My Celebrity Encounter With Jessica Harper

Most of my brushes with greatness have been brief and awkward; not so much with my favorite actress in 'Pennies From Heaven'

When I was a kid, I tripped while chasing Sidney Poitier's limo. On the set of "John and Mary," I asked Dustin Hoffman to sign my hat, but nobody nearby had a pen. When Bill Murray wandered into my yard sale in 1988, I stood quickly to greet him and knocked over my change box. And I walked squarely into a parking meter when I saw Jackie Onassis coming out of a midtown restaurant.

Most of my celebrity encounters have been brief and awkward, the thrill of the sighting followed by tragic attempts to communicate and the deflating realization that we'd never hang out. Ever.

Not so much with Jessica Harper. She, of course, is the star of "My Favorite Year," "Pennies From Heaven," "Stardust Memories," "Suspiria," "Phantom of The Paradise" and "The Gary Shandling Show," among others. We hang out a lot … mostly because she's my sister.

Her nickname was Pote, my father's invention (origins unknown), and we grew up at opposite ends of a long hall, she at the top of the stairs in a room that was neat and pink, me and my twin brother in the back, near the laundry chute. We were also separated by years, so we weren't particularly close when I was growing up. She labored gracefully under the burdens of teenhood while I learned to ride a two-wheeler, struggled on the bongo board and tortured my neighbor's cat. I knew her as a model student, an athlete and a cheerleader. And when I passed her room at the top of the stairs, I often heard her singing her heart out, practicing for the talent show or a musical or just because she liked to sing.

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Performance genes ran strong in our family. My mother was a nightclub singer whose luminous voice filled our house after she married and had six children. She sang when she cooked, when she bathed us and always when she put us to bed. She and my father attended play reading groups throughout their lives and acted in neighborhood theatre.

They encouraged us to paint, sing, act and write. To walk the upstairs hallway in our house was to walk a gauntlet of drumming (me), oil paint fumes (my sister), piano playing (my brother) and harmonizing (all of my sisters).

But only Jessica made it from that hallway to Broadway. When she sang her way into the cast of "Hair," getting a role as a member of "the tribe," she dropped out of college and took up acting full time. I was just coming of age, and I remember thinking how cool it was that I had a sister in the hottest show in New York. Cooler still, my brother and I were allowed to sit back stage during performances. One night, I peeked out at the audience. They stared up at the stage, faces aglow in the lighting, glued to the dancing and singing, glued to my very own sister.

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Pote. That was the first time I thought of her as famous.

But her celebrity didn't start percolating until after the move to Hollywood and her appearances in "Inserts," "Phantom of the Paradise" and "Suspiria." These early days in her movie career were celebratory, festive, exciting. She flew my sister and me out, put us up in her new house in Laurel Canyon and treated us to Musso & Frank's, Schwab's and, yes, Disneyland. On the Santa Monica Pier, a young man startled her by asking for an autograph. When we were waiting in line outside the Cinerama Dome, I noticed people staring and whispering. I leaned over and asked if she noticed their hushed adulation. "Yeah," she said. "And my first thought was that I have a rip in my pants."

A year later, I followed Jessica to Hollywood to become a screenwriter and found that her celebrity reality had become outsized. I was her escort to various premieres and black tie social events. There were photographs in the trades, and full page "For Your Consideration" advertisements featuring her close-up. Agents and studio executives urged her to get out and press the flesh, get into the news, seize this moment in her career, become a commodity. Her talent had become part of a machine that included corporations, middlemen and hucksters. And then there were the fans who came to her house at all hours of the day and night, sometimes drunk, wanting autographs, conversation, wanting to hang out. Hollywood had taken Jessica to a lot of places she wanted to go, but the frenzied pursuit of renown wasn't in her.

Most celebrities and/or their loved ones don't survive the inevitable ups and downs of a Hollywood career. But there was never anything awkward about my celebrity encounter with Jessica Harper. As she went on to raise a family and reinvent herself as an author, she remained Pote, the generous, loving older sister who gave me advice on fashion ("No hats. Ever.") and women ("Don't be too nice.") and my driving ("Driving is like sex: the less you worry, the better you are at it.") How'd she do it? I have no idea, but I know one thing; She has never stopped singing her heart out.