Starstruck was a feeling I'd forgotten, until a recent Friday afternoon lunch at Wolfgang Puck's Spago in Beverly Hills.
Across the dining room, in a buttoned leather corner booth with Puck's arm slung near his shoulder, was Sidney Poitier.
An actor who surely changed the face of American cinema sat just two waiters away. I sneaked peeks at Mr. Tibbs, and the first black man to win an Oscar, but who was robbed of another because the academy in 1968 couldn't decide among To Sir With Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
Even a movie critic can get starry-eyed, when crossing paths with someone he never dreamed of seeing in person. It's the same daze I've seen on countless fans in the right place at the right time. It doesn't usually happen to me.
An object of celebrity awe can be a certified screen legend like Poitier, or even the D-lister spotted at a favorite celebrity restaurant, the Ivy, three days later — Elizabeth Berkley, from the flash-trash flop Showgirls. Or any of dozens of Hollywood celebrities seen or otherwise experienced in between, during a scripted tour of Los Angeles with one purpose in mind: big name hunting.
Seeking celebrities in this unnatural habitat is a popular vacation plan. After all, the compact area just off the 101 has more stars than the cosmos. You don't need to be anyone to see the somebodies. The somebodies are everywhere.
We planned our weeklong star search to coincide with the Feb. 27 Academy Awards, when stars' limousines align and crowds gather at the corner of Hollywood and Highland near the Kodak Theatre. That's where they start their march down the red carpet. It was a good plan since Hollywood's biggest names — or at least those who are in the year's biggest movies — are always in town then.
We hit pay dirt with sightings of Natalie Portman, Colin Firth, Russell Brand, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, plus our best get, Madonna and her daughter, Lourdes Leon. Eat your heart out, TMZ.
Besides celebrities, we brushed up against Italian and German tourists waiting hours to stand near a red carpet movie premiere, and a Philadelphia family making its annual trek west to hang around outside Vanity Fair's post-Oscars party. A helicopter pilot recalled being hired by Ohio parents to fly over Miley Cyrus' mansion, fulfilling their daughter's birthday request.
When it comes to seeing stars, even the sky is no limit.
Anyone planning a Hollywood star safari should keep a few things in mind: L.A. isn't a celebrity petting zoo where visitors can easily locate the George Clooney exhibit. You need to know where to be, and have patience when you get there. That can lead to tired feet at a public affair, or a lighter wallet at a celebrity hangout.
If you do strike gold, don't be a stalker or any other level of creepy fan. Celebrities are people, too, deserving privacy unless they're making themselves accessible, as some do on occasion.
Take Poitier. I didn't risk making him uneasy — or embarrassing myself — by asking for a photo or autograph. Spago is a relaxed retreat for stars either hungry, doing business or both. They come to blend in, for a change. Regulars are accustomed to illustrious diners nearby. They don't intrude in that setting and neither should you. Blending in goes both ways.
Prime time for searching
Awards season, which starts in January with the Screen Actors Guild Awards and culminates with the Oscars in late February, is a great time to get a glimpse of celebrities. Even without an invitation, the after-parties offer sighting potential. Anyone can stand behind the barricades with a camera.
After the Oscars, which are over by about 8:30 p.m. out West, several dozen fans waited alongside paparazzi outside the Vanity Fair party at Sunset Tower Hotel, rewarded with glimpses of practically everyone they just saw on the Oscars telecast.
No Spago-type propriety here; fans shouted famous names, begging for their attention, and some celebs responded with photo-friendly waves. The paparazzi are friendly, sometimes even helpful, if you stay out of their way. Your vacation is their occupation.
Don't feel like being crammed for hours with strangers on tightly barricaded sidewalks? Try the Spirit Awards for indie films the day before the Oscars, a more informal, daylight affair held in tents on an expansive Santa Monica Beach, about 12 miles west of Hollywood. Only a couple hundred stargazers stood there, less than 100 feet from the dropoff area, watching Portman and Nicole Kidman arriving in the same Mercedes, with Beatty and Bening not far behind.
Unlike the more strictly secured Oscars, some Spirit Awards guests like Jane Lynch (Glee) and Aaron Eckhart (Battle: Los Angeles, Rabbit Hole) briefly detour from the red carpet to shake hands, sign autographs and pose for pictures. At the very least, a camera with decent zoom capability collects an impressive assortment of star memories.
In their native habitat
You don't need to wait for those annual award shows; after all, Los Angeles is home base for many of the rich and famous, at least part of the year. The two likeliest places to spot celebrities in L.A. are airports — we bumped into former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden at LAX — and the plush Grove shopping district where Mario Lopez videotapes his Extra entertainment news show on most weekdays. The day we visited the Extra set, Glee's Ashley Fink and American Idol castoff Chris Medina were the guests. Certainly not A-listers, but a few dozen tourists behind them on camera didn't mind.
