I’ve been interviewing celebrities for over 20 years, so very little surprises me anymore. But there’ve been exceptions, and it usually comes from the age group I thought I had pegged.
I'm a proud Gen Xer, and I grew up with a sneering disregard for baby boomers and their parents, the so-called Greatest Generation. As far as I was concerned, they were all arrogant, self-congratulating asshats who believed they were responsible for everything awesome in the world. Blah, blah, blah, you stopped Hitler and invented rock ’n’ roll. We get it; you’re special. And they got only worse (and more predictable) as they got older. Or so I thought.
Here are five men — actors, musicians, comedians and a fitness guru — whom I’ve interviewed for magazines including Vanity Fair and Men’s Health, and the hard lessons about generational stereotypes they taught me.
1. You’re Never Too Old to Be a Shameless Flirt
Sir Ian McKellen, 77
Before I sat down with Ian McKellen, I’d already figured out our personal dynamics. He was the wizardly, reserved elder. And I was the scrappy, impulsive Hobbit. I would lead the conversation with my youthful energy and zany line of questioning, and he would tsk-tsk me for being so outlandish.
But he turned the tables on me almost immediately. I showed up for the interview wearing shorts, and before I could sit down, McKellen gave my legs a flirty stroke. “Nice calves,” he said with a wink.
Suddenly, I was the old man, red-faced at his impetuousness and verve.
2. Let Them Underestimate You; They’ll Catch Up Eventually
Don Rickles, 90
When Don Rickles began our interview with a string of bizarre questions, I assumed the worst. “Have we ever met before?” he asked. “Who is this? What magazine is this for again?” I told him I worked for Men’s Health, and he grumbled, “You obviously have the wrong number” and then hung up on me.
I called back Rickles — who I assumed, quite incorrectly, was getting old and senile — and tried to gently explain what was happening. “Listen, Mr. Men’s Health,” he playfully sneered at me, “if you ask me how many push-ups I do, I’m hanging up again.”
I laughed like I’d been in on the joke all along.
3. Sing Like Everyone’s Watching (and They Think You’re a Loon)
Richard Simmons, 68
I expected Richard Simmons to be bats— crazy. A man doesn’t keep wearing bedazzled tank tops and super-tight Dolfin shorts well into his 60s if he’s not eccentric. But I didn’t expect the singing.
“Curtain up! Light the lights!” he sang in the middle of our interview, apropos of nothing. “We got nothing to hit but the heeeeights!”
It made me laugh, not because it was so genuinely weird, but because it felt so weirdly genuine. I don’t envy the Richard Simmons who wears tutus to exercise. That’s never going to be me. But the Richard Simmons who starts singing “A whole new woooooorld,” just because he’s so damn happy, well, that’s the kind of uninhibited joy I’m after.
4. Sacred Cows Are for Tipping
Willie Nelson, 83
Gen Xers take pride in our total disregard for sacred cows, especially if they’re important to baby boomers. We like to say things like, “The Beatles weren’t that great,” just to get a rise out of them.
For my interview with Willie Nelson, I tried gently teasing him about his new recording of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Norah Jones. I explained why the song might be more sinister than he realized. Any tune with a woman pleading “The answer is no” while she’s trying to get out of a dude's apartment is probably about something other than an innocent romance.
I thought Nelson would scold me for misinterpreting a beloved American classic. Nope. Just the opposite. Instead, he joined me in making fun of the song’s potential for creepiness.
5. Be the Least Impressed by Your Own Awesomeness
Burt Reynolds, 80
Burt Reynolds was the biggest sex symbol in the world during the ’70s and ’80s. Today he’s just old. When I sat down with the former superstar, I expected exaggerated stories about his glorious heyday. That’s what over-the-hill guys do when their best days are behind them, right?
Instead, Reynolds told me stories about female fans sending him packages filled with their pubic hair. He told tales about posing for his infamous nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan in 1972, during which the studio was apparently so chilly that his “tallywacker” (his word) became, well, let’s say introverted.
It takes a lot of self-confidence to take the piss out of your own legacy. Sure, being a huge movie star is a nice way to make a living. But it also means you’re going to occasionally open mail filled with pubes.
Eric Spitznagel writes for magazines such as Playboy, Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine. He’s the author of seven books, including his latest, Old Records Never Die, and he's currently co-writing Jeff Tweedy's memoir.