As a journalist, one of the first things you learn about interviewing people who are in the public eye is to do your homework in advance.
Never, for example, approach an important political person and ask: ‘By the way, which party do you represent?’
Never ask a top recording star: ‘What’s the title of your latest album?’
Never ask a famous name of stage or screen or television: ‘What was it like working with….(some other famous name of stage or screen or television)?’
The message was effectively rammed home when I as entertainments editor for the Coventry Telegraph some years ago was invited to join a small party of journalists in London to meet the Hollywood star Dustin Hoffman.
We were joined by him in a small Soho restaurant. I sat on his left, and to his right was a small woman with a chatty manner and a rather peculiar hat. I learned that she was representing a newspaper from somewhere on the south coast, but that’s by the by.
The session had barely got under way and Mr Hoffman was being pleasant and sociable when I overheard those dreaded words from the aforesaid lady: "Now let me see, how do you spell your surname?’ she asked him. ‘Is it one f and two n’s or is it only one n?"
As my own toes curled, I could sense inward groans and increasingly pale expressions on the faces of the other four hacks around the table. We were all having the same thought: that’s done it. He won’t take that. He’ll be off now. Our interviews are blown.
Imagine our incredulity when the world-famous Dustin Hoffman took his time in patiently responding: ‘No, it’s actually two f’s and one n.’ He waited while she scribbled in a notebook. And when she hesitated, he added: ‘That’s right, one n.’
"Thank you," she said matter-of-factly. "You’re welcome," he said.
What a superstar! I could name so many, some of them lesser
lights, who would have taken gross offence at such a slight and stormed out.
Our session continued without a further hitch. We all felt the same. What a very nice man.
A cautionary tale for journalists.
Footnote: You might not wish to know this, but I’ll tell you anyway. I was 19 and my first-ever meeting with a Hollywood film star was at a Birmingham hotel press lunch. He was Cornel Wilde, a handsome screen swashbuckler of the Fifties.
I hardly got to talk to him during the lunch as the other more experienced journos held sway. But my moment came afterwards when I found myself standing next to him at the urinals in the hotel loo. We had a quick but most informative chat.
Just shows, you never know when opportunity is around the corner.
Main picture (top): Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie and (inset) at an Oscar ceremony and (above) Cornel Wilde.