GROBEL: Tony Bennett. His son contacted me some years ago to ask if I’d be willing to meet with his father to talk about doing a book. So Tony and I met and we got along. We wound up taping conversations at my house, at his hotel room, in a restaurant, at his hotel in San Francisco. But then he decided he didn’t want to write a book, and I found out that the reason he was thinking of doing a book in the first place was because his ex-wife had told someone she was going to write a book about him, so Tony wanted to beat her to the punch. When she decided not to write her book, Tony felt he didn’t have to write his. But in the meantime I worked with Tony over many hours. A few years later, Tony was talked into doing a book by a publisher but he didn’t call me about it. His agent told me he didn’t want to share the advance he was going to get. He didn’t even use his own agent because he’s apparently a very cheap guy. So I have this long interview with Tony Bennett that’s available.
Q: What about people who agreed to talk to you and then backed down before you met?
GROBEL: That’s happened a number of times. I was supposed to interview Alfred Hitchcock, but someone warned him that he shouldn’t talk to me because I ask too many questions, so he cancelled. Fred Astaire agreed to talk to me until his wife told him that he shouldn’t talk to Playboy, so he said we could talk if I wanted to do it for an airline magazine but not for Playboy. I said no to that. The composer and maestro Leonard Bernstein invited me to Germany, where he was conducting, and the day before I was to fly over he got cold feet and wired me not to come. Faye Dunaway was supposed to talk to me for Rolling Stone magazine, but at the last minute, she, too, backed away. So it happens.
Q: Do you think people change their minds out of fear?
GROBEL: I think so. It’s much easier for them to do short television interviews, or to talk to a journalist for a half hour and be done with it. But when someone like myself is asking for an extended, in-depth interview that can take many hours, even weeks, to do, then it’s a commitment many celebrities are afraid to make. For one thing, they live in constant fear of being exposed. Most celebrities know they’ve become famous for something other than their brains. They know they’re lucky to be where they are. So why take the chance of saying something that might offend people? Or saying nothing page after page. If the person is shallow, or doesn’t read much, or is so egocentric that they have no opinions of anything outside themselves, they’re better off not talking to someone like me.
Q: On the other hand, there are some celebrities who have talked to you many times over the years.
GROBEL: Yes, and they’re usually people who enjoy the give-and-take of an interview, who are challenged by the questions and feel they are up to answering them. I’ve interviewed people like Dolly Parton, Steve Martin, Nicholas Cage, Sharon Stone, Kim Basinger, Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, Anthony Kiedis, Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino more than once, and I’m sure I’ll interview many of them in the future as well.
GROBEL: Yes, Al is not only a great subject but he’s also become a close friend. I first interviewed him for Playboy in 1979, then for Rolling Stone in 1983, and I’ve interviewed him every three or four years since. But between those interviews a friendship developed, so we’ve stayed in touch. We talk on the phone when he’s in New York and I’m in Los Angeles, and we see each other for lunch on Sundays whenever he’s in L.A.
Q: He’s played some memorable characters that might be intimidating for anyone meeting him: Michael Corleone in The Godfather trilogy, Tony Montana in Scarface, the devil in The Devil’s Advocate. Is he anything like some of these guys?
GROBEL: Pacino is a great actor, so he can play parts as varied as a blind ex-soldier, a bisexual bank robber, a Mafia don, and a Cuban drug lord without having to lose himself entirely in each role. However, I think actors like him have parts of each character they play within them. So when he’s playing the devil, I give him a lot of leeway in his behavior because he’s never completely out of character!