Just as every town in America seems now to sport its own microbrewed beer, every town in America likes to boast of its native sons and daughters who have hit the big time. Nothing brings a region more pride than to be able to point to an individual who has earned some modicum of fame and say, “You know that Caitlyn Jenner who used to be Bruce, they both used to go my high school.” It’s kind of a curious phenomenon, this idea that people glean pride from the success of somebody who happens to emanate from the same zip code as they. Interestingly, people tend to be a little bit more hesitant when it comes to pointing out infamous individuals who share their hometown. “Hey, you see that Jeffrey Dahmer who’s been eating all of those people, he was my paper boy, and let me tell you something, he always had it right on my front stoop everyday, same time, same place, the kid was really spot on.” Yes, that’s something you’re probably never going to hear.
I’m not from here, and I’m not famous, but there used to be a time when if you made it into the local paper, it would seem as if you had made the big time, unless of course you appeared in the “Police Blotter,” then that’s not so good. (Hoffman Collection)
Often, people will really try to stretch in order to lay claim to those who are famous, and are in even the slightest way connected to their hometown. For example, people like to state that former heavyweight champion, and convicted felon Mike Tyson, is a local boy from the Capital Region who made good. The fact is, Tyson was born and raised in Brownsville, a rather hardscrabble section of Brooklyn. Yes he spent a certain amount of time in his youth coming of age in Catskill, but he’s as pre-hipster Brooklyn as a Nathan’s hot dog. Sometimes, if you as much as stop for a cup of coffee in Albany, people here want to claim you as their own. That’s all fine and dandy, and I understand this attempt to glom on to anything that would appear to be a source of local pride. It’s not unlike when a major news event breaks nationally, and the local news, desperate to find a local angle will feature a story on some dude who has at best a tertiary relationship with the story. It usually goes like this: “The earthquake in China was devastating, and it’s been reported that over 20,000 people have perished. Now, let’s talk to a man from Colonie who just ordered in Chinese food from East Wok, and ate it on a wobbly table.”
I think it’s safe to say that this area needs to lay claim to the rich and famous who may have their roots in the Capital Region for its own psyche. Albany, Schenectady, and Troy aren’t quite the major urban centers that they once were, and that has left many in search of an identity for the greater Albany area. Before the Civil War, Albany for example was the 13th largest city in America. (That’s right, you can suck it Pittsburgh! They were number 17) Even Troy, the “Collar City,” was the 24th ranked city in America in 1860, ahead of Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. Alexander Hamilton, famous “gangsta rapper,” and occasional Secretary of the Treasury spent much of his time in the Capital Region. He even married a local damsel by the name of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, daughter of wealthy raconteur Philip Schuyler. So what happened? Sadly, progress stops for no man, or woman, and migration patterns, shifts in business trends, and of course I’m sure the weather, drained the Capital Region of much of its power and prestige. Still, that doesn’t mean that this area isn’t capable of producing some of the most talented and successful person’s of note this side of Utica.
As a public service to the fine people of the Capital Region, I’ve decided therefore to produce a list of the top celebrities, sports heroes, political figures, entertainers, and other giants in their respective fields who hail from this area. Of course, there has to be some barometers for determining who belongs in this esteemed and selective field of entrants. Geographically, I would say that you can’t have come from anywhere west of Cobleskill/Canajoharie, or east of Hoosick Falls, or Valley, no Falls, okay Valley. (Does it matter?) In order to be considered for this list, you can’t have emanated from north of Lake George, or south of Woodstock. This means that I’m eliminating you, Franklin D. Roosevelt!
I also wish to proclaim that this list is not for people who came here for a cup of coffee and exited stealth-like without drawing any notice or inspiration from this region. For example, just because Mike Tyson lived in Catskill for a few years, it doesn’t make him a homegrown talent. The same goes for Angelina Jolie. Yes she made a movie here some years ago, but that doesn’t mean she qualifies for one of those silver beer mugs at Olde Bryan Inn . Phil Jackson? Yes, he worked here as coach of the Albany Patroons, but that doesn’t grant him Capital Region gravitas. Even Glenn Slingerland of the Glenn Slingerland Situation is precluded from inclusion. He’s a fellow Long Islander like myself, born and bred, so despite Glenn’s success here in the Capital Region, I have to leave him off the list. However, lest anybody forget, Glenn is as embedded into the Capital Region as Gus’s Hot Dogs in Watervliet or the Country Drive-in in Clifton Park.
