Best NYC Celebrity Encounter Ever: Geoffrey Holder

Years ago, when I worked as an immigration inspector at JFK Airport, I would sometimes encounter celebrities that would come through my line. The first one I remembered was Joan Collins. People I mentioned this too asked me if I remembered what her actual birth date was from looking at her passport, but I didn’t pay it much mind. She was very well dressed and seemed very polite and proper.

Among the other celebrities I has pass through my line were Sting, Geoffrey Rush, George Clinton, Sally Jesse Rafael and Brian Cox. I also met the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who were very nice. When I told Graham “Suggs” McPherson, singer of the band Madness, that I liked his music, he replied, “You have a good memory.”

But by far and away the best celebrity encounter I had at JFK Airport was the actor Geoffrey Holder.

Working at JFK Airport was actually a big drag. Things changed a lot after the September 11 attacks, so I can’t attest to what the job is like today. But the pre-September 11 era was a miserable place where inspectors often worked seven days straight and could be held for mandatory overtime with no notice given.

I was so unhappy working at JFK that I lived in a state of near permanent miserable anger. Any sign of other people’s happiness made me immediately angry and resentful.

I was coming to tend of my day at the old T.W.A. terminal, thinking that the most recent flight was done processing and I could prepare to go home. I was still in my booth when I noticed people from the airline wheeling a passenger in a wheelchair directly towards my booth. The passenger was singing.

‘What kind of horrible freak are they bringing me,’ I thought to myself—indeed, my resentment of all things happy even extended to the elderly and disabled.

The airline escort wheeled the passenger into my booth and he put his paperwork on my counter. He was a green card holder from Trinidad and once I saw his name I knew exactly who he was: Geoffrey Holder.

Geoffrey Holder spent most of his long entertainment career on stage as a dancer, actor and director. He was one of the lead actors in the first all-black production of ‘Waiting for Godot,’ a choreographer for the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, a Tony-Award winning costume designer and successful painter. He was the bodyguard Punjab in the 1982 version of ‘Annie’ and may be best known for 7-Up commercials he made in the 1980s. He was characterized by his height (he was six-foot-six) and his deep, Caribbean voice.

Geoffrey Holder was also one of the best James Bond villains in history, playing Baron Semedi in the 1973 Bond film ‘Live and Let Die.’ Being a Bond villain counts as movie royalty in my book.

“Are you the actor?” I asked him.

“Yes.”

“Well it’s very nice to meet you. I’ve very much enjoyed your work.”

“Thank you. And thank you for paying my rent,” he said, and then let out a big and sincere booming laugh that I couldn’t help but share with him.

Our business together was finished quickly. I stamped his documents and handed them back to him or the airline employee who was escorting him. He thanked me, said, “God bless you.” And then was on his way. It was an encounter that changed my mood and brightened my whole day, and is one of the fondest memories I have of working at the airport.

Geoffrey Holder passed away recently from complications attributed to pneumonia. He was 84 years old. He was remembered for his many contributions to the stage and screen; Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in his memory.

New York is packed with celebrities, and the cool thing to do is pretend to not notice them and then tell all your friends about seeing them later. I had many New York celebrity sightings before and since, but Geoffrey Holder will always be my favorite and best.

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