On Joel Grey (and His Father and Daughter)

While plenty of show biz buffs can tell you about Joel Grey (b. 1932), and some are probably aware that actress Jennifer Grey (b. 1960) is his daughter, I imagine far fewer know that the family dynasty began one generation earlier with comedy musician Mickey Katz (Meyer Katz, 1909-1985).

Katz was born and raised in Cleveland, where he picked up the clarinet (then a hot instrument) as a tween. Fresh out of high school he was hired by Phil Spitalny’s Orchestra. Hence, big band music was his original professional musical orientation. Later he would play with Spitalny’s brother Maurice, who was based in Cleveland. He played at venues like Cleveland’s RKO Palace, one of the town’s prime venues. During World War Two he toured with the U.S.O. with a sextet called Mickey Katz and His Crazy Kittens, with singer Betty Hutton fronting it. After the war, Katz was part of Spike Jones’ band for two years. In addition to playing clarinet with Jones’s City Slickers he also specialized in providing the comedy “glug” sound, as on the group’s famous send up of “Cocktails for Two”.

And then Katz formed his own comedy jazz/klezmer band, and this is when he finally found his niche, performing song parodies of the kind we now associate with the Catskills. He created the Broadway show Borscht Capades (1951) and turned out numerous comedy records with titles like Katz Puts on the Dog (1958) and Katz Pajamas (1959). In 1967 he returned to Broadway in the show Hello, Solly! and was in the film Thoroughly Modern Millie with his Kosher Jammers, backing Julie Andrews. In 1977 he published his autobiography Papa, Play For Me. Katz was to remain active professionally at night clubs and resorts until his death in ’85.

Katz was 23 when his son Joel was born (named after actor Joel McCrea, a favorite of his mom’s). Joel began acting, singing, and dancing in Cleveland during his childhood. He was only 19 when he first appaeared on The Colgate Comedy Hour, hosted by Eddie Cantor, and in his dad’s Broadway show Borscht Capades. Throughout most of of the 1950s most of Grey’s professional employment as an actor was on television. In the early ’60s he began to get Broadway work as a replacement in the original productions of Come Blow Your Horn and Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, leading to his breakthrough role as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret (1966). He won a Tony for this performance, and later an Oscar for the same part in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film version. Unique as it is, it remains his defining role, though there have been many other high points, including originating the part of George M. Cohan in the original production of George M! (1968), appearing in movies like The Seven Percent Solution (1976) and Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), then more Broadway triumphs like playing Amos (“Mr. Cellophane”) in the smash hit 1996 revival of Chicago (again with Fosse), and The Wizard of Oz in the original production of Wicked (2003).

Though Grey came out as gay a few years ago, for a time he was married to actress Jo Wilder. Their daughter Jennifer is best known for her career-defining role in Dirty Dancing (1987), a charming period piece set in the Catskills during the 1950s. If only her grandfather had lived a couple of more years to see it! Her other notable films include Red Dawn (1984, with future Dirty Dancing costar Patrick Swayze), The Cotton Club (1984), Ferris Buehler’s Day Off (1986) and Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989). For 20 years (2001-2021) she was married to actor/director/screenwriter Clark Gregg, best known now for playing S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson in the MCU films, though he also wrote the 2000 Robert Zemeckis thriller What Lies Beneath, among many other credits. Their daughter Stella Gregg has appeared in a couple of movies — there may well be a fourth chapter to this story in future!

To learn more about show biz history please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,