Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Query: Celebrity Encounters

Husband and I recently had an interesting conversation about celebrity encounters. Ultimately we were left in complete disagreement so I'm curious to open the question up to a wider audience.

A while back we had the opportunity to attend a comedy performance by Tom Wilson. I'd be willing to bet that every single one of you knows who Tom Wilson is, but I'd also be willing to bet that most of you know him not as Tom Wilson, but rather as "Biff" from the Back to the Future trilogy.
Tom Wilson in Back to the Future, Part II and Tom Wilson now.
Now I've made no secret of my love of the Back to the Future trilogy: three entire movies about time travel? Sign me up! But I've also always been a person who enjoys the villains more than the protagonist hero (i.e. my love of Alan Rickman and Tim Curry, who somehow manage to make even the most despicable villain likeable) so Biff really is my favorite character in the Back to the Future movies. I always think of what fun it must have been for Tom Wilson to dress up in all the costumes for various time periods and makeup for various ages and then just go around picking on everyone.

Lest anyone think that we only appreciate Tom Wilson for his role in Back to the Future, let me assure you that's not the case. We loved his role as the gym teacher in Freaks and Geeks, he had a guest role on Psych last season, and he's currently in the middle of a several episode stint on Big Love. The guy's really a pretty good actor and every time he shows up on screen somewhere, we're pleasantly surprised.

But anyway, back to the point. Husband and I attended Tom Wilson's comedy show. Husband was particularly excited as he'd just received the Back to the Future trilogy in blu ray and thought perhaps he'd ask Mr. Wilson to sign it.

Once we arrived at the show, however, our friends informed us that they'd done a little research on Mr. Wilson (okay that makes me think of Dennis the Menace) and discovered that he was trying to separate himself from his Back to the Future persona and that he had made a conscious and public decision to not sign any Back to the Future memorabilia.

The show began and less than five minutes into it, Tom addressed this issue. He said that he was going to just put all the Back to the Future stuff out there and then he was moving on. So he said the lines: "Hey, McFly!"; "Hello? (knocking on an audience member's head); "Butthead!" and then he picked up a guitar to sing a song that he had written about his decision. Here's a similar version that he's performed before:

Video courtesy of TomWilsonUSA.

At the end of the song, he did just what he promised: he moved on to the rest of his routine. And guys? He was totally freakin' funny! We were in stitches the entire performance! He sang, he told hysterical stories, and he ad libbed with audience members. Husband and I (and two friends) all agreed that he was genuinely entertaining and we were glad that we'd come to the show.

Now here is where Husband and I have differing opinions (and for the sake of not getting biased feedback, I'm not going to say which one of us had which opinion. Tricky, eh?)

Opinion A: Tom Wilson is totally entitled to not want to sign Back to the Future stuff. That was from 20+ years ago and he's done other work since then, which we've enjoyed (television, movies, and, now, stand-up). He realizes that many people are coming to see him because of his Back to the Future connection so he addresses it upfront in a humorous way and then does his real routine. Would it be great if he went around quoting lines from the movie nonstop and "calling people Butthead on their answering machines" (per his song)? Sure, but he's also a person and that probably gets really old.

Opinion B: Tom Wilson is famous because he played "Biff" in Back to the Future. If he had decided to leave show business entirely, he would be completely justified in being annoyed if people continue to bring it up. However, he stayed in show business and is counting on people recognizing his name and his image to come see his shows. He should not only accept that recognition but embrace the fact that people are coming to see him now because he was Biff in Back to the Future and sign whatever people present to him. Otherwise people wouldn't care.

In the end, Husband decided not to wait in line to meet Tom. No doubt that was partly due to the fact that he didn't trust me to not squeal, "I love you, Biff!" I tried to convince him to go have his own "Brian May moment", but he lamented that no celebrity would ever be as gracious and wonderful as Brian May had been so he would surely be disappointed.

I agreed that the "Brian May standard" is all but insurmountable and off we went to dinner.

Now, in all fairness to Tom Wilson, he's surely not the only celebrity who struggles to get past such a recognizable role and character. He just happens to be the celebrity that prompted the discussion between Husband and I.

For example, here's a video compilation of a guest appearance that Brent Spiner did on the short-lived television show "Joey".

Video courtesy of digikotw.

I particularly like this example because not only is the actual clip about Mr. Spiner trying to distance himself from his role as the beloved Data, but subsequently Matt LeBlanc is in a similar predicament with his character Joey.

By appearing as himself in this episode, Mr. Spiner seems to be taking an approach similar to Tom Wilson: poking fun at himself and the character, but hoping that fans understand that there is some truth behind every joke. Interestingly enough, most of Mr. Spiner's recent movie roles have also been science fiction themed (most notably in Independence Day and Superhero Movie). I'll say this: he's definitely got the role of the slightly crazy scientist down cold.

