really chasing when we chase the famous.