Near Greatness

Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore Art Thou?

Meeting Leonard Whiting, aka the Romeo of Franco Zeffirelli's 'Romeo and Juliet,' was one of the happiest days of my life

I'm standing in a messy line of people that weaves around a corner, through a curtain, and then disappears. Where the line actually ends, nobody knows. We're on what appears to be the purgatory level of the Castro Theater in San Francisco. But it doesn't matter where we are, as all of us are aging fangirls and fanguys, and would wait in Hell itself to meet Leonard Whiting, aka the Romeo of Franco Zeffirelli's film version of "Romeo and Juliet."

The floor slants where I'm standing, causing my feet to grip the insides of my shoes to keep my balance. My face is flushed, my heart is beating too fast, and I need to use the restroom. But I refuse to lose my place as I've been dreaming of this day for most of my life. I clutch my collection of programs, movie-stills and other memorabilia a little closer to my chest, and continue to wait.

It's actually amazing that I still have my Romeo and Juliet collectables at all. My mother is a fervent anti-hoarder and threw out almost everything, and yet I still have the teen booklet about Leonard that I bought from the back of 16 magazine. The book is missing its cover, and was obviously written for the pre-teen set with chapter headings like "What makes Len a special person?" and "I Loved-and-Lost-Len Whiting," but I consider it one of my prized possessions.

"Is that him?" an older gentleman in a plaid shirt cranes his neck to see in front of the line.

I shake my head no, even though he isn't asking the question of me. I feel smug that he's unsure of what Leonard Whiting looks like these days. If he was a real fan, he'd know. How many times has he seen the movie? Under one hundred times? Ha, and he calls himself a fan.

Then another man with gray closely-cut hair, wearing a black smoking jacket has his picture taken next to a life-size poster of Leonard.

"There he is! Yes, that's him!" I say unable to stop myself from pointing to Leonard posing with his younger self.

Shortly after I turned 8, my parents took me to see "Romeo and Juliet." I don't think they gave any thought to the brief nudity in the movie—or that 8 can be an impressionable age and the time we start to develop crushes. Since it was Shakespeare, the movie was thought to be very educational—which it was for me, as it was the first time I saw a partially naked man.

I was mesmerized by the movie, and would spend hours reciting lines of dialogue along with the movie's soundtrack. I'd incorporate phrases like "He laughs at scars that never felt a wound" or "fool's paradise" into my own speech. I felt as if I could understand every word in any Shakespeare play because I knew this one so well.

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When I was at San Jose State University, my friend Lauren (who was going to U.C. Berkeley) heard two girls on the bus say that Leonard Whiting was their professor at Mills College. Lauren couldn't wait to call me with the news. I tried to figure out a way to find out if this was true, but decided against going to Oakland and searching for Leonard. What would I have done while I was there? Knock on each professor's door in hopes that Leonard Whiting would answer, look into my eyes and know instantly that I was his soulmate?

After years of looking for my own Romeo, I finally met Andy, the man I would end up spending my life with, and while he wasn't as Shakespearean handsome as Leonard Whiting, English, or a wearer of tights, he was funny, honest, and loving. Clearly, Andy was the man I had been seeking.

Decades after first seeing "Romeo and Juliet," a friend randomly emailed me a picture of the marque of the Castro Theater advertising their Valentine's Day screening of the film with Leonard Whiting in person. Fate had finally intervened.

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There was no question that I had to go. It didn't matter that I had a phobia of driving on the freeway, that I lived in Los Angeles, or that I had arthritis in my knees, I was going to that screening if it killed me. And Andy made sure I did, by doing the driving and supporting my dream every step of the way.

The line starts to move. My hands are sweaty, and I'm trying not to drip all over the movie program that I want Leonard to sign. Even though I don't have to buy a picture for him to sign, I need to pay for the autograph. Andy holding my purse, hands over twenty dollars to the person collecting the money.

I can see Leonard clearly now. He looks like an old-fashioned English actor, which is exactly what he has aged into. He's still good-looking, though not the beauty he once was, but there's kindness about him.

"Thank you for doing this," I say to Leonard, when I'm one person away from him. I don't just want his autograph, I want to stand out, and for one moment be as remarkable to him as he's been to me.

"Certainly," Leonard says, smiling. "It's my pleasure."

The waiting has finally come to an end—it's my turn. I hand him the movie's program that I've saved for over 4 decades, and he signs it: "To Christine, Love Leonard Whiting."

"Is this OK?" he asks.

Yes, of course it's OK. My heart is about to escape from my chest and bleed out here on this table among your old headshots.

I walk around the table, Leonard puts his arm around me and says, "Christine, I love you." The photographer takes what will probably be the most joy-filled picture of me ever.

I move on—my Leonard meeting over—and get my purse from Andy. I'm happy that Andy is the one I'm going home with. He's not Leonard or Romeo, but I know his love will last longer than the photographer's flash, and he doesn't need to stab a dagger into his heart to prove it.