However, the Star Trek genre is a beast of its own and for Mr. Spiner the role of Data, while more than twenty years old, continues to be lucrative for him so long as he makes appearances at Star Trek conventions across the world. Or by guest staring on the best episode ever of Family Guy with the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Matt LeBlanc, on the other hand, completely embraced the role of Joey, following the ten year run of Friends, by agreeing to star in a spin-off. Of course, this show ended years ago and I'm unsure how Mr. LeBlanc has handled the role of Joey since, but it's safe to say that the role of Joey remains his most recognizable character.

And then there's my botched encounter with Andrew McCarthy from way back in 1999. Perhaps there's no one role or movie that Mr. McCarthy is best known for, but he is remembered as part of the 80s ensemble "the Brat Pack" and the numerous teenage angst-ridden movies in which they starred. I so gushed and fawned over Mr. McCarthy and his roles in movies such as Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo's Fire, and Mannequin (yes, Mannequin), that he thought I was kidding and gave me a really nasty look and moved on to the next fan.

I really wasn't kidding, Mr. McCarthy. Seriously.

So is Tom Wilson justified in not signing Back to the Future memorabilia? Should he just be glad that people still care who he is and leave it at that? Or is he entitled to decide that he wants to move on both personally and professionally and fans should have to go along with that? (And again, this question applies not just to Tom Wilson, but to all celebrities who are best known for a single role or series of roles from a long time ago.)

I'm interested to hear thoughts...


  1. very good question! it sounds like wilson did it the best way you can hope for: address the biff identity head-on to please the fans and then do his own thing. if he just ignored it existed altogether, that would be obnoxious. but if he just always did an hourlong biff routine every day of his life, he'd probably be miserable and bored. this way, everybody's happy. well played, biff! :)

  2. In my opinion, if he's signing other stuff, he should sign Back to the Future memorabilia, too. I'm sure it's a drag to be a celebrity sometimes, but your fans are your bread and butter and you should be nice to ALL of them, especially those from way back. It's just bad business, and disrespectful, to turn anyone away. I've never met a celebrity, but if I did I'd remember how they treated me long, long after they forgot (five seconds later) that I ever existed.

  3. He needs to sign the memorabilia. Suck it up, be an actor and pretend to be ok with it. After all, they paid to see his comedy show, which he wants, and he should sign it. As you stated, some wouldn't have come to the show if the BTTF connection wasn't there. I think the chick that played Nellie on Little House has done an awful job of expressing her bitterness about being tied to that character. She should work it for what it's worth. I suppose it doesn't feel like a lot if some of said memorabilia ends up on Ebay, but get over it. It's not the actors' job to change public perception. That's what agents, managers and pr peeps are for. Tom Wilson should get a good team, let them work it out and sign things in the meantime.

  4. Okay, so I am dating myself: while playing volleyball on a cruise ship with Tony Dow ("Wally" from "Leave it to Beaver") and Paul Peterson (from "The Donna Reed Show")a couple of years ago I asked Mr. Dow if I could take a picture of him with my husband "because his name is Wally, too!" Afterwards I discovered that Tony would prefer to be known for his work behind the scenes of "Babylon 5" but he was totally cool about acknowledging his roots, even in scheduled actor discussions (which was why these guys were on the ship)Mr. Peterson was completely bitter and I have disliked him ever since. So, my answer is: actors have fans for many reasons/roles and they should indulge all of them! (Come to think of it, I am also the person who told Tony Shalhoub aka MONK: "I loved you in 'Galaxy Quest'!" after a Broadway performance of "Lend Me a Tenor.")

  5. I have to agree with gigilfca, that he's an actor and should be glad that he was fortunate enough to be in that BTTF series and the residuals and monetary rewards and fame he got from that. Now, considering all the William Shatner has done since the original Star Trek, do you think he wouldn't sign memorabilia? He's an actor that was lucky or fortunate enough to get a gig that gives him the opportunity to do the comedy thing he does now. I can understand him wanting to put that in the past and let it die, but if the public wants it and frankly that is who is buying the memorabilia and tickets to his concerts, who is he to say I won't sign BTTF? It's not like someone asked him to sign a body part. The roles when they started put them on the map. They should be glad someone remembers them from those roles.

    Finally, I say the above to say I think that actors shouldn't have a private life and shouldn't be able to move on to different roles. I believe both of these things.

  6. He should definetely sign the BTTF memorabilia! That's rediculous that he wouldn't and for that I would never pay to see him in standup. Too bad you didn't get the bluray signed, but after hearing that he doesn't like to sign it you're better off.

    Ps. I love your blog and look forward to the different segments you post. It's s nice change from other blogs that are strictly fashion.

  7. Fans are crazy people. I should know, I want to marry Brent Spiner. And Patrick Stewart. And everyone else in TNG, DS9, VOY.... I can totally understand their not wanting to be around me!