LOS ANGELES — And here comes Richard Pryor. He walks over, grabs John Salley’s hand and begins to shake it. A photographer requests a picture, and the two men turn toward the camera.
“Spider maaan,” says Pryor, looking not at Salley but straight at the lens, “you Detroit guys are taking care of business.”
“Yeah, we are,” says Salley, also looking straight ahead.
“You’re kickin’ some butt,” says Pryor.
“Takin’ care of biddd-ness!”
“I lost 50 bucks on you, man.”
Welcome to Wonderland. He loves LA! At least that was the idea: Spend a day in Tinseltown cruising with John Salley, a man who was born to do it. I figured, hey, good story, a few laughs, maybe he’ll meet a celeb. I did not figure to be here, at 10 p.m., on the set of Eddie Murphy’s new movie,
“Harlem Nights,” with the lights beaming and the cameras ready to roll and Richard Pryor arm in arm with Salley, and look, over there, it’s Redd Foxx, giving Salley the eye, and there’s Della Reese in a 1930s feather hat, and, whoa-ooh, hear that scream? Here comes Eddie Murphy, out of the makeup trailer. It’s John and Eddie now. Staring each other down. And they–
Well, wait a minute. I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let us begin at the beginning, which is to say, when it was still light outside, and I drove to the hotel where the Pistons are staying for these NBA Finals against the Lakers. I knew Salley, 25, would be up for this. He was, after all, the guy who, during last year’s finals at the Forum, marched right up to Jack Nicholson and said: “Yo, Jack, put me in one of your movies.”
“You wouldn’t fit in the frame,” Nicholson said.
“Let’s go to Arsenio’s,” says Salley when he appears in the lobby, dressed in blue jeans, sneakers, black shirt and gold spider pin.
” ‘The Arsenio Hall show’?”
“Gimme the keys.”
I give him the keys. Let me say this: I don’t know whom they build cars for, but they do not build them for 7-foot basketball players. Salley adjusted the seat, then adjusted the seat, and still adjusted the seat. You know those commercials where Salley says, “I ride in the back”? He does. Only for him, the back is the front.
Anyhow, off to Arsenio’s, as Salley calls it. And we get to the place, and the guard doesn’t let us in. So we park a block away, walk up and try another entrance. No luck. “Wait here.” And Salley disappears, I am standing there, alone, by Paramount Studios, trying to look, you know, like I have a meeting or something. And suddenly I hear:
It’s Salley, 100 yards away, by some back lot, waving frantically. Great, I figure, we’re breaking in. Sports writer and NBA star spend night in jail. Next thing I know, we are backstage and people are slapping Salley like an old friend. We are ushered to seats, the music blares, out comes Arsenio Hall, and the place goes nuts. As he acknowledges the applause, Hall spots Salley, points a finger, and mouths the words, “Spider Man.”
“You know a lot of people, John,” I whisper.
“Yeah, well. . . . ” he says.
In the monologue, Hall talks about basketball, and the series between the Lakers and Pistons, which Detroit leads, 2-0. He introduces Salley and the room breaks into applause. Remember now, Salley does not even start for the Pistons. But these are the NBA Finals and this is LA. Bright lights, big city, baby.
“Actually, John and Bill Laimbeer filed a complaint today with the NBA commissioner,” Hall says to the audience. “During Game 2, when A.C. Green gave them a head fake, they got soaked with A.C.’s jeri-curl stuff. Laimbeer was yelling, ‘I’m blind! I’m blind!’ “
Salley cracks up.
One of the guests on the show is Isiah Thomas. Salley watches his teammate, applauds wildly when he comes on, and whispers, “I hope he’s not nervous.” Deep down, I think Salley wishes he were actually a real guest, too, and when the director comes over and asks Salley to come down and join Isiah, he leaps to his feet. They cut a closing scene together.
ISIAH (looking at the camera): Watch the Arsenio Hall show. It’s. . . .
Click, click. That might have made some people’s day. It only begins it for Salley. He chats with Hall (who demands to stand on a footstool for any pictures they take) then schmoozes with the director and the talent producer. (“When you gonna have me on for real?” “We will, John. Promise.” “Yeah, yeah. You just waitin’ for a night when somebody else doesn’t show up. Ha-ha. Very funny.”)
