A lonely string of blinking lights tacked to the side of a cubicle signaled the impending arrival of Christmas. Well, that plus the dark circles under the eyes of every employee in the film marketing department at Universal Pictures. It was December 2004, and our team had been working tirelessly to promote the upcoming release of Meet the Fockers—the hotly anticipated sequel to Meet the Parents, starring Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, and Robert De Niro.
On the Monday before the movie’s red carpet premiere, I received an email from my friend Jeff, a senior VP of publicity at Universal: “I know how much you love the old-timers, so I nominated you to accompany Shelley Berman down the red carpet at the premiere this Thursday. You’re welcome.”
It’s true, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for older adults. Raised by a cash-strapped and overwhelmed single mother, I attributed many childhood moments of joy to the generosity of grandparents and great aunts and uncles. I grew up believing that these graying arbiters of happiness had their acts together and deserved reverence.
So, of course, I considered it an honor to walk down the red carpet with 79-year-old Shelley Berman—an original gangster of comedy and the actor who played Larry David’s father on Curb Your Enthusiasm. That said, due to extreme burnout, I hoped to be excused from working that night.
VPs and higher-ranking executives were invited to attend movie premieres, but we junior staff were given work assignments at the events. After years of slogging through the ranks, I’d earned my stripes as a “Digital Marketing Director” and managed multiple film campaigns a year. That meant pulling together a digital strategy, sending out trailers and film stills to publishers, setting up promotions, coordinating interviews with talent and online press, and coping with the intense stress of liaising with diva filmmakers and shark-like publicists. By year’s end, I’d morphed into a beaten shell of myself. Luckily, I was still young, in my thirties, but even older employees were put through the same paces.
Meanwhile, I dreaded working premieres, ergo, hand-holding actors and familiarizing media outlets with lesser-known talent in the hope of securing interviews and exposure for a movie. I generally spent the evening white-knuckling a walkie-talkie while sprinting down the red carpet in sensible flats, trying not to knock over any starlets and begging reporters to speak to B-list cast.
Since we were short-staffed in December, I accepted my fate and stopped by my boss’s office to commiserate. A VP of marketing, Kevin empathized with my year-end exhaustion. He’d been invited to the premiere as a guest but hated schmoozing and preferred to stay home. I asked if he could skip this one. “No,” he groaned. “I need to make an appearance. But I’ll just get in and get out.”
At the Fockers gala, the red carpet stretched from Universal CityWalk to the Universal Amphitheatre. That night, the temp dipped to 57 degrees—freezing by L.A. standards—and, like the lookie-loos in knitted beanies and jackets crowded behind a gated-off fan-viewing area, I’d bundled up in a cream sweater, a navy trench coat, and wool slacks. The brisk air, Christmas trees, and red ribbons transformed CityWalk from a tourist trap into a festive winterscape, but I still longed to recline on my couch and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas for the 200th time.
With the Fockers score blaring through gigantic speakers, I stood under the floodlights, shout-chatting with one of my coworkers. On-air personalities from hundreds of media outlets lined up to interview the stars, and a gaggle of photographers crammed into the “photo pit” near the entrance to capture celebrity arrivals. Prime-time TV shows like Entertainment Tonight, E! News, and Access Hollywood had pole position in the middle of the carpet. Lesser-known outlets—in 2004, these were mainly online press—were stuck at the end of the carpet, destined to miss out on the late-arriving stars who rushed past to get to the theater. I’d just fielded another complaint when a voice barked into my headset, “Hilary, the Berman limo just arrived.” I hot-footed it over to the car drop-off area.
Out of a black town car stepped Shelley Berman, a slender fellow with a pair of bushy and expressive eyebrows. After his first major movie role in years, he’d dressed for the occasion in a charcoal pin-striped suit, navy pin-striped shirt, gray silk tie, and a paisley pocket square. He reached a hand inside the car and helped his wife step out onto the street. A white-haired vision in a cream dress and a red beaded necklace, Sarah stood an inch or two shorter than her husband. For the first time in my life, next to Sarah, I felt like an Amazon.
Shelley, though slight in build, had been a comedy heavyweight in his day. Winner of the first Grammy for spoken comedy record in 1959 and three gold records, he went on to star on Broadway, in television, and, occasionally, in films. His comedy routines focused on life’s annoyances, and he gained popularity for telephone monologues where he’d sit on a stool onstage and speak into an unplugged telephone, getting increasingly agitated with the person on the other end. My mom, a native New Yorker, plotzed when I told her the news: “Shelley Berman! A real Jewish icon from the borscht belt comedy set. I grew up listening to him.” She wasn’t alone: Shelley’s comedy style inspired the likes of Larry David, Woody Allen, and Jerry Seinfeld. After Shelley died in 2017, Steve Martin credited him with “Changing modern stand-up.”
