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Published September 1, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

Rubbing elbows with Reynolds, Redford, Fleming

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

I have had some interesting encounters with celebrities in my 46 years in journalism.

The most memorable ones all happened during the summer of 1968 while working at the Daily Review in, of all places, “Beautiful Downtown Burbank,“ the California city made famous that year by Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

The year had been brutal for the country with the Tet Offensive, the riotous Democratic Convention and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

But that summer, as a lowly reporting intern, I had brief encounters with celebrities that I doubt they remember. They were insignificant moments for them, but I remember them well.

My editor assigned me to write a profile on a local girl who had been Miss Burbank of 1948 and was now doing quite well as an entertainer.

Because the Daily Review was her hometown paper, I was granted a rare interview with the star in her Beverly Hills home.

I pulled into Debbie Reynolds’ driveway in my beat-up Ford Falcon that was chugging along on only 5 of 6 cylinders. There were springs popping out of the passenger seat. I parked next to several Lincoln Continentals.

Since I wasn’t from a major publication and only an intern, I expected a short, cursory interview. To my surprise, Reynolds gave me more than an hour, even with kids running around in the house. I am not sure if Carrie Fisher was among them.

As I was leaving, Reynolds asked if I would drop her off at a neighborhood Little League game. “Oh no, in my wreck of a car,” I thought. “How embarrassing!”

Debbie Reynolds sat in the passenger seat on the springs, listened to the engine misfiring, but never said a word except, “thanks for the ride.” She was a class act.

Later that summer I was invited to play some doubles tennis at the home of Lloyd Shearer, a family friend who just happened to be Parade Magazine’s West Coast editor.

I was introduced to my tennis partner. I thought he looked kind of familiar, and the name rang a bell, but I could not believe I was really about to play tennis with this Hollywood star as my partner. So, I played it cool, didn’t say much and acted as if I had just been introduced to Joe Smith from Pasadena.
Later, during a changeover in the match, my host cornered me and asked if I knew who I was playing with. He assured me it really was Robert Redford.

Embarrassed, I apologized to Redford for not recognizing him. His response put me at ease.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, explaining that it was nice not to have to sign an autograph. “Besides,” he said, “I should apologize for how badly I am playing.”

I have been a Redford fan ever since.

Another bright, shining star in 1968 was Peggy Fleming, a figure skater who won the Gold Medal that year in ladies singles at the Grenoble Winter Olympics.

She then joined an ice show, and I interviewed her on a promotion tour at the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles.

As I was leaving the Forum after the press conference, I noticed Fleming sitting by herself reading a book.

I struck up a conversation. After a few minutes, she asked if I knew a place nearby where she could get something to eat. She was tired of press conferences, dank arenas and hotel food.

I took her to get a drive-thru hamburger, and she remarked several times how good it felt to be outside in the California sun.

More than 30 years later, I was an editor at the Houston Chronicle when she came through the building on another publicity tour. I missed seeing her (not that she would have remembered me) but I told colleagues the story.

By the end of the day it was circulating in the newsroom that I had dated Peggy Fleming.

That was fake news, of course, but I made no attempt to stop the story from spreading.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)