And then he spots Ray Murphy.
Ray Murphy, I am told, is Eddie Murphy’s first cousin. He is, like Salley, from Brooklyn. And that is where Salley gets most of his celebrity connections: once a Brooklynite, always a Brooklynite. Once a schoolyard player, always a schoolyard player. There are a lot of people who seem to make it in sports and entertainment from Brooklyn, and they share a bond that says
“Yo, man, I’m from the old neighborhood. You got to take me in.”
And besides, Salley is 7 feet tall.
You try telling him to get lost.
“Let’s go, Sal,” says Ray Murphy, smiling. And soon we are stepping into a white golf cart with a Rolls-Royce hood ornament, and the letters “E.M.”
(Eddie Murphy) on the side, in gold.
We ride through the Paramount lots, past make-believe streets and actors in costume. People recognize Salley, his long legs hanging out the back.
“LAKERS GONNA GET YOU SUNDAY, MAN!” someone yells.
“Thank you,” Salley says, waving.
“YOU GUYS GONNA LOSE, MAN!”
“Nice to see you, too!”
We stop at Murphy’s offices. We walk past a neon signature — “Ednnnn Murnnnnnnn” it seems to read — and up the stairs. Now, I do not pretend to understand the movie business. I do know, however, that when one guy has all this office space on a studio lot — and I am talking a lot of office space, every room with different-color carpet, giant TV screens, stereos, sleek furniture, and silver-framed posters of Murphy movies — he is, what they used to call in show biz, a big enchilada.
Which doesn’t faze Salley in the slightest.
“So where’s Fast Eddie at?” Salley asks, plopping down in the couch.
“He’s resting up for tonight. We’re shooting a scene. You gotta come by, man. Hey. Is Magic gonna play Sunday?”
“I bet he does,” says Salley, grabbing a photo book off the shelf marked
“Women: Head Shots.” They are glossy photos of actresses, backed by their resumes.
Did I tell you about the bathroom? Inside Eddie Murphy’s private office? John has to use it. He cannot find the light switch. He sees two switches on the wall, flicks them, and a giant picture of Elvis Presley lights up. Elvis Presley?
“YO, RAY!” yells Salley. “YOU GUYS FORGET TO PAY YOUR ELECTRIC BILL OR WHAT?” Now we are riding to a favorite restaurant, a place called Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch in Marina Del Ray. It is, John says, “a soul food place” and the menu includes meat loaf, chicken, collard greens, lemonade. There is a half-hour wait, but the owners usher Salley to a table. I think he used to date one of the waitresses. Or maybe all of them, I’m not sure.
Anyhow, the whole dinner is spent with him shaking hands with cooks, waiters, fans. He is extremely at ease. I have known Salley for some time now, and I know that his youth as a Jehovah’s Witness prepared him for the spotlight. He tells often of how, as a grade-schooler, he knocked on door after door:
“Hi, my name is John Salley and I–“
You develop a pretty thick skin.
So Salley can talk to anyone, and he does, particularly famous show biz people because he admits, deep down, he would love to be a movie star or a stand-up comic one day. He has already charmed the likes of Billy Crystal, Don Rickles, Walter Matthau, Bruce Hornsby, Kool and The Gang, Eddie Van Halen, Sam Kinison and a batch more. There are times, in Detroit, when he is criticized for doing too much in the way of celluloid and not enough in the way of center court. But for all the time he spends on celebrity schmooze, I can tell you this: He does not seem stargazed. He always introduces whoever is with him, he doesn’t drink or smoke or do any kind of drugs. He just laughs. God, does he laugh. He bends over at the waist — which is the head for most of us — and just convulses. It is hard to imagine him having a better time than talking shop with comedians. Unless maybe he is sitting with 12 women on his lap. . . .
Which is what happens next. I am not making this up. On our way to the movie set, he drives past a TGI Friday’s restaurant, pulls into a no-parking area, and says, “You gotta see this place, just for a second.”
The room is packed. He is not there 20 seconds before someone yells
“Spider!” and he is swamped. People grabbing his hand. People coming up with cocktail napkins for him to sign.
“Kick him in the knee!” someone yells.
“Break his leg!”
“Hi, my name is Paula,” says a girl in a white sweater.
“Good for you!” says Salley, grinning.
