A person of a certain age may be most familiar with song-and-dance man Joel Grey, but then again, maybe not. Though he established his greatest fame in the 1960s and 1970s with Broadway and movie turns, most notably in “Cabaret,” for which he won both a Tony and an Oscar, he has continued over the decades to be all over stage and screen, including in recurring or guest roles on TV shows ranging from “Alias” to “Grey's Anatomy,” “Law and Order” and “House.”
At age 78, Grey is going strong as a performer, touring with an musical act, performing songs by Kander and Ebb, Rodgers and Hart, Billy Joel and other. He performs Sept. 25 at the ARTS by George! Benefit at George Mason University's Center for the Arts. The song-and-dance man is continuing to sing and dance should come as no surprise. What is surprising is the latest metamorphosis that has been occurring out of the limelight: The creation of Joel Grey, fine arts photographer, close observer of the detail and subtle drama around him.
With three monographs published, the mercurial performer is no celebrity dilettante, though he is, in the truest sense, an amateur.
“As long as I can remember, I've loved taking photographs,” said Grey in the notes to his first published collection, “Pictures I Had to Take.” “Being an actor and in the public eye, this was, for me, a private act. ... It was always a complete and spontaneous pleasure for me. It was never work, only satisfaction.”
Born Joel Katz in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1932, Grey was the son of Grace and Mickey Katz, an encouraging stage mom and a famous performer, respectively. Though Mickey Katz may be best known for his work with Spike Jones and His City Slickers in the 1940s, he performed his own musical review, singing Yiddish-English parody songs and playing clarinet masterfully.
By age 9, Grey was acting professionally in and around Cleveland.
“I got laughs from the audience,” Grey told “CBS Sunday Morning” in 2007. “I heard the audience cry. I had a death scene. And then there was an epilogue in which I came back to life. Now who wouldn't want to be an actor? I was so successful in Cleveland, and we moved to Los Angeles, and there was nothing for me to do. All of a sudden, from being a success I was a has-been at 13.”
Taking pictures provided a release from the pressures of a show business career and allowed him to connect with his world as observer and seeker rather than as performer and object of scrutiny. In “Pictures I Had to Take,” Grey collects images captured over 25 years while living and traveling in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and in South and Central America. His second collection, “Looking Hard at Unexamined Things,” focuses on details: ironwork, graffiti, a coil of barbed wire, examined so closely they become nearly abstract compositions.
Grey's most recent collection, “1.3 - Images from My Phone,” was born of his finding himself beset by fascinating objects in a small St. Lucie, Fla., museum but being without his camera. According to the project's press release, Grey by the force of the necessity to capture what he was seeing grabbed his Nokia 133 camera phone, with its tiny 1.3-megapixel lens, and started snapping pictures. He then spent the next eight months shooting with his phone.