By Mitch Broder
The best way to meet a beloved late-night TV star is to ambush him while he’s selling a cup of meatball-and-spinach soup.
But then, this is intuitive to New York City tourists, who meet such a star every day by bounding into his delicatessen.
The star, of course, is Rupert Jee, who, against Mega Millions odds, became a household name in comedy while running a sandwich shop. He took over the shop, Hello Deli, in 1992. The next year, “Late Show with David Letterman” moved into his building and drafted him.
He has since made dozens of improbable appearances on the show, while, with his deli partner, May Chin, remaining a humble proprietor. And lately, along with the air time, he has been entrusted by his network with the “Late Show with David Letterman” souvenir-stuff stand.
meat-pie shop. The network offered the “Late Show” merchandise to the likeliest neighbor. So now Rupert has T-shirts, caps, and mugs where his soda fridges used to be.
The stuff attracts more business, which means it attracts more fans. People sweep in all day and greet Rupert as if he’s their best friend. They tell him what they’ve seen in New York and then make him pose for pictures. It’s a wonder he has time to make sandwiches, let alone meatball-and-spinach soup.
“It’s almost like a broken record,” he acknowledged. “They ask the same redundant questions. ‘Do you hang with Dave?’ ‘How long have you been on the show?’ ‘What are your favorite moments?’ ‘What’s Dave like?’” He had just finished acknowledging this when a woman from Toronto swept in and said: “Can I take a picture of you, famous man?” She wasn’t talking to me.
Fortunately for everyone, Rupert’s the picture of composure. He is every bit as accommodating as he seems on TV. He appears to have limitless patience, unless it’s just resignation. When you meet a celebrity, you dream that he’ll treat you the way Rupert does.
He is nice because he’s doing what he really wants to do, which is to run a delicatessen, not to be a TV star. And he’s nice because being a TV star turned out to be fun anyway, and he recognizes that such fun comes with a measure of compromise.
The fun began soon after “Late Show” premiered in August of ’93, when Dave decided to introduce the nation to some of his neighbors. “I was just too scared to be in front of an audience, so I told the writers not to come in,” Rupert recalled. “Of course, they went against my wishes.
“Six weeks into the show, they brought the cameras in without any warning. Dave interviewed me here first, and then he said: ‘I want to do something special for you, something you’ll remember for the rest of your life.’ So he brought me onstage for a standing ovation. An undeserved standing ovation.”
Or maybe not. Rupert’s good nature made him the perfect character to execute some of the show’s more perilous comedy concepts. In one famous piece, Dave sent him out as a dimwitted waiter and fed him lines designed to drive diners to profanity — which they did.
In fact, sometimes he’s on the show even when he’s not on it, which turns out to be every bit as good for business.
“Dave said on the show that if you come in to Hello Deli to purchase ‘Late Show’ merchandise, it’ll smell like salami,” Rupert explained. “Whatever he says sells. That’s the power of television. He called this place a dump one day and, needless to say, the next day the place went crazy. They came to see the dump.”Get a snack from a star at Hello Deli, 213 West 53rd Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, in New York City.