Persall: Upon retirement, a look back at a star-quality career

Published April 19 2018
Updated April 19 2018

Do you see what I did there? The comma and extra "E" in my byline?

One last pun, just for fun.

It’s the end, fin in French, and something unfortunately ruder in Swedish.

Time to retire, nearly 25 years to the day after starting work as the Times’ movie critic. That’s how long I pledged to stay if hired in 1993. Nobody believed it. I couldn’t blame them.

Now that it’s over, I can’t believe it happened. Not with the economic gales battering newspapers over the past decade.

Movie critics were among the first recession casualties at news outlets across the nation. The Times was different, thanks to the unique Poynter Institute ownership valuing journalism over profit, and believing that a community is measured in large part by its pastime art.

That I made it this far is due more to Times legacy and my wife Dianne’s support than anything I’ve written.

This is an obligatory farewell column, although I agreed only if I didn’t have to write seriously about how movies or audiences changed over the years, or some top-25 click bait list. I’d rather sit through A Wrinkle in Time again.

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Instead, I want to declare how cool this job has been outside movie theaters, a professional life (well, most of the time) so packed with once-in-a-lifetime experiences that some happened twice, even five times, like covering the Academy Awards in Los Angeles. A perfect path for someone raised in the projection booths and concession stands of his father’s drive-in and single-screen theaters.

A life so celebrity surreal that returning from lunch to followup voice mails from Oprah Winfrey and Gregory Peck seems normal now.

Hanging around a St. Petersburg tavern while Channing Tatum shot pool between Magic Mike takes was a night at the office. Meryl Streep made tea for the two of us in an Atlanta hotel suite. Showing up in an Entertainment Weekly photo looking like Jack Nicholson’s bodyguard at the Oscars really happened.

Later that night in 1998, Nicholson was named best actor for As Good as It Gets,and backstage, knees knocking, I asked my idol my favorite question ever: "How does it feel to always be the coolest son of a (blank) in the room?" Thankfully, he laughed.

The job sent me to Los Angeles where St. Petersburg’s Angela Bassett welcomed me into her home the morning after not winning an Academy Award for playing Tina Turner. Times photographer Scott Keeler and I spent a week there in 2011 for a travel article on how to find celebrities, timed around the Oscars and Independent Spirit Awards, a blast on Santa Monica Beach. We dined at the Ivy and Spago (with Sidney Poitier sitting nearby), toured mansions by helicopter and visited a star-studded cemetery, among other now-regrettable expenses.

I didn’t need to travel cross-country for celebrity fixes. Thanks to generous staffs at Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Straz and various festivals, I’ve shared stages for Q&A sessions with Hollywood legends Sophia Loren, Al Pacino and Richard Dreyfuss, the late Bill Paxton (who offered a beer from his pocket backstage), Cary Elwes, Vincent D’Onofrio, Paul Sorvino, George Takei and Lando Calrissian himself, Billy Dee Williams.

Or else introduced stars on local stages like Goldie Hawn and Whoopi Goldberg, who hilariously crashed my remarks, allowing me to riff with her, getting laughs and the rush that keeps comedians coming back. So many memorable backstage encounters: chatting up Don Rickles, Jay Leno, Carol Burnett and, yes, Spinal Tap.

I’m grateful to know former Tampa Bay residents leaving deep impressions in show biz: producer Will Packer rewriting the book on African-American influence in Hollywood, plus actors Patrick Wilson and Miles Teller toplining major movies. Two former Times teenage movie critics are now entertainment players: Scott Foundas as an Amazon Studios executive, and Billy Norris on guitar and directing Gavin DeGraw’s band. Another student from Poynter’s summer program, Christian Blauvelt, is BBC.com’s deputy culture editor. Their successes are all of ours.

There were media tours the Times paid to attend until we couldn’t. Two favorites were Apollo 13 at the Houston Space Center and Armageddon at Cape Canaveral (with Aerosmith in concert). I once hiked from a Jurassic Park 2 set to sneak into the actual Bates Motel on a Universal backlot. Reporters are usually herded through these events, stars shielded but not always.

Like Nick Nolte, looking rough in pajamas under a trench coat, topped with a tam o’ shanter, sitting on a Four Seasons folding chair with a buffet breakfast plate in his lap.

"Don’t you get a table in your contract?" I asked. "Naw," Nolte grunted. "I turned over too many of ’em."

Or like tequila and karaoke with Bill Pullman at Universal Studios Orlando, where he stopped me heading to the Beetlejuice show:

"Steve, I did The Serpent and the Rainbow. Now who made the better choice, me or Alec Baldwin?" "I guess you did, big Bill." We headed back to the bar.

Like one James Bond (Sean Connery) dropping a lewd joke into our chat, and another 007 (Daniel Craig) hopped-up funny on two pots of espresso.

Like cigarettes in a no-smoking Beverly Hills suite with avowed "tobacco terrorist" David Carradine, who paused our interview to play a flute and show off his Kill Bill 2 samurai sword.

Dining for two hours with Ralph Fiennes at Telluride, him declining a publicist’s suggestion to mingle elsewhere. Interviewing film maestro Robert Altman about A Prairie Home Companion, a movie about death on the brink of his own.

Unforgettable times, and that’s not nearly all of them, nor does it count hundreds of telephone interviews with anyone from Jennifer Lawrence and Greta Gerwig to Woody Allen and John Travolta, opening up about Scientology for a change.

One helluva ride deserving to end with Muppets wisdom:

 

Life’s like a movie, write your own ending.

Keep believing, keep pretending.

We’ve done just what we set out to do.

Thanks to the lovers, the dreamers and you.

Contact Steve Persall (for a while) at [email protected]
Follow @StevePersall anytime.

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