When I was 11 or 12 years old, I visited a Times Square Army recruiting booth at which Audie Murphy, a celebrated war hero who won the Congressional Medal of Honor and a movie star in Grade B westerns, spoke and gave out autographs. He was an early role model and I left the recruiting station elated that I had in my hands the autograph of an American hero. Many years later, I introduced my sons to a sports celebrity. I ran a 2-week camp for a synagogue in Atlanta, and arranged for admittance to an Atlanta Hawks practice session where we could watch the great Pete Maravich in action. He was very accommodating to the campers and signed their scraps of paper with his name. It was a heady moment for many of the kids to be in the presence of a basketball legend.
Flash forward to the year 2012, and our adulation of celebrities is no longer so innocent. Just ask any parent or educator. Celebrities, actors, politicians often grab our attention due to their nefarious activities, including dishonesty of all types, illicit sex, drugs, and the list goes on. The King of Comedy, appearing in 1983, gave us a prophetic hint about the craziness surrounding celebrity that was to come.
In a brilliant opening scene, Jerry Langford, a late night TV host, is bombarded with fans as he exits the studio. One obsessed fan tries to get close to him, but Rupert Pupkin, ostensibly trying to protect him, slams the door in her face, and we are left with a freeze frame of hands pressing against the window of the limousine. It is an image representing the intense longing of an obsessed fan for access to a celebrity. Life is nothing unless there is connection with fame. It is sad and it is frightening when the entire thrust of one’s life is to live through others.
Rupert Pupkin is determined to become a TV celebrity like Jerry and the movie chronicles his fantastical and obsessive quest for fame. Rupert keeps cardboard figures of Jerry in his basement and has imaginary conversations with him and Jerry’s guests. His friend Masha, a celebrity stalker, will stop at nothing to get close to Jerry, her idol. She ultimately helps Rupert break the law in order to compel the studio to grant him a guest appearance on Jerry’s show.
Rupert receives a prison sentence of six years for his crime, but is freed after serving less than three years. He goes on to write his memoirs and becomes a celebrity in his own right, which echoes what happens so often today. The criminal is released, writes a book, and becomes a fixture of talk shows as he rehabilitates his public image.
The Torah view of celebrity is clear. The Ethics of the Fathers instructs us that fame is elusive. The more one chases it, the more it eludes him. Gaining celebrity is not a Jewish goal. Moreover, the object of Torah adulation is not the actor or the athlete. Rather it is the scholar or the doer of good deeds. In the end, we cannot live vicariously through others. Each of us is an image of the Divine, totally unique with our own respective missions. No one else can live our life for us because we are accountable for our own destinies. God only wants us to be ourselves, not an imitation of someone else. At the end of 120 years, God will not ask me if I was as great as Moses or Abraham; instead He will ask me if I was the best “me” I could possibly be.