It's 6:30 on a Saturday morning and I just learned that my friend Joel Siegel has passed away at the age of 63, and I'm saddened.
I can't say we were close friends (wish I could), but we were more than just acquaintances when we worked together at WABC in the early eighties. Come to think of it, everyone who knew Joel was a friend. He was a genuinely nice man.
When you're new to New York (as I was), the city and the job can be a bit intimidating. Sinatra had it right: "If I can make it there..." But it's not necessarily a welcoming place. The WABC attitude seemed to be, "You've never worked in New York before? Then you've never worked. Period. Your career starts now, and you'd better be good...or else!"
Joel's attitude was, "How are you, welcome, nice to meet you." I had a coffee pot in my office which everyone was free to raid. Many did. Joel stayed for conversation.
He was an amazing raconteur. If you saw him only as the movie critic on "Good Morning America" you already know that he was more than just clever and witty. He had insight and could make you laugh and think at the same time. And he was a student of New York and New Yorkers. He knew something about everything that had ever happened in the Big Apple. Joel could tell anecdotes about the city and its residents than went back to the New Amsterdam days.
The only friction I remember was caused by the tug-of-war for his talents. As "GMA" became more and more popular, the network wanted more and more of his time. Joel, who had been doing movie and theater reviews and cultural reporting for WABC, started cutting back his local duties--aiming to become just a theater critic for Eyewitness News. The WABC brass were reluctant to loosen their grip on him, he was just too good at too many things.
I remember one election night--must have been 1982--when we left room for a Joel Siegel election-rated anecdote as the "bumper" before every commercial: little slice-of-campaign-life stories shot all around the city. The one that left everyone howling was the story of a mayoral debate in the early 1800s--maybe even the late 1700s. I don't remember the setup or the names, but it closed with one candidate cursing at the other and saying, "You, sir, are a cur and a vile cad, and you're bound to die of some loathsome disease."
The reply? "That, sir, depends on whether I embrace you principles, or your mistress."
Did you know Joel was a Broadway playwright? He wrote the book for a musical called "The First," based on Jackie Robinson's start with the Brooklyn Dodgers. A young David Allen Grier played Jackie Robinson, and Lonette McKee played his wife, Rachel. Martin Charnin (of "Annie" fame) wrote the lyrics and directed. How's that for a lineup? The show had a short run, though. I never could figure out why. I was smitten by it. To this day I can still hum some of the songs (like the one where Rachel responds to Jackie's marriage proposal saying, "I damn well better know you better" before marching down the aisle). I saw the show three times, including the final performance. I sat on the aisle and got to give Joel a sympathetic hug at the curtain. He became the only theatrer critic in history to be honored with a Tony award nomination. Hey, how many critics think they can be playwrights? All of 'em. How many can go on to be nominated for a Tony? Only one of 'em!
Parenthetically--and selfishly--I don't know how I'm going to pick movies now that Joel's gone. Over the years I've agreed with his movie reviews 99.9% of the time!
Anything else I should share? I sat shiva with Joel when his second wife died. She was young--a former WABC film editor, I believe--and her passing broke Joel's heart. Years later he remarried and has a young son, born in 1998, I think. By then Joel had colon cancer. At one point he was told he had only a 70% chance of living to see the birth of his child. That's when he wrote Lessons for Dylan, a highly-praised book, life lessons he wanted to pass down to his boy.
I stayed in touch with Joel Siegel a bit after I left New York. But he was very busy, and I didn't want to take up much of his time. Now I wished I had, if only to tell him that he brightened a corner of my life, that I was awed by his talent, thankful for his kindness, and that I liked him a lot.