He was a successful nightclub entertainer who didn’t want to be a nightclub entertainer. He was ready to give up show business when he got the role of a lifetime — playing a sleazy nightclub entertainer. And he was (and is) a gay man who says unequivocally that the love of his life was a woman.
Such are the complexities of the life of Joel Grey, recounted with candor and charm in his new memoir, Master of Ceremonies.
Grey had thought about writing a memoir for years, but the time never seemed right, he tells The Advocate via phone from New York City, where he lives. He was finally inspired to sit down and write partly by reading tennis star Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open. “It was beautifully written, and full of so much pain and triumph,” Grey says. “I really identified with that.”
No wonder. The entertainer has known much of both, with many ups and downs before and even after his star-making turn as the master of ceremonies in the stage and film versions of Cabaret, and on the way to accepting his identity as a gay man.
He was born Joel Katz in Cleveland in 1932, into a family of Russian Jewish heritage. His mother, Grace Epstein Katz, was a volatile woman who saw in Joel an outlet for her frustrated show-business ambitions; his father, Mickey Katz, was an easygoing musician who eventually became a popular performer of Yiddish songs and impresario of revues.
Because of his small stature and his demeanor, Joel knew bullying early on, with neighbor boys calling him “sissy” and “queer,” and anti-Semitism gave him another reason to be alert for danger. But like many gay kids, and others who feel different for any reason, he found refuge in the theater. He made his acting debut at age 9 at the Cleveland Play House, a respected regional theater that is still in business, and quickly won recognition as an uncommon talent. He also found a nurturing alternative family among the theater’s personnel, and he even dedicates his memoir to the late K. Elmo Lowe, who was artistic director when Grey acted at the Play House.
“That saved my life,” he says today of the experience. “It gave me a vision. That’s kind of what kept me going all these years.”
“All these years,” as chronicled in the book, saw Joel Katz become Joel Kaye and then Joel Grey, performing as a nightclub song-and-dance man, playing small roles in movies and television, and having some success on the stage before achieving his ambition to create a role on Broadway. The role in Cabaret came after he’d done a truly terrible outdoor musical on Long Island’s Jones Beach, the only job he could get at the time and one that had him ready to leave show business.
He won a Tony Award for the 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret and an Oscar for the 1972 film version, making him one of only eight performers to win both awards for the same role. In his book he documents his contentious but eventually productive relationship with the film’s director, Bob Fosse, who — amazingly — didn’t want to cast him initially. Grey got on well with costar Liza Minnelli, though, and they’ve remained friends.
Grey also tells of his early sexual explorations with a variety of men and the occasional young woman. Along with creating a Broadway role, he wanted to fill a specific role in his personal life, and it was one he believed a gay man couldn’t play: that of husband and father.
Grey with wife Jo Wilder and daughter Jennifer
He got his chance to become a husband and father when he met and fell in love with actress Jo Wilder. They married in 1958, and he truly believed he could put his gay life behind him.
Grey still says Jo was the love of his life, and his happiest years were during their marriage. Given that, why does Grey identify as gay rather than bisexual? “That’s a very good question,” he says, and the answer is that his most intense feelings have almost always been for men. “My wife was the exception for me,” he says.
Their marriage broke up in the early 1980s, after he revealed his gay past to her. They’d had their differences over other things, but that was something she couldn’t deal with. After a nasty divorce, they eventually found their way back to being friends.
Grey, who is single, came out publicly last year, but he’d been out to his close friends for many years, and to his children, who have been supportive. His daughter is the well-known Dirty Dancing actress Jennifer Grey, and son James is a chef in Los Angeles. He expresses great pride in both of them.
He finally decided to come out, he says, after witnessing all the changes and progress for LGBT people in the past few years, while knowing that some still struggle. “I felt that perhaps my speaking about it would be of some encouragement to young people,” he says.
One of the social changes that stands out to him is the acceptance of gay parents. “It’s amazing with these same-sex couples with children — part of my dream — it’s all possible,” he says. “I am very impressed with the changes.”
An important point in Grey’s journey to accepting himself as a gay man came when he took over the lead role of activist Ned Weeks in the original production of Larry Kramer’s AIDS-themed drama The Normal Heart off-Broadway in 1985, when Brad Davis left the cast due to his own AIDS diagnosis. “Eight times a week I got to be a gay man, a remarkable gay man, and every night that felt as full, as true, as passionate, and as authentic as I ever felt in my life,” he writes in his book.
Judy Garland with Grey, backstage at George M! in which he starred on Broadway in 1968
The Normal Heart remains one of his favorite projects. He codirected (with George Wolfe) the play’s Broadway production in 2011, and he recently directed a benefit performance of it with an all-star cast in New York.
He’s had other iconic stage roles, such as the Wizard of Oz in Wicked on Broadway, and compiled a diverse body of film work that includes playing a martial arts master in the cult favorite Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins and costarring with Björk in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark.
He doesn’t mind that he’s best known as the Kit Kat Club’s Emcee. “I loved Cabaret on the stage,” he says. “It was a thrilling experience, and luckily it turned out to be the same in film.” He’s seen several of the show’s revivals (and appeared in one), and he has praise for others who’ve filled the role, including Alan Cumming. “I thought he was wonderful,” Grey says.
Grey with Larry Kramer
He looks back on his career with no regrets. “There’s almost nothing that I really hated doing,” he says, except that Jones Beach show. But then came Cabaret. And he’s looking forward as well: He’s working on his fifth book of photography, another art form he loves.
Through all the pain and triumph he’s seen, he’s recognized that life is full of transformations and that art has a transformative power, providing him a place to go “when real life was too ugly or confining,” as he writes in Master of Ceremonies. Or, as the Emcee says in Cabaret, “Here life is beautiful.”
Master of Ceremonies, published by Flatiron Books, comes out Tuesday.