Close Encounters with the Rich and Famous

An Empire Electric member has an encounter with "The Duke," John Wayne.

Compiled by Mona Neeley, Editor –

It may not be a good thing, but we live in a celebrity-focused culture. Many people in today’s society love to follow the lives of movie and television stars, favorite musicians and bands, politicians and, occasionally, those who are famous just for being famous.

Sometimes, these celebrities take on almost mythical personas. People think of them as somehow different than “regular” people — better, smarter, funnier. But what we found when we asked readers this summer to share their stories of celebrity encounters, was that when people actually met someone considered “rich and famous,” those celebrities were, indeed, regular people.

Here are a few of those stories of encounters with the rich and famous. For more recollections of brushes with fame from Colorado Country Life readers, click on the sidebar on this page.

Robin Williams – Photo by U.S. Army Maj. Enrique T. Vasquez

Robin Williams (July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014) was an American stand-up comedian and actor starring on television as Mork in “Mork & Mindy” and in the movies “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Night at the Museum” and many others.

Breakfast With a Comedian
It was 1994. My daughter, Jessica, was 7. We drove from San Diego to Tamarack Cross Country Ski Resort near Mammoth Mountain to play and ski.

Jessica spent time playing with a girl and boy at the resort, taking turns on a flying saucer. When the kids’ mom came and told them it was time to go inside, the girl asked if Jessica could have breakfast with them the next morning. The mom promptly invited Jessica and me to breakfast.

The next morning, we sat down with Jessica’s new friend and her mom, dad and brother. We had a pleasant conversation as we ate. The dad looked vaguely familiar, but he was shy and serious, looking down with hunched shoulders and speaking quietly.

It wasn’t until we were driving home that it hit me. We’d just had breakfast with Robin Williams (using an alias) and we didn’t know it. Back in San Diego, I found photos of Robin and his family. Sure enough, the photos of his wife, Marsha, and children Zelda and Cody matched the family we shared breakfast with.
Cynda Green, Salida, a member of La Plata Electric


Paul Newman

Paul Newman (January 26, 1925 – September 26, 2008) was a screen legend and superstar nominated for acting honors over five decades starting in the 1950s. He starred in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Cool Hand Luke” and many other films. Most recently, he was the voice of Doc Hudson in “Cars.”

Butch Cassidy at the Wheel
It was May of 1975 and I’m driving Interstate 10 north of El Paso with my wife and young son, heading to California to school. Cruising in the right lane, I can’t help but notice that I’m slowly being passed by a beautiful black muscle car in the left lane. (I can’t recall if it was a Dodge Challenger or a Dodge Charger.)

When our windows align, I look to the left to see who owns that awesome car and it’s Paul Newman.

Looking directly at him, I blurt his name out loud and he knows I know it’s him and he gives me a huge smile. He continues to match our speed as I wake my sleeping wife in the passenger seat and exclaim that Paul Newman is right next to us in the left lane. She looks over and also recognizes him while he continues to smile at us. Then he calmly passes us and continues on after our 15-second “close encounter.”
Klar Stempien, Walsenburg, a member of San Isabel Electric


Lyndon B. Johnson – Photo by Arnold Newman, White House Press Office

Lyndon Baines Johnson (August 27, 1908 – January 22, 1973) was the 36th president of the United States.

Grandma Shows her Gumption
My family and my grandparents went to the 1965 World’s Fair in New York. This day, we were walking down the center of the boulevard to the next exhibition when several black limousines pulled up behind us, even though vehicles were prohibited on the road during the fair. My grandmother, an independent, 4-foot- 10-inch lady we called Ma, would not move out of the way.

The rest of us moved over and called for her to move over, too. “No!” she said. “I am walking where I am supposed to walk and they can just wait.”

The black limo at the head of the line started honking at her. No matter what we tried, we could not get her off the street. Finally, two men jumped out of the lead car and tried to convince Ma to move over.

“Why should I?” she asked. Well, they said, this was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s motorcade and he needed to get to his next engagement.

Ma simply said, “He can get out of the car and walk down the street like the rest of us.”

It was too dangerous for the president to simply walk down the street at the fair, they explained. She didn’t want anything to happen to him, did she? She didn’t and she moved over.

As the limousine rolled by, Johnson rolled down his window and told her he liked her gumption and he thanked her for getting out of his way.
Lee Evans, Elbert, a member of Mountain View Electric


Bear Grylls heads toward a helicopter.

Bear Grylls, 43, is a British adventurer, writer and television presenter widely known for his television series “Man vs. Wild” and “Running Wild with Bear Grylls,” as well as other adventure shows.

Saved From a Helicopter Blade
Jumping at the chance to work for a television production company out of Los Angeles, I was hired to work as a production assistant with Bear Grylls. It was a two-week shoot near Denver and I was pumped.

The opening scene of the production we were working on featured a helicopter and we were prepping it with GoPro cameras and lighting. After the pilot got the green light, he fired the engine and the rotors began to spin. I heard someone yelling at me above the noise of the engine as I walked away from the helicopter. Bear was pointing at his head vigorously, but what was he saying? I didn’t know and turned to walk away again when suddenly I was yanked back by someone.

Apparently, when a helicopter is starting up, its blades dip down. Bear had jumped out and saved me from getting hit and probably injured.
Michael Brautigan, Peyton, a member of Mountain View Electric


Jack Dempsey

Jack Dempsey (June 24, 1895 – May 31, 1983) was born in Manassa, Colorado. He competed as an American professional boxer from 1914 to 1927 and reigned as world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926.

