Viewers of The Late Show with David Letterman will recognize Rupert Jee from the myriad skits in which he serves as Dave's accomplice for audience contests, celebrity tomfoolery, and on-the-street high jinks. New Yorkers can find Mr. Jee working the counter at Hello Deli on West 53rd Street every day. A dedicated serviceman, Mr. Jee would call out orders like "Cheddar ham omelette! Two coffees regular" to keep up with his busy customers between the questions and answers for this interview.
Age, occupation, where are you from, where are you now?
Thirtysomething; I'm co-owner of the Hello Deli. I'm of Chinese origin, I was born in New York City, and I've lived in the city all my life. I currently live in the 70s.
A few for you:
Did you ever in your wildest dreams expect to become a local celebrity?
No, I never did -- to be honest, I never wanted it. When The Late Show first moved into the neighborhood, I was told they were doing this segment called "Visit Our Neighbors" where each and every week they would take turns visit one of their new neighbors. I was so frightened about being on television, I was just hoping that they would forget about me. But the inevitable did happen and it's been going on for 13 years.
What do you think it is about you and the deli that's caused you to stick around all these years when the other neighbors disappeared?
I don't know. The thing I get from other people is that I'm just myself – I certainly don't have the talent to act, so maybe just being myself is what appeals to the audience.
Ever watch Leno?
Never. I did watch it one time, because you know there was that big rivalry between the two shows. Just out of curiosity, I wanted to see how special his show was. And I found out it wasn't.
What brings you back to the deli every day?
Well, I have to thank Blimpie's for this. Ever since my childhood, when I first tried Blimpie's, it's always been my dream to own a sandwich shop. As a matter of fact I used to dream about having my own place, making my own sandwiches. A little freaky, but that's what I used to dream about as a kid. And so years go by, I was working in the garment trade, and I suggested to my partner that maybe we should diversify and start a food business. We picked up The New York Times the following week, and this place was for sale. We fell in love with the store, it was the perfect size. My intention was just to get this going and become an absentee owner and move onto other projects. But two years later, Dave moved in, and it became a fulltime endeavor.
And now you're the most famous deli owner in the world...
Yeah, it's so bizarre. Life is funny.
What's it like being a celebrity deli owner? Do tourists come to the store just to see you?
We do make good sandwiches. I get a lot of out-of-towners who whenever they do come to the city again, they always eat at the deli. I'm not just a star, there's also sandwiches.
What's the best thing on the menu?
The most popular sandwich is the Paul Shaffer. Surprisingly, it's a very basic sandwich. Breaded chicken cutlet, deep-fried, with American cheese, sweet peppers, lettuce, tomato, mayo. And to this day that's the number-one seller.
Have you considered parlaying your small fame into a bigger role as an entertainer?
I don't know. I mean if something comes along, I would consider it, but if it requires acting, forget it. I've done a few inter-office type of shoots for IBM and pharmaceutical companies, but that's as far as it's gone.
What's your favorite sketch you've done so far?
The most popular is when they sent me out into the streets with Dave, and Dave would be in the van, and they'd have me say or do crazy things via camera glasses. It was titled "Fun with Rupert." We'd go out and simply drive people crazy. It required a lot of work.
If Dave packed up and moved the show to L.A., would you go with him?
Gosh, that's a tough one. I'd forever be loyal to Dave but… I'd certainly consider it, but it'd be tough.
What could you tell us about being on the show, or about Dave, that audiences wouldn't know just from watching?
He's very bold on television, he takes chances, he's pretty wild on the show -- and I think that's why the show is so successful. But despite his wildness, he's really in fact a very good human being. Obviously he's conservative, and he's got a heart of gold.
What law would you pass to improve life in New York?
The honking. New Yorkers are a very impatient breed of drivers. For all I know, New Jersey's the same but… if you're in a traffic jam, all the honking in the world doesn't change anything.
Besides Hello Deli, what's your favorite bar or restaurant?
I don't have any one favorite. I love Carmine's, they make a great osso buco. I'm a big fan of Italian food. It's just magnificent.
What place or thing would you declare a landmark?
It's got to be The Late Show. They've made history in late night.
What's your favorite part of New York?
I feel that when tourists come to the city, they should take time to visit Central Park. There you can find all kinds of food, entertainment, people, excitement. It's a show within a show. I've always lived a block away from the park, and that's the most unique part of the city. The people there make the park, really.
What advice would you give Mayor Bloomberg?
Honestly, I think he's doing a great job. He took over the city when we were going through a recession, the city was always spent. I think he's done a good job of putting the pieces back together.
Rupert Jee's Hello Deli is located at 213 West 53rd Street, open Mondays through Fridays. Try the Inky Mendez hero.