I introduced myself to the couple with a touch of nervousness in my voice. Talking to famous people always set me on edge, as if I dared to cross the barrier between us and them. Gossip mags love to post pics of celebs walking their dogs with the caption, “They’re just like us!” But we commoners know that even if we drag our mutt up the same Hollywood hillside as Jen Aniston, we’re still nobodies and she’ll always be somebody.
Sarah, however, put me at ease by flashing a warm smile and thanking me for my assistance.
“So, what’s the plan?” Shelley asked, pressing his shoulders back and sinking his hands in his pockets.
I explained that he’d have an hour to complete interviews before heading to the theater to watch the movie, followed by the party. I took another minute to gush about his performance as Judge Ira in the film. “You were my favorite part,” I said. “Truly hilarious.” The movie was no Oscar contender, but Shelley’s performance as a randy judge demonstrating bawdy movements in a sex therapy class taught by Barbra Streisand stood out as comedy gold to me.
“Really?” His furry brows shot up, and he smiled. “I haven’t seen it yet.”
“The movie is fun, but you really make it.”
“How wonderful,” Sarah said, tottering next to him on kitten heels.
The three of us made our way down the carpet, and I stepped out ahead to introduce Shelley to the first of many clueless twentysomething on-air personalities. Press outlets tended to ignore the supporting cast so as not to be tied up when the superstars arrived. I wanted to make sure that the reporters showed Shelley respect and took time to interview him thoughtfully. With a wave of my arm, as if presenting a king at court, I said: “This is Shelley Berman. He’s a godfather of comedy, star of the stage and screen, and a living legend.”
Shelley ambled along, but we made great strides, knocking the smaller outlets off the list. I enjoyed watching him get his 15 minutes and, as I stood on the sidelines, small-talking with Sarah.
He wore a giddy grin and remained in high spirits through close to an hour of interviews. Fifteen minutes before we had to be at the theater, the press grew restless, checking their watches and craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the A-listers. Each time a mega-celebrity showed up, the volume spiked and the atmosphere became more frenzied. Celebs and guests clogged the carpet like parade marchers in suspended animation, more interested in being seen than anything else. Photographers shouted, “Dustin, over here!” and “Ben, look this way!” followed by a strobe-light effect of camera flashes. Through my headset, the VP of special events announced, “Wrap up interviews and head to the theater.”
Before I had time to push Shelley onto the platform, Babs jumped the line and took his slot. “It’s not fair!” he fumed.
I rushed Shelley to the main stages for Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, where he waited for Ben Stiller to finish up. Those entertainment TV shows reached millions of viewers, and every actor craved the exposure.
“How do I look?” Shelley turned to Sarah and smoothed his hair.
“Ready for your close-up.” She straightened his tie.
Suddenly, the crowd went berserk. Photographers shouted, “Babs, over here!” Barbra Streisand glided up the carpet in a light-gray fur coat over a periwinkle crepe dress, her blond, lustrous locks flowing in the breeze, and a perfectly manicured hand clamped around James Brolin’s arm. She moved at a quick clip, ignoring all the outlets in the press queue, and beelined for ET and Access. Before I had time to push Shelley onto the platform, Babs jumped the line and took his slot.
Shelley’s expressive face contorted into a mask of confusion and rage. His mouth hung open, and his blue eyes blinked repeatedly, as if he’d just awoken from a fever dream.
“It’s not fair!” he fumed. “She should wait her turn like everyone else.”
I understood his indignation. I felt it, too. This man had been waiting decades for a close-up. One would hope that elders would be lauded at these events and given preferential treatment, but Hollywood celebrates the upstagers.
To make matters worse, the red carpet was closing, and we had to get to the theater to start the screening. I certainly didn’t possess the authority to rush the one and only Barbra Streisand off the stage, and if I didn’t get Shelley to his seat tout de suite, he’d miss the beginning of the film.
Priding myself as a glass-half-full kind of helper, I tried to spin the situation, telling Shelley that TV interviews are edited down and only a few seconds make screen time. Print and online will be much better, I assured him. He shook his head, and his lips twisted into a deep frown, one that seemed to drag his whole face down with it. His devastation was palpable; no amount of cheerleading could change the fact that his scene had been stolen. I felt like a failure for letting him down. Still, I hoped the rest of the night would make up for this setback.
