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One On 1: Joel Grey Shares His Twin Loves Of Acting, Photography

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More than 40 years after his signature role in "Cabaret," actor Joel Grey shared that he is developing another passion behind the camera. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.

Joel Grey has won a Tony and an Oscar, but after more than 40 years on stage and screen, he's also at home behind the camera, taking pictures.

"Well I tell everybody that photography is totally joyous to me because it’s the one thing my mother had nothing to do with," jokes Grey.

At age 77, Grey is still acting on television and on Broadway and has three published collections of photographs to his name. His most recent book is entitled "Images From My Phone."

Grey has always taken photographs, but only first published them a few years ago on the prodding of some artist friends.

"I took it to almost everybody in that world, and said, 'Don’t let me make a fool out of myself, tell me not to do this.' And nobody did," he says.

But Grey says he stays in front of the camera at his day job.

"So many actors get behind the camera, get behind the camera and look at what the camera man is looking at. I am so focused on my own job as an actor that I don’t think, I can’t think of anything else at that moment," he says.

Grey says the photographs are like little plays -- another connection to his extensive acting life.

"I am very attracted to very dark things on the one hand, and simple pure beauty on the other. Oddly enough, the character in Cabaret... sort of says that all," says Grey.

Playing the emcee in the musical "Cabaret," Grey won both a Tony Award in 1967 and an Academy Award in 1972. The Broadway musical is set in 1931 Berlin, as the Nazis rise to power. When the show hit the stage in 1966, Grey says not all audiences were ready for it.

"At the end of the gorilla number, 'If You Could See Her Through My Eyes,' the end of the song was, 'She wouldn't look Jewish at all,' which we knew was a comment on the hideousness of Nazism," says Grey. "The B’nai B’rith and a number of other Jewish theater party groups thought that it was itself insulting, and they made us take it out."

Grey is Jewish and says his family didn't have a problem with him taking the role. But at the time, not everyone really understood the character's twisted persona.

"There was a lot of people who didn’t want to see that and said, 'Boy, that was fun. Gee, you were really fun in that show,' even the movie," says Grey. "I would have to say, 'Well, what movie did you see?' If you don’t want to see it, if a person does not want to experience that, they will block it out and see it their own way."

Grey says a few years after the release of the film, he watched it with a predominantly German crowd while on vacation in Greece.

"I sat there and watched them not smile, not express anything. It was like icy silence through the whole show," says Grey. "It was really chilling."

When Grey is not acting or taking photographs, he is working on a memoir. His father was a musician and his mother was a stage mom.
Grey says his childhood in Cleveland was a tough time, and his home was "not so joyous."

"They did the best that they could. It was not... it was a place I wanted to get away from as a small boy," he says.

A Saturday morning children's acting class called "The Curtain Pullers" was his safe haven.

"Whatever difficulty there was emotionally in my household, and there was, there were a lot of problems, I went there, and I knew who I was and I was respected," says Grey.

He was hooked. The family moved to Los Angeles, and as a young man, Grey eventually came to New York. He appeared occasionally on television and Broadway, but by the mid-1960s, when he was living in Murray Hill and acting in a bad musical at Jones Beach, he considered getting out of the business.

"I had to leave at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, or 3 o’clock, on a bus with the cast. And we’d go out there and the show would be over and we’d be back around 2:30 in the morning. I’d miss dinner, I’d miss my kids. I slept very late," says Grey. "So it was like, what kind of a life is this?"

Then Grey got the type of phone call that is the stuff of dreams for any actor, when producer Hal Prince offered Grey an immortal role in "Cabaret."

"Nobody thought that 'Cabaret' was going to be a particularly commercial success, and they were wrong," says Grey.

He never pondered leaving the business again, but he has considered whether the greatest role of his career typecast him and cost him other roles, especially on television.

"People just can’t get it out of their heads," says Grey. "And I fought tooth and nail from 1966, and every year after that, to do other roles."

On stage, Grey moved out from under the emcee's shadow, starring in "George M." and performing dramatic roles at the Public and Roundabout Theaters. In the 1990s he was Amos Hart in the revival of "Chicago," and more recently played the Wizard of Oz in "Wicked."

"It was like being in a rock concert. The young girls are screaming when the overture begins," says Grey.

The divorced father of two grown children, including "Dirty Dancing" actress Jennifer Grey, Joel Grey admits that the acting life has occasionally meant sacrificing personal relationships.

"If you are 100-percent focused, like on a play or looking for a character, you’re probably not... there’s probably not much of you left in the room for other things, for family," he says.

One of Grey's most recent characters was a man with pancreatic cancer on the show "Private Practice." At the same time, his sister-in-law was battling, and eventually succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

"When the script comes in, you say to yourself, 'Am I supposed to do this?'" says Grey "Is this a learning experience? Is this something that will, in some way, will memorialize her? Or is it, I’m an actor and this is what I do?”

These days, Grey can be seen walking around his West Village neighborhood, pursuing his latest love of photography. He found his first love of acting almost 70 years ago, and he has advice for those who consider a similar path.

"Don’t do this unless there is nothing else in the world you want to do, that you can’t imagine living without doing this," says Grey. "If you are any less serious than that, don’t do it. It’s that hard."

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