Joel Grey Says He Has No Regrets as He Turns 90: 'I Fought Like a Fighter'

Theatrical icon Joel Grey looks back on his storied career in celebration of his 90th birthday, including his Oscar win in 1973, telling PEOPLE the moment was "magic"

Joel Grey
Photo: Ben Hider/Getty

Broadway legend Joel Grey is 90 years young.

The Oscar and Tony Award-winning Cabaret star tells PEOPLE that he is celebrating his birthday on Monday "with good friends."

But even as he enters his tenth decade, Grey is still a busy actor, recently making a cameo in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tick, Tick… Boom! and wrapping his work on the upcoming FX thriller The Old Man, starring Jeff Bridges.

When asked if he ever imagined becoming such a prolific actor as a young boy growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, he tells PEOPLE, "No! I didn't. I've never thought about it, actually, and I never thought [about] this number that I'd be associated with: 9-0."

Up until the coronavirus pandemic, Grey has kept himself busy in the theater — a place he calls "home." Though he's best known for the indelible mark he left on Cabaret's Master of Ceremonies, in recent years he's starred on Broadway in Wicked and Anything Goes and directed productions of The Normal Heart and Fiddler on the Roof.

Joel Grey
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"It's my passion," he says. "Somehow, I knew that the theater was my life and that it was going to be a part of my life, and so I fought like a fighter. There was no doubt in my mind that I would not give up, but it did take a while. I'd say about 20 years."

In fact, at the beginning of his career, Grey says he faced "a lot of challenges" but that he continued to persevere.

"I think it was something endemic with me that I just knew I belonged in a certain place, and I found my way there, luckily," he says. "There was a lot of years where, when I was a grown-up, they said, 'You're a song-and-dance man.' And I said, 'No, no, no, no. I'm an actor first.' It was that struggle — and not giving up that dream."

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In 1967, Grey was awarded the Tony for originating the Kit Kat Klub's Emcee in the Kander and Ebb classic set in 1930s Berlin. Six years later, he took home the Academy Award for recreating the role on screen, beating out The Godfather stars James Caan, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino.

Joel Grey

"It was like magic. It was like a dream all of a sudden came true," Grey recalls. "I was sure Al Pacino would win for The Godfather. I think he was, too!"

His Cabaret costar Liza Minnelli — who also won that evening for her performance as singer Sally Bowles — nearly jumped out of her seat as Grey walked to the stage to accept the Academy Award. Almost 50 years later, they still cheer each other on.

"She looked gorgeous," Grey says of seeing Minnelli present alongside Lady Gaga at this year's Oscars. "We speak fairly often. I check in on her from time to time, and we laugh and scream like we did doing [the musical number] 'Money.' There's a lot of history."

He fondly remembers going to the Cabaret set in Germany "every morning with her sleeping on my shoulder," he says, "because she'd been out the night before! She's like my little sister, I feel very protective."

Joel Grey
Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

In 2015, Grey discussed his sexuality in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, saying at the time that if he had to put a label on it, he identifies as "a gay man." The actor — who was married to actress Jo Wilder for 24 years — elaborated on his relationship with himself in his 2016 memoir, aptly titled Master of Ceremonies.

Writing about his life at the time felt "natural," he now says, adding: "It was like everything was in its own time. It was at the right time."

His daughter, Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey, is now set to release a memoir of her own next month. "I've seen a lot of it, and it's really good," her father says. "She had such different experiences from me, and that was interesting to see."

Does he have any regrets from over the years? "No," he says calmly. "I don't think I'm in charge. I think I'm just a player."

As for what's up next for him, Grey says that he'd like to see his acclaimed production of Fiddler on the Roof return to the stage. He is also open to whatever the future holds. At 90, he says he's still "curious" — and "ready to listen."

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