Rain threatened on a recent Tuesday morning, and there was a chill in the air. But inside Joel Grey’s loft in Manhattan’s West Village, it was spring.
Yellow roses — some doing a solo act, some in a clump — pink and yellow tulips, and pink and purple hyacinths sat in various containers on the round table in the open kitchen, on the glass coffee table, on a side table and on the skinny, rectangular dining table. Yet more multicolored roses, splayed atop a cabinet, were — how to put this nicely? — pushing up daisies.
Mr. Grey, who won a Tony in 1967 and an Oscar in 1973 for his ineradicable portrayal of the feverishly rouged M.C. in the musical “Cabaret,” stood at the kitchen counter trying to arrange a new grouping of tulips. (He spends $50 a week on flowers at the local Whole Foods.) But these seemed to be an uncooperative bunch. “You kids are being difficult,” he told them, turning away for a minute to say hello to a visitor.
Based on the evidence of an admittedly small sample — a reporter, a photographer, a publicist — the eternally pixieish Mr. Grey greets guests as though they were the winning lottery tickets that he thought he’d lost.
But perhaps some of this ebullience was situational. “You know, it’s almost my 90th birthday,” he announced, clapping his hands like a delighted child, and leading the way to his office. There, on a hanger, was an orange sweatshirt with “1932” emblazoned in large black numbers on the front. (For the record, April 11 was the day.)
“A darling friend gave a sweatshirt to Duane Michals for his 90th birthday, in February,” Mr. Grey said, referring to the photographer. “And I told her, ‘I want one too!’”
Joel Grey, 90
Occupation: Actor, writer, photographer
Not by design: “My style is not eclectic, but rather serendipity. I’m truly Mr. Serendipity. Nothing I’ve bought was planned. Everything in here is about the moment.”
He bought the apartment in the late 1990s, based on a floor plan.
“I wanted to be in the Village. It was a whole new world to me,” said Mr. Grey, who had been living on the top floor of the Hotel Des Artistes on West 67th Street in an apartment that was put together, room by room, from former maids’ quarters, and had a skylight and a terrace. “But my brother told me, ‘You can’t live down there.’ At the time, it was very scrubby and scruffy on the streets near the West Side Highway. The place where the boats came in — the piers — it was all very undone.”
But what was scrubby and scruffy when measured against proximity to the Hudson River? Mr. Grey watches it roll by from the built-in daybed where he drinks his morning coffee and reads his morning paper: “It’s my friend and my partner and my serenity.”
He was further captivated by the “wet-clay” possibilities of a new-construction building. “It was about open space,” he said, “which I found so alluring, and about the mystery of how to make it a home. It was an adventure.”
A very personal adventure. There’s no interest here in showing off designers or making vignettes. Minimalist and neutral, with clean lines, columns and concrete floors, the apartment is part 1970s SoHo loft, part midcentury-modern design, with a cowhide rug on the floor of the bedroom, a cowhide-covered butterfly chair and an Alvar Aalto woven chair.
“But I don’t think about periods,” Mr. Grey said. “I think about exclamation points.”
Perhaps the exclamation points are the works of art: by, among others, Richard Tuttle, Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, Joan Miró, Sally Gall and Mr. Michals. Woodcarvings of antelope heads stand in a row on a windowsill. African sculptures dot the piano. There’s a galley wall in the primary bathroom.
Mr. Grey is, of course, best known as an actor and director (of the acclaimed 2018 Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof”), and he continues to perform. He is part of the cast of “The Old Man,” a series scheduled to premiere on FX in mid-June. “I am not the old man,” he said, before anyone has a chance to ask.
But over the past dozen and a half years, Mr. Grey has also made a name for himself as a photographer. His work has been the focus of gallery shows and of several monographs. His most recent book of photographs, “The Flower Whisperer,” published in 2019, paid tribute to the nether regions of daisies, sunflowers, lilies, daffodils et al.
Stuck inside during the pandemic, Mr. Grey began looking for — and photographing — the faces he saw in dried petals. They will be the subject of his next book. “Look up there. It’s a whole new world,” he said, pointing to a detail in the image of a dead blossom hanging on a partition in his office. “I see a bow tie.”
Art and design have long been a part of his life. Growing up in Cleveland, the 8-year-old Joel fantasized about getting lost at the local museum and shut in overnight. Later, as work began taking him out of town, he invariably returned to New York with crafts. When, at the age of 19, he went to London to play the Palladium, he visited Positano, Italy, “and now I am looking at these monkey candlesticks I brought home,” he said, nodding toward the coffee table.
Shelves in Mr. Grey’s closet/dressing room display marionettes from Mexico; figures, bowls, vases and baskets from European ports; and, a little closer to home, collages made by his mother, Grace.
The mother-son relationship, as chronicled in Mr. Grey’s 2016 memoir, “Master of Ceremonies,” was complicated. But it was because of Grace, he said, that even as a struggling actor, he cared deeply about his surroundings.
“I always did up my apartments, even if I only spent a dollar and a quarter,” he said. “My mother and father taught me the importance of being professional and of making a place for myself. And my mother was all about making a space for art.”
He has made the place and made the space. “It was all about, ‘Let’s figure this out,’” Mr. Grey said. “‘Let’s dream a little here.’ I’m a big believer in dreams.”
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