Made famous through his role in 'Cabaret,' Grey reflects on a storied life in his new book.

By Liz McNeil
Updated February 17, 2016 at 01:20 PM EST
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At long last the Broadway legend, 83, has published a memoir, Master of Ceremonies, and it’s brimming with dishy tales from his decades on stage and screen. Below, he tells EW what it was like to discuss his sexuality with his parents.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the hardest thing to write about?

JOEL GREY: My son’s death. I actually have three children [Jennifer, 55, James, 51, and Jeremy, who died in 1958 as a newborn]. It was just too terrible to think about. I broke down writing it. Also, revisiting some of my childhood memories with my mom and with my sexuality and the shame and fear that it initiated.

At 16, you told your parents you’d had an affair with a man.

When I told my mother, I remember reaching out to her, and she said, “Don’t ever touch me again, you disgust me.” It was one of the worst moments of my life. Secrets became necessary.

Much of the book is about your sexual awakening.

It was so confusing. Something that seemed so natural, people were going to jail for. I didn’t understand it. I was having sex with women, too. I went to a therapist who said, “You’ll outgrow it.” I believed it. For a minute.

What was it like to be a gay man in that era?

I couldn’t talk about it. It would have destroyed my career.

Then you met the woman you would marry, Jo Wilder.

Instant attraction. I was gobsmacked. Our years together were the happiest of my life.

How did you land your iconic Broadway role as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret?

I had been unable to find work. I was deeply depressed and thought I had to do something else to earn a living. Hal [Prince] called and said, “I have a part in a new musical you’d be right for.”

Your look in the play — eyelashes, pale skin, cruel lips — was unforgettable.

The eyelashes came from Jo’s makeup kit from summer stock. They were full of mascara and like paper, not girly. They moved like a marionette.

You almost didn’t get the movie role.

The director, Bob Fosse, was talking about Anthony Newley and Ruth Gordon for the part. I was heartbroken. This was my role, my shot. A few weeks before filming, he walked into a meeting and said, “Gentlemen, it’s Joel Grey or me,” and Marty Baum, the producer, said, “Then it’s Joel Grey.”

Tell us what it was like to work with Liza Minnelli.

She was heaven! Fosse insisted we wear costumes when rehearsing “Money.” She got a gown and I got a tailcoat, and my body was running so hot, doing the song over and over. [I was like] all those German men who didn’t use deodorant, and it made her laugh. It was like we were Judy [Garland] and Mickey [Rooney] putting on a show in a barn!

You got an Oscar for the part.

I was sure I wasn’t going to win. When Diana Ross said my name, I hadn’t prepared anything. My neighbor and good friend Larry Hagman had left a big trophy at my door: “Joel Grey, The Best F—ing Neighbor Award,” so I would not come home empty-handed.

How did playing an AIDS activist in The Normal Heart change you?

It made me somewhat of an evangelist because the actors were given the responsibility of telling the story that no newspaper would tell. You couldn’t believe that people were being destroyed and left to die alone.

After divorcing Wilder, you had to learn to be openly gay.

I was the same person — but better, for having no secrets.

Whose work do you admire in today’s Hollywood?

I like Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence — she seems to be not just a star but to inhabit the character. Leonardo DiCaprio was phenomenal in The Revenant, [and so were] Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies and Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight.

What’s next for you?

I’m thinking about more writing. I may have more to say.

Always leave ’em wanting more?

Or always leave them laughing.

Below, listen to an exclusive clip of Grey reading from the Master of Ceremonies audiobook:

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