Joel Grey’s Theater Journey Began at the Cleveland Play House

In October 2015, the Ohio native returned to the stage where he started to perform “Joel Grey: Up Close and Personal,” an intimate look at the actor’s life and work.

Joel Grey joined the Cleveland Play House Curtain Pullers children’s troupe when he was 9 years old. In 1941, he made his theatrical debut in “On Borrowed Time,” a drama exploring the role death plays in life.

In the decades that followed, Grey’s stage credits grew to include portraying songwriter George M. Cohan in “George M!” and a beleaguered husband in “Chicago.” But it’s his performance as the macabre master of ceremonies in “Cabaret” — for which he received both a Tony and an Academy award — that has achieved iconic status.

As the Cleveland Play House celebrated its 100th birthday, Grey returned home Oct. 24 and 25, 2015, to present “Joel Grey: Up Close and Personal,” a one-man retrospective spotlighting his work on stage and screen.

“‘Up Close and Personal’ is very intimate,” he says. “It will seem as though I am sitting in your living room and talking with you about my life and my work.”

Before his performance, Grey talked with us about the power of theater, the joy he’s found behind the camera and his favorite role.

Your father, Mickey Katz, was a comedian and clarinetist who performed in the Spike Jones band in the 1940s. Did he influence your desire to become an actor?
Actually, it was my mom who introduced me to theater. She took me to a kid’s show at the Cleveland Play House. As I sat in the audience, I said to myself, ‘I want to do that.’ … There’s nothing like the theater in terms of democracy, in terms of working with other people to make something wonderful and beautiful that matters.

You mentioned your role in “Cabaret” is your favorite. Did you expect the show to have the impact it had when it opened on Broadway in 1966?
No. Nobody expected it to be a success on the stage because nobody had seen anything like it. It was a musical that was gritty and disturbing and about Nazism. Initially, people thought, that’s not a very good idea, but it turned out to be so well written, and the subject matter was so important, that the show really got the audience thinking. And it still does.

You’ve published four books of your photography and have had your images exhibited at galleries in New York. What makes a good photo?
I’ve always taken pictures to record my visual world. For the image to be magical to me, the subject has to be making some kind of impact. I focus on things that interest me, surprise me and confuse me.