That Famous Face, So Often Unseen

Here is a story the British comedian Arthur Askey told. In a lift (English for "elevator") in a Blackpool Hotel, another man said to him: "Has anyone ever told you you look like Arthur Askey?" He admitted undemonstratively that they had.

Next day, the same two men met again in the same lift.

"Do you know," said the first, "I've discovered that Arthur Askey is actually appearing here just now."

The comedian thought he should now admit who he was. "Well, you see, actually, I am Arthur Askey."

The man looked at him with a knowing grin. "I bet you wish you were!" he said.

It is not easy, I imagine, having a famous face. Or even one that looks famous.

At one time I kept seeing Meryl Streep everywhere. Not the real Meryl, or at least I think not. Just a large number of women who looked exactly like her - coming down the aisle in Tesco's, queuing for stamps, shoving plastic cards into bank machines, that sort of thing.

It is odd, though. Not all superstars have been granted such ubiquity. I never, for instance, saw Norma Jean repetitively cloned - except as silk-screened by Andrew Warhol. (And Warhol himself I saw only once, in Texas - or was it that chap who impersonated him? I forget his name.)

Nor do I think that Audrey Hepburn's doe eyes and sapling neck were remotely imitable - though there was a woman behind the counter in the charity shop the other week who claimed she had, when younger, done her best to copy the Hepburn look. At the time I was looking at a calendar devoted to the star, and while I credited the charitable lady's ambition, I privately doubted the achievement.

It has been a while now, in fact, since I spotted the redoubtable Streep on all sides.

These days, it is Alec Guinness I keep spotting.

I see him - double - quite frequently on Sunday mornings. He is two brothers who are piously headed churchward down the hill toward Partick. The spitting image of Guinness the both of them. Twins, I suppose. Or maybe triplets?

Sir Alec is one of those actors whose appearance disappears into a character. So it is paradoxical that other people should look like him, unless everyone does. Perhaps it is a case of the more he tries to vanish, the more noticeable he inadvertently becomes.

His newest burst into book form, a published diary, has him pictured on the back and front covers as John Le Carr's George Smiley. He told his publisher that he hates having his photograph taken - which seems strangely reticent for a professional actor who has appeared in countless films - so they had to make do with photos of him playing a character. The telling point is, though, that the photographs are instantly identifiable as Guinness. His book, incidentally, is wittily titled "My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor." (Already available in Britain, the book is scheduled to appear this summer in the United States.)

Two recent events he describes (last entry June 6, 1996) touch on the question of recognition. One took place when he had received "an invitation to dine at the Admiralty" (sounds like Samuel Pepys), "and a fine and marvellous occasion it was...."

"When I arrived, " he writes, "the Flag Lieutenant (for it was he) greeted me with 'So glad to see you!' and what I took to be a pleased smile of recognition. He invited me to see where I would be sitting. 'You are here,' he said, 'with Mr So-and-so on one side and Admiral So-and-so on the other. Opposite you, Alec Guinness, the actor.' 'Ah!' I said, 'a Doppelgnger!' But he didn't get it."

The other story is entered on "Tuesday 21 February" (1995) and reads thus: "Today I have picked up a rather good notice in an American film trade paper for a performance I have never given in a film I have never heard of. It says that I am 'almost unrecognizable' in the film. I like the 'almost.' "

I, on the other hand, have no difficulty recognizing Sir Alec's manifestation every morning in the park near here. It is what Le Carr (in his revealing introduction to the book) describes as his "fluid face" that gives him away. Here he is daily, jogging. I am dog-walking, but Sir Alec, though a dog-lover, ventures forth dogless: another tactic to hide his identity.

UNTIL today he seems to have been somewhat dour and monosyllabic in response to my suggestion that it's a good morning. At least he seems taken by surprise that anyone else might address him. (Probably it is the desire for anonymity felt by most famous people, which is almost as keen as the dismay they experience when nobody spots them.) The most he has hitherto managed in reply is a profoundly Scottish-Irish "G-morrnin', surr!" and he's quickly on his way. (The accent is also clearly one of the actor's ingenious chameleon-esque devices.)

But this morning I almost had a conversation with him. "Good morning," I said. "A lovely one."

"That it is, surr," he replied, slightly slowing his pace. "That it is." And he very nearly smiled.

"Though rather chilly," I ventured.

"It is indeed, it is indeed!" And he smiled quite broadly. "You haf t' kape moovin'."

This, I think, is progress. Soon we may be discussing ozone depletion at length or abstruse forms of animatronics - who can tell? Perhaps he can even give me a few tips on acting.

Though there is one thing I will never do, no matter how chummy we become. I will never blow his cover. That would not be fair. We all have a right to our privacy.

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