by Heath Holland
Autograph collecting is a funny thing. This sounds like the beginning of a comedy bit, but it’s true. You’re collecting a piece of paper or a picture or an object upon which someone has signed their name. Sometimes this is awesome, but I think I’ve learned that sometimes it’s not.
Back in my college days (we’re talking the late 1990s), I took a public speaking class where one of our assignments was to present a hobby that we enjoyed to the rest of the class. I don’t even remember what I chose to discuss (it was probably comic books), but one of the speeches that was given made quite an impression on me. This guy got up and told us all about how he had become an avid autograph collector and had amassed an impressive stack of celebrity John Hancocks. He passed around a binder filled with signed headshots of actors, which were really impressive to a young me. Even more impressive to me, though, was that he had done it all through the mail. This was what really got me excited, because as a kid growing up in the Deep South, the odds of running into somebody like Al Pacino were slim to none. Ironically, one of my friends actually did get to meet Al Pacino when Michael Mann’s 1999 film The Insider shot some scenes in our humble city, but I didn’t know that was a possibility at the time. I still hope to run into Brad Pitt at the grocery store, but it hasn’t happened yet. If I ever do, I’ll probably tell him I enjoyed The Mexican.
I was hooked. I don’t remember how long it took me to get started, but it wasn’t long. Days, probably. I went out and bought several packs of those yellow manila envelopes and got busy getting the addresses of celebrities that had a high success rate. Here’s how I did it. I would write a single page letter on college rule paper. Not typed, because typed is impersonal and harder to connect with. I would spend a brief paragraph complimenting the actor on my favorite performances or films that they appeared in and wrap it up by asking if it was at all possible for me to get their autograph. I enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope for their convenience. I’d take that self-addressed stamped manila envelope and fold it in half, putting that inside a bigger manila envelope, usually with a piece of cardboard inside to protect whatever came back. I’d then neatly fold my letter and insert that into the envelope, too. I kept a detailed log of which celebrities I had written, what date I had mailed the request, and what date I finally got a response. All it cost me was a few bucks for the stamps and the supplies.
Among the requests that were never returned were Quentin Tarantino, Tom Cruise (his was returned to sender), Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clancy Brown, Sean Connery, Bruce Willis, Keanu Reeves, and Sylvester Stallone. The request that took the shortest amount of time to come was Joe Pesci, which literally arrived a week to the day after I mailed the request. It features him at a mixing board smoking a cigar and says “God is Good.” The one that took the longest was Kevin Spacey, which was mailed on March 10, 1999 and arrived almost four years later on January 24, 2003. It simply says “Thank You. Kevin Spacey.” Of all of the ones I obtained through the mail, I think that’s the one that I might like the most because 1) I never thought I’d get it after so long, and 2) it’s classy and appreciative.
There’s a downside to all this, though. While I’ve got a sweet stack of celebrity autographs, I have no stories to connect with them other than what I’ve shared with you. I don’t even know if they’re legitimate because I didn’t see them sign it. I mean, I think they are because they seem to check out, but how can I be sure? They’re literally just bits of ink printed on dead trees because there is no memory or experience that I can connect them to. The autographs that I have that mean the most to me are the ones that I obtained through face-to-face encounters. Those signatures serve as a physical reminder of the experience of meeting someone that I admire and sharing a few moments with them. I have two autographs of Willow actor Warwick Davis. One was obtained through his agent via the postal service, and the other one was obtained face to face years later at a Star Wars event. Guess which one I’m more proud of? It’s not the one that came in the mail. It’s the one that I got when I spent a few minutes talking to him about some of his early UK TV work that most other Americans had never heard of.
For the most part, I think my autograph days are behind me. I’m not judging, believe me. This is a guy who was so eager to interact with people he admired that he basically sent messages in a bottle to an address that might as well have been on the moon. But now there aren’t that many actors that I admire enough to ask for an autograph, and that makes me kind of sad. Maybe that’s part of getting older and realizing that most your heroes are an awful lot like you and don’t deserve to be put on a pedestal. I’ve been to conventions and events where actors that I though I wanted to meet were signing autographs. More often than not, these experiences ended up with me walking away feeling disillusioned. Sometimes the person I met was tired and grumpy after a long day of convention events, and sometimes they said and did things that actually made me think less of them and tainted how I watched their work afterward. There are actually some actors that I can’t watch on screen without there being a ton of baggage now. I wonder how many of the celebrities who I have autographs for would have let me down if it had been a face-to-face interaction? The phrase “never meet your heroes” definitely comes from a place of truth.
But you know what? I still have my binder full of autographs, and I probably will until the day I die. No Ebay for me, thank you. They represent a time when reaching out to my favorite actors meant a ton to me, and hearing back from them meant even more. I don’t know if it was really them responding, and there’s probably a good chance that it wasn’t. But it was a pretty great experience for a kid living thousands of miles from Hollywood who worshiped so many of the actors he saw on the silver screen. I don’t think I’d change a thing.