Keith Richards. Tina Fey. Jay-Z. Sure, those are heavy-hitters in the celebrity autobiography world. But check out these lesser-knowns—there are joys aplenty to be found in these seven celeb tell-alls that may have fallen under your radar.
Read more from Popdose on Joe Simon’s career.
Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated by Alison Arngrim
Don’t pretend you didn’t hate Alison Arngrim’s character on Little House on the Prairie. She already knows you did. Nellie Oleson may have been the antithesis of the sweet-as-pie Ingalls girls (played by Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson), but, ironically, reading Arngrim’s story makes you want to give her a hug…or, at least, it would if you didn’t also get the impression that she might well slug you if you tried such a thing. There’s a lot of shocking and depressing stuff within these pages, but it’s delivered with such humor—some decidedly dark, some unabashedly joyful—that you’ll love Arngrim just as much as you hate the character she played.
My favorite bit: Any occasion when Arngrim is relating a story where she and Gilbert are the two lead characters, whether it’s on or off the set. The two actresses bonded as friends very quickly (which absolutely did not happen with Arngrim and Anderson…or Anderson and anyone else, from the sound of it), and they had an unerring ability to get into trouble together.
Winch by Paul Winchell
The late Paul Winchell may be obscure to younger readers, but not only does his voice continue to ring out in countless classic cartoons (he’ll always be the definitive Tigger), but in addition to his work in show biz as a comedian and ventriloquist, he was also the first person to build and patent a mechanical implantable artificial heart.
Unfortunately, Winchell also suffered through an abusive childhood, and although he found success in several avenues as an adult, he nonetheless continued to suffer from the psychological trauma from the events of his youth. Winch is sometimes odd and features occasionally passages that are downright painful to read, but Winchell’s story is a remarkable one. Thank heavens he took the time to tell it.
My favorite bit: When Winchell did the dress rehearsal for his first appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show, he was accused of not speaking loudly enough. The problem turned out to be that a confused soundman, believing that Winchell was literally throwing his voice, had put the microphone on Winchell’s ventriloquist dummy, Jerry Mahoney.
Backstage with the Original Hollywood Square by Peter Marshall
Over the years, there have been several occasions when producers have tried to duplicate the magic of Hollywood Squares as hosted by Peter Marshall, but it’s a fool’s errand with the man himself. Although Backstage provides a great deal of information about Marshall’s career as an actor and song-and-dance man, which is often unfairly forgotten in the wake of his success as a game-show host, the title of the book is in no way misleading, as Marshall devotes the majority of his time to regaling readers with awesome onscreen and backstage anecdotes from some of his most memorable Squares. Be sure to buy a copy that contains the bonus CD, featuring some of the show’s best “zingers.”
My favorite bit: The chapter “Pegging the Squares,” where Marshall calls out his favorite and least favorite celebrities to have appearing on the show, citing Diana Rigg as the sexiest, Mel Brooks the funniest, and Zsa Zsa Gabor as the most glamorous. Marshall says that Gabor insisted on her own makeup artist and hairdresser but would invariably find herself without some key ingredient for perfection. (“Dahling, I’ve forgotten my false eyelashes, I can’t possibly be seen on television without them…”)
Goober in a Nutshell by George Lindsey
It’s easy to scoff at the idea of a secondary actor on a sitcom writing his life story, given that they’re the cast members most likely to be referred to with parenthetical clarification of their identity (“the actor who played [CHARACTER’S NAME],”) but Lindsey comes across as so darned nice and amiable that it makes his folksy recollections a must-read. Granted, his popularity might be a little bit higher on the Southern side of the Mason-Dixon line, given that his biggest post-Andy Griffith Show success came via his work on Hee Haw, but good readin’ is still good readin’, no matter where you hang your hat.
My favorite bit: Lindsey lays it on the line when discussing his struggles for credibility as an actor after his years in what has sometimes been described as “cornpone comedy.” It’s a little bit sad, but his honesty about projects that never came to fruition does make for fascinating reading.
When I Grow Up by Juliana Hatfield
I admit it, I used to really be annoyed by Juliana Hatfield. For the longest time, she held the top spot in my list of Worst Interviews, having spent 10 to 15 minutes on the phone with me and having to be prodded after every question to give answers of more than one or two words. After reading her life story, however, which takes you through her career as a member of the Blake Babies and into life as a solo recording artist, you find a strong, independent singer-songwriter who isn’t afraid to be honest whether she’s talking about her personal or professional lives. So now I like Hatfield. But she still wasn’t a very good interview.
My favorite bit: Her recollections of Jeff Buckley, specifically how she was in the building, if not necessarily in the specific vicinity, when Paul McCartney stopped by after attending one of his show to tell him how much he loved his music.
Engelbert: What’s In A Name? by Engelbert Humperdinck
Strange but true: in 1965, a young man named Arnold George Dorsey actually chose to start calling himself Engelbert Humperdinck. Still, you have to admit, it’s pretty memorable. Although Mr. Humperdinck hasn’t had anywhere near the same level of ongoing media attention as his longtime rival Tom Jones, his autobiography reveals that he’s had just as much success with the fairer sex over the years—even if he does say of his book, “This is not a kiss-and-tell, it’s a kiss-and-get-on-with it”—and by virtue of having the spotlight shined on him a bit less over the years, most readers will be learning the story of his life for the first time.
My favorite bit: When Elvis’ visit to Englebert’s Vegas hotel suite results in the King shouting to his valet from the bathroom, “Come in here! I’ve split my pants and I need you to come help my ass!”
Which Reminds Me… by Tony Randall
Calling this an autobiography isn’t entirely accurate, although it does find the former Odd Couple actor telling tales from his own life and times. For the most part, however, Tony Randall relates stories that he’s heard over the years from others in the entertainment industry. Many of the key characters in these anecdotes may be unfamiliar to younger readers—heck, some of them are so obscure that even older readers may need to hit Wikipedia—and you may only manage a smile at some of them, but there are plenty of legitimately hysterical stories in Randall’s repertoire, featuring appearances by Groucho Marx, George Burns, Jackie Gleason, Irving Berlin, Woody Allen, Neil Simon and many others.
My favorite bit: The story about Dustin Hoffman approaching José Ferrer in his full Tootsie regalia and pleading for proof of his lack of circumcision.
Will Harris is a staff writer with Popdose.com, as well as a regular contributor to The Virginian-Pilot, in Norfolk, Va., and an associate editor for the web magazine Bullz-Eye.com. He loves his wife, cherishes his daughter and now accepts PayPal.