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When Alex Met Charles

A teen with Asperger's syndrome asked the author &#8212 film star Charles Grodin &#8212 for help, and gave him a great deal in return

The first time I saw Alex Fischetti, I was doing a book signing at my local library in Wilton, Connecticut. I gave a talk, then asked the group of about 75 people if they had any questions. A teenager raised his hand. I don't remember what he asked, but I do remember that there was something slightly awkward about him — not that it mattered. The way I see it, there's something awkward about each of us, or something different, anyway.

Afterward, I was at a table signing books and Alex asked if he could interview me. I always try very hard to say yes, because people so easily say no.

We did the interview the following day, and in a short time Alex revealed that he has Asperger's syndrome. It's a mild form of autism. People with Asperger's often have an obsession. With Alex, it's celebrities. Having been in show business most of my life, I qualified.

By that time, I had served for 15 years on the board of Mentoring U.S.A., a nonprofit that pairs youngsters with volunteer mentors. It seemed overdue for me to become a mentor myself. Maybe that's why I took an interest in Alex.

After our interview we stayed in touch. True to his obsession, Alex wanted me to introduce him to every celebrity I knew — and some that I didn't. I explained that these were people with careers and families, and that most were already on overload. But some of them I knew well enough to ask for phone interviews with Alex. Carol Burnett, Peter Falk, and Joe Pesci quickly agreed.

Then Alex asked me to invite 30 celebrities to his 18th birthday party.

I said, "Alex, these people mostly live in Hollywood. Why would they come here for a teenager's birthday — a boy they don't even know?"

"Well," said Alex, "18 is a pretty big birthday."

Alex let it go for the moment, but those requests kept coming. Once, Alex suggested I get my friend Elaine May, the director, whom he'd met one time, to fly him to Los Angeles for an event honoring her former comedy partner, Mike Nichols.

"It's just not a reasonable request," I told him.

"Not a reasonable request," Alex repeated. "I see."

"Do you?" I asked.

"Not really," he responded.

I realized that part of my role as mentor would be to help Alex see other people's points of view. That's not always easy for any teenager, and certainly not for one with Asperger's. It's something we talk about frequently, even as I continue to hook him up with celebrity friends generous enough to spend time on a Fischetti interview. (Alex also lines up interviews on his own. See excerpts from his chat with Frankie Valli, at right.)

After three years I can see him catching on. Recently, when a boy of about 15 wrote to me and shared that he was autistic, I suggested to Alex that he write to the boy, which he did. I hope he can help the younger boy.

And the last time Alex proposed a meeting I thought inappropriate — helping Ethel Kennedy, a friend of mine, move to a new home — I explained that Ethel didn't want or need our help. It took three tries on my part, but eventually he said, "I understand." And I honestly believe that he did.

I hope it's clear what Alex gets out of our friendship: I am trying to help him pursue his dream of becoming a professional interviewer. It's the kind of help each person deserves.

But equally important to me is what I get from our relationship. It has been evident to me for several years that the best way to help yourself is to help others. There's nothing I could do solely for myself that would match the satisfaction I get from being of value to Alex.

Actor and CBS News commentator Charles Grodin is the author of the memoir How I Got to Be Whoever It Is I Am.

PhotoS: MATTHEW HRANEK

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