With the movie about to start, I hustled the couple to their seats, fetched popcorn, and arranged to meet up afterward to escort them to the party. Two hours later, I waited on my charges outside the theater. Shelley emerged, his forehead lined with creases and the color drained from his skin. “They cut most of my scenes! I’m barely in the movie.” He fixed me with a deliberate glare. “You lied to me!”
Now, Babs wasn’t the only double-crosser on his list—I was, too. A classic people-pleaser, hell-bent on spreading happiness, I was gutted to know that Shelley thought I’d lied to him. I was verklempt.
“I swear, in the cut I saw, you were fantastic,” I pleaded.
He squinted his eyes and pressed his lips together, as if the sound of my voice hurt his ears. My credibility had taken a nosedive. All I could do was try to make sure he had fun at the party.
“Once you eat something, you’ll feel better,” Sarah said, ever the supportive wife.
Alas, at the party, everything descended 20,000 leagues further under the sea. An area had been set up with cocktail bars and several heated dinner buffets emanating gassy blasts of Sterno. Guests milled around heat lamps, enjoying the festivities, replete with holiday music, wreaths, ribbons, blinking lights, and giant gift boxes on display.
Shelley surveyed the scene and immediately zeroed in on a special roped-off VIP section for the film’s stars, flanked by security guards to keep away fawning fans. He wasn’t considered A-list and didn’t have access to this elite enclave. I’d hoped to elide this omission earlier in the night by “reserving” a table close by—tossing my coat on top of it and crossing my fingers that nobody would move it.
“Have a seat, and I’ll grab you some food from the buffet,” I offered.
“Can we go in there?” Shelley pointed at his costars whooping it up behind the velvet ropes.
I wanted to chomp on a cyanide capsule and collapse, mouth-frothing instead of admitting, “It’s, um, a special-access area.”
For Shelley, this was the final blow. He sighed and flashed a crestfallen look at Sarah. At that moment, all the reasons I’d fallen out of love with the job snapped into focus. I loathed “the business” for its shallowness and lack of compassion. And while I enjoyed the creative challenge from time to time, in a world plagued with struggle and inequity, it all seemed so unimportant and meaningless. Rather than celebrate the old guard who lit the path for today’s young stars, Hollywood ditched its pioneers on the cutting room floor. Legendary actresses with faded beauty died penniless. Silly movies broke box office records, and beautiful art-house films disappeared from theaters overnight.
“I want to say hello to Dustin,” Shelley said sternly, as if he suddenly remembered he was a “somebody” and I existed only to serve his needs.
This was my last shot at redemption. I had to make it happen, or else I’d end up (presumably along with Barbra Streisand) as a needle-riddled voodoo doll on Shelley Berman’s dresser.
“OK, let me see what I can do.” I sped over to the VIP area, armpits soaked with sweat and several frizzy curls flying free from my poorly assembled chignon. I’m sure I had a crazed look in my eye as I ducked under the red rope and squeezed through the crowd, searching desperately for a familiar face. I spotted the talent handler for Dustin Hoffman and waved her over.
“Shelley Berman wants to say hello; can we please let him in?” I held my hands together in prayer.
Dustin Hoffman overheard, spotted his friend, and shouted, “Shelley! Come here!”
I unclipped the velvet rope for Shelley to slide in. He squared his shoulders and stood up straighter. The two men hugged, and Shelley glowed with joy. Ben Stiller came over and gave Shelley a hug, too.
From my perch outside the red ropes, in the plebian zone with Sarah, I observed this sweet scene, and I swear I saw light radiating off that man. Tears welled in my eyes as I watched how this small gesture made Shelley’s year. Suddenly, I had an epiphany: It was time to move on. No more fraught nights on the red carpet for me. Instead, I would follow in the footsteps of my geriatric heroes and pursue my passions. Sure, I was in my thirties, but why wait until my knees had to be replaced and my feet were covered in corns to fulfill my dream of being a writer? And so, the following Monday, I walked into Kevin’s office and gave my notice. He assumed I’d landed a better job at another studio. I explained that I’d had it with drudgery, and if he needed to get in touch, he could find me at the discount movie theater or the YMCA. He laughed at the absurdity of the idea, but I could tell, deep down, he wished he were going with me.
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