Ruthe Stein spent 50 years covering Hollywood’s boldfaced names as a staff writer and freelancer for the San Francisco Chronicle, settling into a niche early on as its celebrity interviewer. While she would pen many movie reviews and become the paper’s movie editor, it’s the in-person encounters with screen stars (hundreds of them!) that inspired her new book, Sitting Down with the Stars: Interviews with 100 Hollywood Legends. Faced with downtime while sequestered during the pandemic at the Russian Hill home she shares with her husband, former San Francisco Planning Director Dean Macris, Stein initially came up with 10 short recollections of her conversations with memorable luminaries, including Cary Grant and Al Pacino. It didn’t take long to get local publisher Grizzly Peak Press on board for a project that highlights 100 actors, while also reflecting on the days when both Hollywood and journalism had a bit more star power. Viewing the book as her memoir, Stein, who recently turned 76, puts a new spin on original interviews by adding anecdotes and often poignant P.S. notes — thanks to the beauty of hindsight.
1 A lot of these are anecdotal memories and didn’t appear in the original stories. How did you tap into those?
I spent one day on each person, and I would go through the story and then I would just try to go back as far in my memory, my mind — what else happened in the interview? It was surprisingly easy. I think as we get older, our memories of things past are clearer than our memory of just yesterday. I was remembering things that happened in interviews 40, 50 years ago, the way I felt about the person. For example, Faye Dunaway, which I did in the ’90s. Before she came into the interview her publicist warned me that she didn’t like noise: “Be very quiet.” That kind of drove me crazy. What did that even mean?
2 You were told by publicists there were questions that were off-limits. How often did you break the rules?
I was told many times there were questions off-limits. I almost never ceded to that. … With the Paul Newman interview, he was working for the nuclear freeze initiative in 1984 and I could only ask questions about the initiative — and I was practically falling asleep with his answers. And really, as much as he cared about the issue, he’s not a scientist, so why am I even asking him these questions? I finally got a way out of it and asked him something like “What do you think of the idea that movie stars should be talking on serious issues?” And he stopped the interview and said, “Wait a minute, you’re not asking me questions about nuclear freeze, you’re asking me questions as if I’m a movie star.” I actually laughed. I said, “What do you expect? You are a movie star.” This is all on tape and it’s one of my treasures.
3 You’ve interviewed stars who were on press junkets with dozens of reporters coming in and out of a hotel room. How did you distinguish yourself?
I don’t know that I did. I do believe that my questions stood out — I realize this because a lot of these old-time publicists who remember me from all of the years I was in Toronto [helped obtain] blurbs for my book from Jeff Daniels, Jeff Bridges, Ann-Margret, Natalie Wood’s daughter. I think at least the publicists appreciated that maybe the quality of my questions was better than most people that came in to interview … I don’t know that at the end of the day Pierce Brosnan went home and said, “Oh wow, that was a great conversation I had with Ruthe Stein!”
You picked him for the cover of your book.
He looks like I asked him the best question. He looks very amused and incredibly handsome. He’s somebody that I have talked to many times over the years. He’s a very, very nice man. The Irish tend to be a little more humble about fame. Colin Farrell is another one … I loved Colin Farrell — he was so fresh [in a 2003 interview]. He talked about everything — he was completely uninhibited.
4 A lot of people want their favorite celebrities to be wonderful, lovable people and some of these people are not. Was there a part of you, when stars were being cranky, that appreciated that they were showing their true colors rather than acting for you?
Absolutely. Tony Curtis and Mickey Rooney — you have to remember those stars were at the end of their career — there was a lot of bitterness. They felt Hollywood had done them wrong, especially Tony Curtis … I don’t think it was directed at me. It’s their feelings about what happened with their career.
5 Has there been any one thing that someone said or did that you reflect on often?
Something that stands out in my mind was the Oprah interview where I mentioned to her at the end that I was nervous. She grabbed my tape recorder and said, “You did good, Ruthe. You did really, really good.” Another wonderful moment was when I was interviewing Chris Rock at Sundance and it happened to be the day that Obama was being sworn in as president the first time around, and we both realized we’d much rather be listening to that. We found an empty hotel room with a TV, and he called his mother, and so I got to watch the inauguration with Chris Rock and his mother. I’ll always remember that.