Early in my career, I was working out of my one bedroom apartment on 76th Street and Columbus Ave. I turned the bedroom (all 130 square feet of it) into a studio and moved my bed into the living room on top of a raised platform. My back was literally to the wall when I shot headshots. I considered knocking down the closet wall but I wasn’t sure yet that the headshot thing would fly. We set up a make-up area in the living room. The kitchen was “reception”. And this was where I started my campaign to take the headshot world by storm. The apartment was on the top floor of a brownstone and there were exactly 76 stairs from the foyer to my “studio”. I used to joke that I was a Darwinian Headshot Photographer because only the strong could make it up the stairs to shoot with me. If a client was older or had difficulty walking, I would come down and help push them up the stairs.
Looking back it’s amazing how many high profile people made the ascent to that cramped apartment, I mean “studio”. Sean Young, right before “No Way Out” was released, came to shoot. She was lovely and playful and I still have her thank you note which was signed “Mary Sean”.
Lou Jacobi, famous for his love affair with a lamb in “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex” by Woody Allen came to shoot. A true New York icon, he was fun and sweet and sent me his reproduction for my portfolio. About a month after I received his shot he called me, “Joe…Jacobi…you know I didn’t sign that photo for you, would you like me to do that?” It must have been preying on his mind. I walked down to his apartment on Central Park South and he wrote a very complimentary note and signed his photo. He also invited me to brunch with him at The Russian Tea Room that Sunday. I was excited because he said he would introduce me to some people. When we arrived, the sea parted for him and we were led to the best table in the restaurant. He was treated like royalty and I got to draft on his star status. He suggested the blintzes and we dove in when they arrived. Every so often someone would recognize him and come over to pay their respects. It must have happened 15 times that we were interrupted and he would graciously introduce me as his “genius photographer”. I was flying high. It was a wonderful lunch. At one point a Hollywood “Suit” came over to say hello, “Lou Baby, I haven’t seen you since the party at so and so’s in Brentwood!” he gushed. He babbled on and on glad-handing Mr. Jacobi as he went. When he finally parted Mr. Jacobi leaned over to me, winked and whispered, “Who the f#^k was that?” Hilarious!
Robert Downey, Sr., a director famous for his edgy independent films in the 60’s and 70’s such as Putney Swope and Watermelon Man did a session. He was very charming and kooky. During the shoot he told me that his son was getting his feet wet in the acting world and was “doing pretty good with it”. Guess so…
Jackee, the star of “227” shot with me numerous times in that apartment. She used to love drinking champagne through a straw throughout her session. It never seemed to effect her. She was a natural in front of the camera and we always had great sessions. She even flew back from LA a few times to shoot with me. She laughed and confided in me that her manager wanted her to shoot with a $10,000 a day photographer in LA, but she told him that she would prefer to go back to her guy on 76th Street. What a love!
Definitely one of the most confusing experiences in my early headshot years came when the phone rang on weekday morning. I was watching a video I had made the night before of a comedy special on HBO called “Women of the Night”. It consisted of the stand up routines of 4 of the hottest female comics in the country. A very soft-spoken, proper brunette comic with a full head of curls was taking the mike when the phone rang. I answered “Joe Henson” and the same soft proper voice responded, “Hi Joe, my name is Rita Rudner.” At the same time on the TV the woman’s voice spoke “Hi, I’m Rita Rudner”! What was happening? Had I gone too long without a vacation? It was an amazing coincidence! Rita Rudner called me just as she started her routine on TV! I said “I’m watching you on TV right now!” and she and I marveled at the peculiarity of that. Sometimes I think the universe just likes messing with you.
Rita shot with me a few times and really hit it big in the comedy world. A few years later I was out in LA doing promotional shots for my brother, John who was the host of Talk Soup at the time. After the session we flew to Vegas for a few days’ fun. In the cab ride from the airport to the hotel, I saw a big billboard with my shot of Rita Rudner who was appearing at one of the hotels. When we got to our room I called the hotel where she was appearing and left a voicemail for her. She called back and told me she would leave passes for us to see her show, one of the nicest perks of working in my field, and to be sure to come backstage after the show. That night after breaking the bank at the Black Jack table we jumped into a cab to see Rita’s show. We were seated in a VIP booth and got complimentary champagne all night. Rita was hysterical. At the end of the show, she brought out her sheepdog and did a few bits with her. Rita was really on her game. She killed, as they say. After the show, we were escorted back to her dressing room. I introduced John and we all had a nice chat. As we were talking, I absentmindedly petted her big sheepdog when it came to give me a sniff. I am extremely allergic to dogs, but I guess the endless bucket of champagne had impaired my vigilance. I rubbed my eye with the dog petting hand and my eye preceded to swell and tear immediately. Rita must have noticed that I had suddenly become Quasimodo, but she thankfully did not make my rheumy eye the butt of her jokes.
I am so appreciative of the fact that my early clients were able to overlook the decidedly un-glamorous nature of my first studio. My studio now is at least 10 times the size of that apartment on 76th Street and I thank my lucky stars everyday that my back is no longer to the wall in the Headshot business.