If celebs are going to the Gap, they shop at the one at the Grove, so wander around and keep your eyes peeled.
Also, you don't have to drop a small fortune at Spago or the Ivy to eat near the stars. Try Pink's, a hot dog stand on La Brea Avenue, where walls are covered with autographed photos of satisfied celebrity customers. Hot restaurants in L.A. come and go — Katsuya is a current place to be seen — but Pink's has tempted Hollywood's elite off their diets since The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939. In a town obsessed with thin thighs and full lips, Pink's shows no sign of slowing down. Not to worry if you don't see anyone because you'll have the best hot dog in the world here.
We stayed a few days at one of Tinsel Town's most historic and ritzy hotels, the Hollywood Roosevelt, where the first Academy Awards were handed out in 1928. Outside our windows, this year's Oscars red carpet was set up on Hollywood Boulevard.
The E! channel took over much of the Roosevelt for its Oscars coverage. I almost stepped on American Idol host Ryan Seacrest coming out of an elevator. Models from Playboy and Victoria's Secret strutted around but I swear I didn't notice. The valet parking guy told me E! chased away the usual Monday night crowd in Teddy's lounge, where everyone from actor Leonardo DiCaprio to crooner Lionel Richie hangs out.
We also discovered comfy hotels in the Kodak Theatre's shadow, for a third of the Roosevelt's price with free parking and WiFi to boot. A five-minute walk got us to Teddy's, or any amenity the Roosevelt offers. Plus the entire Hollywood Boulevard circus of stargazer attractions, in case your celebrity quest is satisfied with Grauman's footprints, Madame Tussauds' wax statues and Jimmy Kimmel taping his talk show.
Not us. We hit the ground running with the red carpet premiere of Hall Pass — Owen Wilson was cool, but Larry David! — and were still scanning faces at LAX before departure a week later.
Taking to the sky
When we couldn't find celebrities on the ground, we chartered a helicopter to fly over their luxurious homes. The pilot said he hasn't seen Halle Berry by her pool, but he always checks.
Without question, the quickest way through Los Angeles is over it, in a chartered chopper soaring over chronically clogged freeways and avenues. It's also a nifty means of seeing how lavishly some celebrities live, while splurging a little yourself.
For $1,000, Mike Klein of Lite Flight Helicopters (liteflighthelicopters.com) provides a 90-minute aerial tour of star mansions from the Hollywood sign to Venice Beach to Malibu. Hard to identify those golfers at the Playboy Mansion from 800 feet overhead, but they must have been more famous than us.
We got a kick from Rod Stewart's house's lemon-yellow paint job, and the extravagance of late producer Aaron Spelling's 56,500-square-foot French chateau. Eddie Murphy installed a child's fantasy play set in his front yard, and Johnny Depp's place is surrounded by inordinately dense trees. Denzel Washington lives as large as you'd expect from an Oscar winner.
Klein pointed out the house where Michael Jackson collapsed and the Governator's mansion on our way to Malibu's Millionaire Row, where Steven Spielberg, Ozzy Osbourne and Steve Jobs can share garden tools. They are just down the Pacific Coast Highway from Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Jennifer Aniston and Jerry Seinfeld, not far from Paradise Cove with its million-dollar mobile homes overlooking the surf.
This is surreal estate, for sure.
"People get into the helicopter and say, 'I don't care about celebrities,' " Klein said. "Then you say there's Johnny Depp's house, and they say, 'Where?' They can't help it.
"Sign up for a celebrity (bus) tour and you know what you see? A big gate. This way, you see the yard, the pool, everything."
Visits to late stars
Back on the ground, we unearthed one surefire place for getting close to celebrities, and they don't mind. No chance of getting autographs, though.
Just off bustling Wilshire Boulevard, surrounded by office buildings, are manicured acres known as Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park. It's one of several cemeteries where fans get within 6 feet of Hollywood's dearly departed stars.
Visitors leave lipstick kisses on Marilyn Monroe's mausoleum crypt, and smile at witty epitaphs; among them, Rodney Dangerfield's declares "There goes the neighborhood," and Merv Griffin promises "I will NOT be back right after these messages." Dean Martin reminds us "Everybody loves somebody sometime." Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau rightfully rest near each other, an odd couple for eternity.
Dead or alive, there are plenty of opportunities for big name hunting in L.A., with smart planning, sharp eyes and a bit of luck. Starstruck can occur in the time it takes to look up from a menu. Anyone who loves movies deserves their Poitier moment.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.