I’ve been thinking about celebrity this week, what with the recent launch of Esquire’s Life of Man project, which features one guy for each of the 80 years Esquire magazine has been published. The editors made some interesting selections — Dr. Dre, Kevin Bacon, Peter Dinklage, Stephen Colbert — but of course this got me thinking about the guys I would include on such a list. I also saw a survey of celebrities that guys in the United States and United Kingdom admire, in The State of Men, a report from marketing communications agency JWT. I wrote a bit about this report earlier in the week.
What did I expect when it comes to who guys admire? That dapper, athletic, successful dudes would top the list. The U.K. didn’t disappoint — 37% of the men surveyed said that they admired soccer (or football, as the case may be) star David Beckham, husband of Posh Spice. He’s got the traditional male signifiers for success: a strong physique that he’s unafraid to show off in underwear ads, prowess on the field, money, a beautiful wife. And yet I wouldn’t want to invite him to a dinner party.
Sean Connery fared well too, ranking number 2 on the U.S. list, with 32% of American men admiring him. Why so high? Sure, he was dapper as Bond, but what has he done for us lately? Besides ham it up in a handful of movies, that is. (Finding Forester, anyone? “Punch the keys, for God’s sake!” Yes, sir, Mr. Connery!) I guess old style icons still hold power for today’s men. Witness the continued popularity of Frank Sinatra (whom 19% of American men admire). Old Blue Eyes looked and sounded great, yes, but the man was reportedly a big jerk.
What surprised me was the strong ranking of men like Bill Gates, who tops the American list and comes in second on the U.K. one. Then I gave it some thought. Gates is uber-rich, has a long career, appears to be genuinely in love with his wife, and does amazing philanthropic work. He also pursued a dream — of creating affordable desktop computers — that seemed risky back in the day, which can be hard to remember now that we can hold sophisticated technology in the palm of our hands. He is indeed an admirable figure.
So are the last three presidents, all of whom appear in the top of the U.S. list in this order: Barack Obama (29%), Bill Clinton (26%), and George W. Bush (24%). Say what you will about their policies, I think most Americans would agree that reaching the Oval Office takes a lot of work and a certain way with people. All three of these guys have charisma.
Some of my favorite male stars Brits Russell Brand, Ricky Gervais, and Jamie Oliver — hang low on the U.S. list and only in the middle of the U.K. one, and only 5% of American men admire Jay-Z, whose hustle I gotta respect. As with the Esquire list, The State of Men one started me thinking. Who are the guys I admire, and, more importantly, hope that my son Felix will too? They’re artists, scientists, intellectuals. Men who are successful but follow their own path.
And so, I humbly present to you here, The Gresko Eight:
Bill Gates? Sure. 1 of 9Okay, make it nine. I'll include Bill Gates on this list for the reasons I stated above. On top of that, I once saw his helicopter touch down on a floating raft off the coast of Washington State, which was pretty cool.
David Byrne 2 of 9Since appearing on the New York music scene in the mid-seventies with the then-trio Talking Heads, Byrne has been a musical explorer, jumping from jangly punk-pop to electronic funk, in the process creating masterpieces like "This Must Be the Place" and "Burning Down the House." Ok, so some of these musical styles have fit better than others — I can do without his opera arias on 2004's Grown Backwards, for example — but I love how curious he is to try new things, and his courage to take risks. He's a polymath too, not just a musician but also an author, blogger, visual artist, and bicycling advocate. As Time Magazine put it in their 1986 cover story, Byrne remains Rock's Renaissance Man.
Bill Moyers 3 of 9I'm not a church going man, but I loved watching Bill Moyers's essays on his PBS Show Now, which felt like sermons on life, politics, and the world around us. Moyers has always delivered a hopeful message, that as powerless as we can sometimes feel — at the mercy of monied corporations and corrupt politicians — we do have a voice in our democracy, and there are people out there doing amazing work. In his long career as a journalist, Moyers has spoke truth to power, and I admire his integrity and unceasing work ethic. The guy's 79 years old and still at it! You go, Bill.
Jimmy Fallon 4 of 9
I wasn't instantly a Fallon fan. Some of his routines on SNL didn't hit me, and then there was his brief film career, the less mentioned the better. But since taking over on The Late Show in 2009, I've come to love him. He's quick, he's gracious, he's warm, and best of all, he looks like he's just having a great time. This is a man who loves to go to work. And he brought The Roots along with him, a band Fallon loved and who well deserve the exposure. Need proof? His lip syncing routine with Stephen Merchant and Joseph Gordon Levitt was a hoot. And on a more personal note, he once commandeered the sound system at my local dive bar, playing a great mix of music and never saying no to anyone who wanted a picture, or just express their appreciation of his work. Nice guy.
Cornel West 5 of 9I'll never forget seeing Dr. Cornel West speak at Oberlin College, back in the late 90's. He brought the passion of a preacher, the intellect of a philosopher, and a rhetoric that mixed quotes from Kierkegaard and MLK with the words of Bob Dylan and Chuck D. It was electrifying. Like many of the men on this list, West has fare ranging interests. His intellect not only shines on the pages of books like Race Matters and Democracy Matters, but he also is a music lover and sometimes hip-hop MC.
Junot Diaz 6 of 9Aside from a few of his wonderful short stories, I have not read much of Junot Diaz's work. I have, though, read a lot of his interviews, and I am always inspired by how cool Diaz makes being a nerd look (despite him claiming otherwise). This is a guy who lived in comic books and science fiction novels, and isn't embarrassed or reticent about his love for geek culture. He takes those interests and blends them up with more literary references and viola, you've got great art. Diaz also isn't shy about being shy — he has said that it takes him a full day to prepare for a reading. He's also passionate about education reform, and a dedicated teacher.
Alan Alda 7 of 9
Yes, I used to watch M.A.S.H. as a kid, and while I didn't always get the jokes, I loved Alda as Hawkeye, all sarcastic and yet lovable, and of course he's great in Woody Allen's movies. But the thing I love most about Alda is his excitement about science. In a string of shows on PBS, he explored the human brain, and neanderthals, and all sorts of subjects. The whole time, he's like this friendly uncle, asking questions, cracking jokes, having no fear to say he doesn't get something — can you explain it again? He's a deep, thoughtful guy who used his fame on the screen to shine a light on the sciences. He even wrote a part memoir part exploration of values and philosophy!
Neil deGrasse Tyson 8 of 9Speaking of the sciences, you can't mention popular science without bring up Neil deGrasse Tyson. He's appeared everywhere from PBS to The Simpsons, always funny and really excited to talk about space, the universe, and the natural world. He's one of those rare scientists who can explain complicated concepts in a clear way, without dumbing them down. Better still, he's also a big movie buff. He worked with James Cameron to make sure that the night sky in the re-issue of Titanic looked the way it would have the night the boat sunk, and in an interview on NPR said he was going to a midnight showing of Ridley Scott's Prometheus. Awesome.
Bill Murray 9 of 9
And finally, while we're on the subject of movies, how can I not mention Bill Murray? The guy's played so many great parts, but he's also an iconoclast in real life. He doesn't have an agent. He'll crash random people's parties, and even stay to do the dishes. He knows some of the guys from the Wu Tang Clan. When asked to appear in a fake movie trailer by a fan, he says sure, as long as they film all the slow-motion parts by actual moving in slow-mo. He seems like a weirdly lovable guy, or a lovably weird one? Either way, like all the guys on this list, Murray marches to the beat of his own drummer and looks like he loves life, and if my son does that, then I think he's going to be just fine.