“L-A! L-A!” the chant arises. “L-A! L-A!”
Two sorority sisters march up to him, like twins in the Doublemint commercial. “Can we have our picture taken with you?” Soon Salley is stuffed at the table with the entire sorority, they are squeezing around him, say-cheeeeeezing for the photo. He gets up, smiles, and slides to the door.
“Let’s get outta here,” he says. “I just wanted you to see what these places are like.”
They’re not like that for me. Anyhow, can we get back to this movie set, “Harlem Nights,” which, I gather, is a period piece starring Murphy and Pryor as two nightclub owners? And here comes Redd Foxx, who has been staring at Salley like some sort of tall building with striking architecture.
“That guy,” grumbles Foxx, his voice pure gravel, “must be standin’ on something.”
“Redd,” says a studio person, walking him over, “this is John Salley. He plays for the Detroit Pist–“
“I know who he is,” barks Foxx. “I got me a television set, you know.”
Salley laughs until tears dot his eyes. He asks for a picture with Foxx.
“Certainly,” says the star, pulling the cigarette from his mouth. He waddles in place, grabs his vest jacket — a la Fred Sanford — puts his arm around Salley and says, “OK, everybody say . . . hemmorrhoiiiiidds.”
Another actor comes over, I forget his name. (Sorry, they didn’t give out a credits list.) And he says to Salley: “Next year.”
“Next year, what?”
“You Pistons should wait until next year. Let Kareem retire with a championship.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Salley says, smiling. “The man’s been playing 48 years. He’s got 20 rings! How much more does he need?”
“Next year,” says the actor, laughing.
“Sounds like a personal problem to me.”
“He could show up with no legs and still score 20.”
“This year.” Eddie Murphy. OK. Here he comes, dressed in the period costume of the film, wide-brimmed hat, brown zoot suit, two-tone shoes, marching from his trailer with an entourage. Spectators behind the barricades scream “EDDIE! EDDIE!” He stares straight ahead. That is, until he comes within 10 feet of Salley.
Murphy’s eyes look as if they will bulge out of his head. Up, up. Then he makes the connection. He allows that grin, which seems to say, “Wait a minute. I can make a joke here.” He holds out his hand. “Yo, Sal, how you doing?”
“All right,” Salley answers.
It is a big deal, at least on this set, where it seems Eddie Murphy does not make eye contact with anyone he doesn’t have to. A murmur buzzes through the crowd. Who is that guy? Wow, Eddie talked to him!
Murphy walks on, gets a few feet away and says to his entourage, “If y’all want the Lakers to win the series, you better jump Salley now — while you got the chance.”
And the set cracks up.
Anyhow, we could go on and on here with stories, about Murphy, about Foxx, about the Spuds MacKenzie girls who find John and pose for pictures with him and offer to become the Salley-ettes. (Don’t ask me what they were doing on the set of Murphy’s movie. People just kind of show up in these parts.)
But eventually, Salley decides it is time to go, and we do, and as he is driving along the nighttime streets of the glitziest city in America I ask him what he thinks about all those movie stars when he watches them film a movie like that:
“I think,” he says, allowing a big grin, “I could do that.”
We reach his hotel, he says thanks (he’s thanking me?), says he had a great time, and walks back to the lobby and disappears.
When I return to the driver’s seat, I cannot reach the gas pedal. I adjust, drive off and pass a street from which you can see the famous “Hollywood” sign, high up in the hills. It occurs to me that only three letters would need to be changed for it to read “Salleywood.”
I figure there’s something to that, don’t you?
Mitch Albom’s sports talk show, “The Sunday Sports Albom,” airs tonight live from Los Angeles on WLLZ-FM (98.7). Guests: Joe Dumars, Mike Downey. CUTLINE John Salley met actor Redd Foxx on the set of Eddie Murphy’s movie, “Harlem Nights.” “That guy must be standin’ on something,” Foxx said of Salley. A studio person started to explain. “I know who he is,” Foxx said. “I got me a television set, you know.” Richard Pryor and John Salley on the “Harlem Nights” set: “I lost 50 bucks on you, man,” Pryor said. “Sorry, Richard,” Salley said. John Salley poses with Lela Rochon (left) and Leslie Ferrera, two of Spuds MacKenzie’s party friends.