Tobey and Me
by James Crotty
May 1, 2001


played basketball with Tobey Maguire today. At the Hollywood YMCA. I don't say that to impress you. I'm certainly not impressed. At least no more than I'm impressed by brain surgeons or car mechanics. It's just that even the world's best brain surgeon wouldn't get a second look on a basketball court, unless he was playing at the National Academy of Brain Surgeons' annual pickup, or should I say, "uptake" game. Screen actors, however, are the sole "professionals" whose recognition transcends race, class, language, and certainly talent.

Like I said, I was playing ball with the Tobester. This is important because Tobey Maguire, while not a household name, falls into that category of Semi-Famous Actor Guy (like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Tim Allen, two Semi-Famous Actor Guys who also work out at the Hollywood YMCA). Semi-Famous Actor Guys are tricky. On the one hand, they're special because there's always that chance they'll morph into Super-Famous Actor Guys (like "Denzel"--no need for the last name anymore--who also works out at the Hollywood YMCA). On the other hand, they have an air of accessibility (except Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who wears the same constipated scowl off-screen he made famous in "Happiness"). Semi-Famous Actor Guys remain semi-accessible because they intuitively know that one day they might fall from the ranks of Semi-Famous Actor Guy and become a ONCE-Semi-Famous Actor Guy. By contrast, when an actor becomes a SUPER-Famous Actor Guy, there's no turning back. He could stop making movies, do a Flip Wilson, but he would never be forgotten. Bogie, for example.

I hadn't been back to L.A. for several months. So I noticed Tobey Maguire for the first time only a couple days ago. He was shooting alone in the Y's other, much larger, air conditioned gym (not the funky lovable rat hole where we play pickup). Unlike other Semi-Famous Actor Guys, Toby looked right at me. Like he was one of the Not-So-Famous Actor Guys, who are a dime a dozen at the Hollywood YMCA. Like he was looking to jabber a bit, as we Not-So-Famous Basketball Guys do.

Now, I'm told that I can find these Not-So-Famous Actor/Basketball Guys all over TV (on "ER," "That 70s Show," that 80s show, that 90s show, whatever), all over the big screen too ("Three Kings," "Magnolia," "Time Code"), but at the Hollywood YMCA nobody is supposed to care about that. As I told the Tobester before our game, "basketball is more important than anything. Whatever you happen to do for work pales in comparison because you will always remember that winning shot, whether last week or from 8th grade. Always." The Tobester agreed. "Basketball IS everything," he echoed in his upbeat, yet low-key, Tobey Maguire way.

Only problem, of course, was that I was being disingenuous. While I have no abiding fascination with the entertainment industry, like any teenager from Iowa, I still get a little weird when I see a celebrity. Especially a celebrity who's playing pickup ball at my YMCA.

My team (consisting of a Queens-born TV guy, a German-born TV guy, a music producer, and a struggling actor with a jump shot) had just won five games in a row, but my fab four had all decided to quit in glory, leaving me with a whole new ensemble. I could have played with the Tobenheimer, but decided to let Toby, his trainer, and his handler, play with two friends, while I teamed up with four other warriors, including a Not-So-Famous Actor Guy named Eric Balfour, who played the boyfriend of Mel Gibson's daughter in "What Women Want."

I watched Tobey closely. On the sign-up board, he'd signed his name "Tobias." With my generous move on his team's behalf, it now happened that "Tobias" was going to be guarding moi . I decided to take command of the situation.

"Tobias, my name's Jim. But everybody calls me Monk."

"Well, everyone calls me Tobey," he said with a wry smile.

There was something in that wry smile that spoke volumes. I took it two ways: 1. Tobey Maguire knew that everyone in that gym knew he was a Semi-Famous Actor Guy. So, for me to play dumb to that fact was kind of charming, if daft; 2. Tobey Maguire was enjoying the possibility that here might be a guy who really didn't know he was Tobey Maguire, Semi-Famous Actor Guy, star of "Cider House Rules," "The Ice Storm," and, uh, "Don's Plum." How refreshing, thought Tobey Maguire, Everyman.

Frankly, I wanted Tobey to think the latter. Because once I started relating to him as Tobey Maguire Semi-Famous Actor Guy, once the fact of his celebrity status became a conscious thought in my brain, I knew I would start to act very very weird. Not the stereotypical fawning buddy-buddy autograph-hounding will-you-be-my-friend kind of weird, but just the opposite. A passive-aggressive "I Own You" kind of weird.

Here's an example. I played basketball with Woody Harrelson once at the Lincoln Street courts in Santa Monica. Talk about fiction becoming reality: the costar of "White Men Can't Jump" playing pickup not far from where he played ball in the film. After Woody grabbed a rebound, I let slip a line: "so, white men CAN jump." Woody looked around angrily trying to spot the wiseass. He never identified me, but I learned something: famous actors don't want to be identified with their onscreen personas. And they don't relish an implied informality and intimacy simply because of their star status.

But, at the same time, they don't want to be treated as just another Joe either. Which is why interacting with celebrities can be so touch-and-go. All the games I watched Woody play, nobody ever excoriated him (and the Wood made some bonehead errors). My conclusion? When a celebrity is on the court, everyone acts as if everyone is equal, but, privately, deep inside our media-saturated brains, all the players, even the opposing team, are subconsciously rooting for the celeb. We turn into these nauseating sycophants, even the most hotheaded and contentious in our ranks. And there is something in the celebrity, even in the modest and self-effacing, that feeds off that ingratiating treatment.

I noticed this the time Mike Tyson came to the Y. He had just gotten into another violent brouhaha, but, hey, this was Mike Tyson. Nobody was going to razz the champ, even with that incongruous lisp. Outside the Y, Mike Tyson was in the parking lot perched on this goofy giant 3-wheel contraption, smiling and signing autographs for moms and kids (the prozac must have been working that day). But even if Tyson had been outright belligerent, I knew there would have been a protective bubble around the guy. As there was around Kurt Cobain the day we shot a Monk cover with him. As there was around Bill Weld and Gus Van Sant.

As there was around Tobias Vincent Maguire today at the Hollywood YMCA.

Still, I played against Tobey Maguire. And, to this credit, Tobey gave it everything he had. But I held something back. Not by conscious choice. But on a subconscious level there was an unspoken understanding: the sort of hard-edged hard-nosed basketball that's my hallmark was as strictly verboten as kissing this short sweet actor guy's ass. In other words, celebrities are like sacred cows, free to roam, protected and enabled (read: Robert Downey, Jr.). When a celebrity is in the room, or on the court, normal life is suspended, and no matter how clever (or how genuine) one tries to be in their presence, no matter how much THEY want to break through the separation and be treated as real people, there is no getting around the fact of their celebritydom. They are our heroes, our Brahmin.
Not surprisingly, Tobey hit the winning shot.

James Crotty is author of "How to Talk American," co-author of "The Mad Monks' Guide to New York City," and a motive force behind the alternative travel web site, He is currently on sabbatical at the St. John's Graduate Institute in Santa Fe. Email: