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  • Fred Smith

The Time I Finally Saw the Star

I’m terrible at a lot of things. Recognizing celebrities in public is one of them.

Growing up in Miami, I had plenty of opportunities to perform my due diligence as a starstruck member of polite society and acknowledge the presence of A-listers as their orbits temporarily collided with mine.

One night in the late ‘90s at the Delano in South Beach, a gorgeous woman–stunning even by Miami standards–passed by my friends and me with a man small in stature on her arm.

She’d clearly drawn the overt attention of the gawking crowd. South Beach is the epicenter of the see-and-be-seen universe, after all.

“Did you see that?” My friend said.

How could I miss it? I thought.

“That was David Spade!” he affirmed.

I’d missed it.

“Oh,” I said in a tone I hoped conveyed an acceptable mea culpa while also asking, what are we supposed to do we do now?

That wasn’t the only time my obtuseness kept me from recognizing entertainment royalty.

Years after the Spade sighting, another friend had to point out Patrick Stewart of Star Trek Next Generation fame sitting a half-dozen rows from us at a Miami Heat game.

In my defense, Captain Picard really blends into the crowd when he’s out of Starfleet uniform.

Truth is, I love being entertained. I just don’t do very well at keeping track of who’s doing the entertaining. (And I do an even lousier job of recognizing those people when they’re out of costume and character.)

That brings us to my most triumphant moment of poor star seeing.

Sometime in the late 2000s, I was hired by the Tampa Theatre to shoot pictures at an outdoor movie screening the theatre was sponsoring.

Sunset Cinema Cinema, as the series was called, was free to the public and very popular. Each screening drew upwards of two thousand people who gathered on picnic blankets to watch classic movies on a 40-foot, inflatable screen.

On this particular evening, I was asked to stick around until after the movie because there may be someone of importance coming to speak to the crowd and the Theatre wanted pictures to document the occasion.

I figured it was the Mayor since Tampa Theatre is run by the City and why wouldn’t the Mayor seize an opportunity to speak to a target-rich segment of the voting public?

The movie, it turned out, was one of my favorites, a classic from my childhood I’d seen dozens of times and knew every word as if I’d written the screenplay myself.

Back to the Future.

As we all know, the final twenty minutes of Back to the Future (the original, of course) is essentially perfect cinema.

Doc Brown’s zany struggle against science and nature in an attempt to rig the clocktower so a lightning strike sends the appropriate 1.21 jiggawatts of electricity directly into the Flux Capacitor of the DeLorean at the precise moment it hits eighty-eight miles per hour and thus sends Marty McFly thirty years into the future back to his native 1985 is about as pure of storytelling as the medium has ever achieved.

And there I was on a gorgeous Tampa night in October, watching this brilliance while sitting behind the screen near the roaring generator whose power kept the screen inflated.

I couldn’t hear much of the movie, which didn’t matter since I’d committed the soundtrack to memory sometime in the late 1980s.

And the sequences I knew so well were flipped since I was behind the screen and watching the movie as it was rear-projected.

The whole thing made for a memorable experience, a film I loved in an environment I’d never before experienced.

And then, I looked to my right.

Sitting just a few feet away from me, legs crossed, smoking a cigarette, looking cool in a way I never have or will in my life…

…Doctor Emmett Brown himself…

Christopher Lloyd.

This was the special guest who’d come to speak to the fans at the conclusion of the movie. (Turns out there was a Star Trek convention in town so Mr. Lloyd was available to satisfy two subsets of movie fans in Tampa.)

He acknowledged me with a smile and a modest gesture to the screen that seemed to say Can you believe this?

Actually, I couldn’t.

It was too noisy to speak. Too dark to take a picture, and in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t do either. It’s cooler that we just watched the climactic scenes of the masterpiece he had made possible and immortal.

As his character spoke the movie's final lines “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads,” I glanced over at the famed actor half expecting him to mouth the words in sync with his character.

But he didn’t.

He watched like a fan as if he’d never seen the movie before. Or if he had, it had been long ago, and he was enjoying the story again as if the present viewing was enhanced by the activation of a memory from another, simpler time.

I loved Back to the Future when I was a kid. And when I see it now, I’m reminded of that night in Tampa when I watched the last act of the movie with its star in silence, without any fanfare or fawning.

The movie was the real star.

Always is.


Fred Smith is an author and screenwriter who's spent a lifetime failing to see celebrities in his field of vision because he's looking for a deeper story.

His debut novel, The Coolest Labels, is available on Amazon.


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