Meeting the Manassa Mauler
It was 1963 or thereabout. The U.S. Navy destroyer I was on was in the Brooklyn (New York) Navy Yard for an overhaul, so a buddy and I got a pass and went into New York to find Jack Demsey’s Broadway bar. (Dempsey was from Manassa, Colorado. I was from Monte Vista, about 40 miles north of Manassa.)

We found the place and went inside to order a drink. When the bartender asked where we were from, my buddy said he was from Boston and I said I was from the San Luis Valley. Shortly after that, Mr. Dempsey came over and shook our hands. He asked how things were in the valley and I told him I’d been out to sea and wasn’t sure what was happening back home.

We talked and he gave me a signed copy of his book that I sent to my dad. Much later, when we got ready to head back to the ship, the bartender told us that our bill had been paid. For a young sailor from Monte Vista, it was a pleasure to meet Jack Dempsey.
Earl Fox, Westcliffe, a member of Sangre de Cristo Electric


Harold Ramis – Photo by Justin Hoch

Harold Ramis (November 21, 1944 – February 24, 2014) was an American actor, director, writer and comedian. Bill Murray, 67, is an American actor, comedian and writer, who first gained exposure on “Saturday Night Live.”

Cousins With a Ghostbuster
My “close encounter” was Passover dinner with the late Harold Ramis, the actor, director and screenwriter most famous for “Ghostbusters,” “Stripes” and “Groundhog Day.” Harold was my ex-husband’s cousin.

One year we were invited to my in-laws for Passover dinner and Harold was in town, so he and his parents joined us. Harold was a funny man, but his father, Nate, was even funnier. Between the two of them, they kept us laughing the entire evening.

We met Harold again at my brother-in-law’s wedding where he brought fellow actor Bill Murray as his guest. Riding in the elevator between Harold and Bill, I felt like I would soon see green slime oozing out of the elevator walls or some ghost-like creature greeting us when the elevator doors opened. We were later invited to Harold’s wedding with its star-studded guest list and then asked to be extras when they filmed “Groundhog Day” in Woodstock, Illinois.
Deb Grymkoski, Beulah, a member of San Isabel Electric

Amy Gavell and her husband share a selfie with Tom Hanks.

Tom Hanks, 61, is an American actor and filmmaker.

Taking Selfies With Tom Hanks
My husband and I volunteer each year at the Telluride Film Festival. We were in the lobby when we noticed Tom Hanks, who was getting ready to introduce his new movie, “Sully.” My husband asked if we could take a picture and Tom just took my husband’s phone to get the three of us in a photo.

He noticed that the phone was the kind that was getting bad press because it was catching fire. While he was holding the phone and taking the photo, Tom asked my husband if he had heard about the phones blowing up. We all laughed and I told my husband that, in the future, he shouldn’t make fun of my phone, which was a different brand. Tom agreed. He was the nicest man.
Amy Gavell, Montrose, a member of Delta-Montrose Electric


Barack Obama

Barack Obama, 56, was the 44th president of the United States.

Presidential Classmate
It was the fall of 1979 and I was attending Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, majoring in theater arts and rhetoric. I wore a lot of purple back then, as it always gave me confidence and made me feel “royal.”

One of my classes was “The Art of Persuasion.” There were only about 17 students in that class (the college’s entire student body was only 1,200). One day in class someone quipped, “I bet one of us could become president in the year 2000!” I was sure they were talking about me with my royal purple coat. For years I would think back on that moment and get a little jolt of confidence.

But 30 years later, the school’s quarterly publication, Occidental Magazine, published a feature story that reminded me that a classmate named Barry had also been in that class with me. That message was probably for him, although Barack Obama wasn’t elected president until 2008.
Laura Moore, Fort Collins, a member of Poudre Valley REA


John Wayne

John Wayne (May 26, 1907 – June 11, 1979) was an American actor and filmmaker, who appeared in more than 100 motions pictures.

Delivering Brownies to Duke
When I was in high school in California, my boyfriend, Mike, and his family lived down the street from John Wayne. We saw him frequently driving around in his customized station wagon with a license plate that said “DUKE.”

One day, Mike’s mom said she had made some brownies for John Wayne and his wife as a thank-you gift for hosting a bridge party. She let us deliver the brownies.

When we pushed the intercom button at his front gate, we insisted that we had to give the brownies to Duke himself. He came out and greeted us and spent time visiting with us. He said he was on a diet because he had just finished filming “True Grit” where he had gained weight to play Rooster Cogburn. But, he said, he would eat the brownies anyway.

He was tall and charming and I have bragged about the encounter ever since.
Jamie Stephens, Dolores, a member of Empire Electric


David Prowse – Photo by .Martin.

David Prowse, 82, a British character actor, is best known for physically portraying Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy.

Darth Vader’s Bodyguard
In the late 1970s, I belonged to the club that put on StarCon Denver every year. We always tried to get interesting stars as guests and we were thrilled that David Prowse, the actor who played Darth Vader, was coming.

There was concern that some fans might be overenthusiastic meeting someone so popular. I had some experience in a form of martial arts that included nonviolent takedowns, so I was designated as David’s staff helper in case something more than guiding him to his next talk was needed. We made a unlikely pair as he was a full 2 feet taller than me, even without the costume.

That year we also included a comedy play called “Stark Wars,” which was what we thought “Star Wars” would be like on a $50 budget. My daughter, 5, was a Jawa in the play and had a little girl crush on the boy playing the Darth Vader character. At the staff party that followed everything, David asked my 5-year-old who was better at playing Darth Vader, him or the boy. He laughed when she picked the boy.

I was mortified, but David was charming, polite and funny himself. He said his 8-year-old daughter would have answered the same way.
Susan Crites, Lamar, a member of Southeast Colorado Power