"WHEN I met Morgan Freeman, he was a hoofer and a singer. Then he became God, and the president!"
That was the great S. Epatha Merkerson, perhaps best known for her long tenure as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on "Law and Order." She told me this with a big laugh at Whoopi Goldberg's birthday party at Sylvia's the other night. (I don't know what particular birthday it was, and why ask? Whoopi clearly just wanted to have a good time on her natal day.)
I asked if she ever thought that her own character should have a spin-off show? "Well, now that you mention it, why not?" Why not, indeed? Are you listening Dick Wolf?
Next up for S. Epatha Merkerson is a documentary she directed, "The Contradictions of Fair Hope," about a benevolent organization, started in 1888, that gradually lost its way and descended into something quite different and not at all benevolent. There are also two features in post-production, "Sexual Healing" and "The Challenger."
WHOOPI'S PARTY was surprisingly low key. Well, maybe not so surprisingly. Whoopi doesn't tend to make a spectacle of her life, except when she is performing. The crowd consisted mostly of close friends, not celebs. Although a few got in: Grace Hightower and Robert De Niro (He looks younger in person and seemed quite happy to be at an event where nobody bothered him. Grace, actress/singer/philanthropist, is divine!), Fashion's Andre Leon Talley, Julian Lennon, HBO's Sheila Nevins (she wore fabulous, dangling gold earrings -- sexy and barbaric, like an Aztec queen), Stacy London, who recently finished up 10 years on TV's "What Not to Wear," the electrically charged Jenny McCarthy, new to "The View," with her main squeeze Donnie Wahlberg. (They could not keep their hands off each other. But it wasn't Too Much. When I mentioned to Donnie how handsome and fit he looked, the actor said, with a significant glance at Jenny, "She's keeping me moving." I bet! Donnie, who has really come into his own, can be seen on the CBS series "Blue Bloods.") I also sat with one of Whoopi's charming granddaughters, Amara, and her adorable fiance, Chris. He wants to go into medicine, but with his looks I suggested a couple of years of modeling to pay those bills.
SLYVIA's LEGENDARY food was as lip-smacking as ever. Guests chowed down on everything from Whoopi's Favorite Fried Pork Chops to Grilled Salmon with Mango Sauce. There were collard greens and Four-Cheese Baked Macaroni and Lobster Mashed Potatoes. And then the desserts! I gave in to the red velvet cake. The place was filled with ravishing flower arrangements provided by NYC's famous Marlo.
Whoopi's speech was brief; she thanked her friends for joining her and didn't go on much more. She wanted everybody to have fun.
A SPECIAL shout-out to Whoopi's longtime manager, adviser, assistant and excellent friend, Tom Leonardis. He really knows his business and how to make everybody feel special and keep everything flowing. Tom was there with his very attractive partner, Keith Harris. (Although Keith actually prefers "boyfriend," even after 15 years.) Keith is just recovering from a freak accident -- he slipped on a polished floor in his socks and ended up with a mess of problems, including some metal rods here and there. "It'll be such fun at airports," he said. But he's in fine fettle now.
OH, one more thing. I got to talking with Ms. Merkerson -- whom I finally just called "SE" to avoid mangling her name. She didn't seem to mind -- about the late Jerry Orbach. We laughed about his early career as a handsome leading man in the hit, "The Fantasticks," because people forgot it after "Law and Order." But he was very good. "Not only that," said SE, "but he knew everything, and every song. Once I was at my chiropractor's office, and he was trying to recall a certain song. He was sorta humming. So I called up Jerry Orbach on the set, and gave my doctor the phone. Not only did Jerry immediately know the song, he sang the entire thing! My chiropractor was in shock. I didn't allow him to fuss with my back anymore that day. He was too rattled."
OH, 2 -- Somebody did approach Robert De Niro and complimented him on those funny new bank commercials he is in (De Niro sits down next to a movie patron and totally spoils the films, and critiques it negatively.) The star was gracious. Then the fan said, "And I loved 'Last Vegas' -- I don't care what anybody says."
De Niro did a mock growl, "Oh, no matter what anybody says?" The fan began to stammer and blush but De Niro laughed and said, "I know what you mean, look, we all had a great time making it."
A real star, and a real gent, Mr. De Niro.
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)
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