Therefore, allow me to give an Albany.com shout-out in no particular order, to 10 famous locally born “stars.”
- Rachel Ray – The 50 year-old native of Glens Falls is a television staple. Pretty much everything Rachel Ray touches, from her talk show to her dog food seems to come up smelling of cash. She embodies the cheery pluckish can-do attitude of her hometown. However, could one actually subsist in Glens Falls on “40 dollars a day?”
- David Hyde Pierce – The Yale educated, Tony Award winning actor came to noterioty with his long-time portrayal of Dr. Niles Crane on the never-ending sitcom Frasier. David Hyde Pierce must have modeled his persnickety character on all of those boars who like to see and be seen at Ceros during track season. (I wouldn’t know since I’m usually broke when I leave the track, but it seems likely.)
- Pat Riley – The tough kid from Schenectady was a starter on the legendary 1966 Kentucky basketball team that lost to the predominantly African-American team from Texas Western. His luck would change in the NBA where he won a championship with the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, and from what I hear, added a few championship rings as head coach of the Lakers, and as the general manager of the Miami Heat. By the way, all of that pales with the fact that the Schenectady High School gym is named after him. What honor has anybody bestowed on Phil Jackson? A rest area named after him in Montana?
- Martha Quinn – First of all, who knew that one of the original MTV “VJ’s” was from Albany? I also can’t quite believe that she’s 59. She actually graduated from Ossining High School, but we’re going to claim her as our own. Springfield, Mass. can keep Nina Blackwood.
- Andy Rooney – Did you ever notice that Andy Rooney liked to say he was from Albany on his broadcasts? If not, it was most likely you were too distracted by his runaway eyebrows. Andy passed away in 2011 at the tender age of 92. This proud graduate of Albany Academy had a masters’ degree in cantankerous, but he was still beloved by millions of 60 Minutes’ viewers. One word of caution though. Since your hair continues to grow at least six months after you die, Rooney’s trademark eye brows are probably dangling down around his hip bone. Just something to consider.
- William Devane – The 79 year-old Albany native starred in the hugely successful drama Knots Landing. However, in an interesting twist of fate, Devane’s father Joseph was Franklin Roosevelt’s chauffeur when he was governor of New York. This is of some note since one of Devane’s most noteworthy roles came when he played JFK, in the made for tv movie, The Missiles of October. I’m not sure who Devane’ s chauffeur was when he played JFK, but I don’t think it was “John-John.”
- Art Ginsburg (Mr. Food) – The Troy born televison personality brought his love for food and cooking to WRGB in 1975, and eventually became a national celebrity. However, “Mr. Food” has a special place in my heart because I met and became friendly with his son Chuck at SUNY Oswego in the early 1980s. We actually called him “Chuck Food,” in honor of his father.
- Kirk Douglas – I know, you’re probably confused because if you knew him in Amsterdam, you probably called him by his given name, Issur Danielovich, and probably spoke to him in Yiddish which was the only language spoken in his home when he was growing up. (No offense, but if you knew “Kirk” when you were growing up, then you’re probably just a little confused in general since that would make you approximately 101, like Issur “Kirk,” and life can get confusing at that age.) Douglas went on of course to become one of the greatest and most famous actors in Hollywood history, and is really the last remaining survivor of Hollywood’s so-called “Golden Age.” Kirk struggled in Amsterdam high school since everytime they called on him in class he corrected the teacher by saying that he was Spartacus.
- Scott Valentine – If this one doesn’t ring a bell, I’ll give you a hint. Michael J. Fox? Justine Bateman? Alex P. Keaton? Give up? Valentine played Nick on Family Ties, the classic 1980s sitcom that made Fox a star. Valentine’s Nick was one of my favorite characters, and the fact that he’s a local boy makes him that much more special.
- John Sayles – I wasn’t going to leave out this native of Schenectady, especially when he wrote and directed one of my all-time favorite movies, Eight Men Out. Good work John!
(Don’t you understand, when Oprah welcomes somebody from Glens Falls onto her show, she’s welcoming all citizens of the Capital Region. We all owe Rachel Ray a big thanks! You Tube)
My apologies to any native born people of note who hail from the Capital Region whom I may have omitted. I’m sure you bleed Albany “Orange,” and you’ve made us all proud. I can never join your ranks since I wasn’t born here, but perhaps I could get an asterisk next to my name when great native bloggers are mentioned. It could look like this.
Local Capital Region Bloggers of Note:
* Robert Hoffman – (He’s not really one of us.)