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My one time encounter with Jay Leno

Jay and Billy at Leno's last Tonight Show
Jay and Billy at Leno's last Tonight Show
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

I loved watching television icon and 21-year “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno in various capacities and roles. He always struck me as charming, smart, and funny--a great combination for any TV personality in my book. During his last appearance on the “Tonight Show,” February 6, 2014, I enjoyed looking back at his accomplishments and seeing all those fabulous celebrities come out to thank him for enriching our lives over such a long period of time.

And then it struck me. I remembered that I, too, had once personally experienced this man's friendliness and humor. The circumstances of our chance encounter are a little sketchy since it was almost 20 years ago, if I remember right. I know for sure it started at an LAX gate where I was waiting to board a red-eye flight to the east coast. Most likely enroute to Germany for me. Most likely to New York for Jay. Most likely on United because that was my airline of choice at that time.

So, a lot of people were waiting at the gate and I spotted fairly new “Tonight Show” host, Jay, sitting all by himself reading a newspaper. People were looking at him, whispering, pointing in his direction. Remembering him from many stand-up comedy appearances, I just wanted to shake his hand and get his autograph. I walked over to him, with the novel I was reading at the time, and a pen. Jay immediately invited me to sit next to him. He seemed happy that he had someone to talk to. And so we talked--about life and the world, about his show, Germany, traveling. It was delightful. He also gave me his autograph, and when the flight was called for boarding, I thought this encounter was over. Jay thought otherwise. Knowing he would board as a first class ticket holder before me, he said to me, "Watch me when you go through First Class, and play along. OK?" I said, “Sure.”

Jay boarded and I waited, curious what was going to happen. Then it was time for me to board the airplane. I started to make my way through first class when I spotted him near the back of that cabin. Jay jumped up, waived his arms and shouted, "Rich, buddy, how are you doing?" I was floored, and when I arrived at his aisle seat he hugged me and we laughed. Then he asked where I was going and wished me a good flight and a great time in Europe.

That was my encounter with TV legend Jay Leno. When the flight landed at JFK I wasn't able to catch him again since first class was deplaning so much faster than economy. Also, I was hurrying to another gate while he probably left the airport right away.

My novel with his autograph got lost somehow, but my memory of spending some exciting moments in a chance encounter with Jay Leno will be with me forever. Thank you, Jay!

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