90-Year-Old Noel De Souza Has Seen Six Decades Of Hollywood Life Through Close Quarters

22/03/2016 7:37 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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On February 26, the 53rd ICG Publicist Awards were held at a luxury hotel in Beverly Hills, California. Hollywood A-listers such as Michael Keaton and Sally Field were in attendance, presenting awards for exceptional work in the field of publicity and promotion.

Amongst the nominees for the International Media Award was an old, bespectacled man named Noel de Souza, who grew up in Secunderbad, then in Andhra Pradesh (now Telangana), and once briefly attended Pune's Wadia College.

De Souza, 90, has been in Hollywood for more than six decades, making him the oldest person of Indian origin working in the industry today. Based in Beverly Hills, he has been a freelance journalist and an occasional actor for more than half a century. He has also been working with the Golden Globe Awards for several years, coordinating between the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) and The Dick Clark Company, which work in tandem to produce the third-most-watched awards show in the United States (after the Oscars and Grammys). He is also one of only two Indian journalists affiliated with the HFPA, whose 87 members decide the Globes (considered an important precursor to the Oscars).

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Noel de Souza with Mexican actress-comedienne Dyana Ortelli at the 2012 Golden Globe Awards

A part of his job at the annual event is one that’s considered to be well done if it is completely invisible. “I coordinate seating charts, which is important, because it’s quite a delicate thing,” he says, in one of multiple phone conversations with HuffPost India in March. “Often, celebrities don’t want to sit with people they were once married to or had an affair with. Also, it’s important for the cameras to know where everybody is seated because if you have no faces, you have no show.”

Clearly, there’s no business like show business for de Souza, 60-odd years after he first arrived in the United States as an architecture student at the University of California, Berkeley. However, his real passion lay in cinema, which included writing about it as well as acting. In his teens, he would participate in writing competitions for the now-defunct Illustrated Weekly (which he would win “about 80% of the time”) and harbour dreams of being in Hollywood.

Due to his complete ineptitude in mathematics, he flunked out and took up an industrial management job at a paint company in India. “I took one look at what I had to do there and came straight back to the States,” he says with a laugh. This time, he was single-minded about his goal — he was going to be part of Hollywood one way or another.

He enrolled for an acting course at the famed Pasadena Playhouse, which has trained stalwarts such as Gene Hackman, and Dustin Hoffman. At the time, the only Indian to have ‘made it’ in Hollywood was Sabu Dastagir, who’d made a mark in films such as The Thief Of Baghdad (1940), Jungle Book (1942), and Arabian Nights (1942).

He entered the business in the mid ‘50s, playing the small part of a Mexican man in the TV drama anthology The Loretta Young Show. “Back then, people had no idea of what India is like — they thought it was full of tigers and everybody wore lungis,” he says. “So I usually ended up playing Mexicans or Italians. Talk about diversity! I’d have to change my parentage for every role.”

Calling up “every producer in town” and going for several auditions was all in a day’s work for de Souza, who later went on to play small roles in several TV shows, such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1965-66), Mission: Impossible (1969-72), and Star Trek: Voyager (1997), in which he played ‘Mahatma Ghandi’. He’s also appeared in bit roles in a number of films, such as the Goldie Hawn starrer Wildcats (1986) and Wedding Crashers (2005). Concurrently, he has been a foreign correspondent for magazines and newspapers in Europe and India, conducting interviews of numerous Hollywood celebrities over several decades.

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Noel de Souza playing Mahatma Gandhi in an episode of 'Star Trek: Voyager'

“He is definitely one of the first people from India who actively went there to make a career,” confirms film critic and author Anupama Chopra, who has known de Souza for several years.

Life-long friendships with film and TV producer Stanley Rubin and French filmmaker Serge Bourguignon helped him meet “nearly every actor, actress, and director in Hollywood” in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, aside from politicians and sportspeople. He recalls attending parties and casually starting conversations with the likes of Marlon Brando and Zsa Zsa Gabor. “In those days, you could just go up to someone and start talking with them,” he says. Parties in that era, held in the mansions of Beverly Hills, used to be ‘off the hook’, as one might describe them now, with plenty of marijuana use and skinny-dipping in swimming pools.

On one occasion, he arrived at a party with a date — an up-and-coming starlet. When he returned from a visit to the loo, he found that Warren Beatty — a notorious womaniser — had pinned her against a wall, demanding that she go home with him. “She told him, ‘I don’t know about you, but I usually leave with the person I came with,’” he says, with a chuckle. Over the years, he would go on to meet Beatty several times, under relatively more pleasant circumstances.

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Noel de Souza with Hollywood icon Warren Beatty

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With Jane Fonda in the early '70s

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With actor-musician Kris Kristofferson (left) and heavyweight professional boxer Muhammad Ali (right)

He remembers introducing the comedian Mehmood to Cary Grant, minus an appointment, and having wine with Charles Bronson at his home, during an interview. “Now, I find Hollywood far more cloistered. Everyone seems to be frightened that you want a piece of them. There’s no sincerity anymore.” The only actor he finds somewhat accessible is George Clooney, whom he has interviewed a number of times. “He takes the time to chat with you at parties quite openly,” he says. “On the other hand, I was interviewing Christian Bale the other day and it was like pulling teeth to get anything personal from him at all.”

Hollywood changed forever, he says, after the infamous Manson family murders that took place in 1969. He recalls the grisly crime, which, among others, took the lives of actress Sharon Tate and celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring (whose salon De Souza used to frequent), as a time that “changed the face of this town”. “Celebrities stopped opening up to people who weren’t famous,” he says. “People started looking over the shoulders everywhere they went.”

Today, going on 91, de Souza is as busy as ever, writing articles mainly for supplements published by the Times Group and the fashion-lifestyle online magazine The Label. He shows up at auditions every now and then for an acting job. Last year, he appeared in an episode of the eighth season of The Big Bang Theory, as ‘Older Indian Man’. Although suffering from glaucoma, which has severely compromised his eyesight, he works with the energy of a man half his age. He checks and responds to emails on his iPad with great speed, occasionally wondering why others aren’t as prompt. He maintains his health by eating right (plenty of oats and almonds; very little fatty food) and riding an exercise bike regularly.

“He’s the real deal,” says Chopra, adding that de Souza comes to Mumbai every year to attend the Jio MAMI Film Festival, which she helps organise, and insists on paying for himself. She attended the Golden Globes last year with him and found herself unable to keep up with him. “At midnight, I was ready to pack up but Noel was just blazing! I told him I wanted to call it a night and he just said “Don’t be silly” before whisking us off to a party where we were introduced to [noted Hollywood producer] Harvey Weinstein.”

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With Indian-American actress Mindy Kaling, who dedicated an Instagram post to him in December 2015

For most people, this would be a moment to share at dinner parties; for de Souza, it’s just another day in a long, colourful life. Conversations with him routinely contain anecdotes such as “I was having tea with Patricia Clarkson the other day…” or “Goldie Hawn and I were having lunch once…” — all related by him in a very matter-of-fact, almost nonchalant way. It would seem that the boy from Secunderbad did make it to Hollywood’s inner circle after all, just as he’d dreamt.

Unfortunately, at the ICG Publicist Awards, he didn’t end up winning that International Media Award. “It was quite an honour just to be nominated,” he says, without any regret in his voice. His tone changes a little and he adds, somewhat wistfully: “I just wish I’d made it further as an actor when I was younger. It’s too late for me now, I guess.”

A few minutes later, after segueing into a discussion about some of this year’s Oscar-nominated films, his tone is considerably brighter. He says: “Did I tell you about how I met Cary Grant? It’s a funny story.”

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