Ray Martin talks Australia, racism and John Safran
IT IS a below-freezing New York night in December 2012.
"Mr Television" Ray Martin is standing outside the premiere of Hollywood blockbuster Les Misérables, starring Australian actor and friend Hugh Jackman.
Although not on the guest list, Ray spies Hugh and wants to say hello. Told to get in line, Ray walks on.
He figures he will try to nod Hugh a "G'day" as he passes. He expects maybe a wink back, but is given a far more Aussie greeting.
"(Hugh) saw me go past the man he was talking to, who was probably trying to offer him money for a new film and Hugh said, 'Oh f-k! What are you doing here?!'".
"Only an Australian would say that."
RAY'S EARLY LIFE
Aside from being 16,000km from his Sydney home, Ray's encounter with his A-list mate is even more distant from his modest childhood life in the central New South Wales town of Tottenham. It has a population of about 320.
As a boy, the bush-living Ray would have laughed off any notion of meeting the celebrities he saw in magazines as "white-fella dreamtime stuff".
That's how he described it his 2010 autobiography.
His world now, he wrote, was as far from that life as "another galaxy, a rocket-ship ride away".
Despite the gulf between his present and past, the bush stays with him.
He must be Australia's most famous Martin though his surname is thought to have been stolen from a train station advertisement as his family fled Ray's increasingly drunk and abusive father.
Ray Grace became Ray Martin at age 11.
AN AUSSIE ICON BY THE BEACH
When we meet Ray, he is relaxed.
The surprise arrival of a repairman at his occasional holiday home near Coolum means we interview him by the pool.
His doesn't tell the story of running into Hugh at a London black-tie gala to impress anyone. He spins the yarn the way someone might retell a story about running into an old mate.
It goes to the heart of how Ray Martin - an Australian celebrity in his own right - thinks about his fellow Aussies.
"(Hugh) didn't really care about this A-List person. He just saw someone he knew or saw someone who was another Aussie.
"It's part of our character."
Ray is something of an expert on Australian character. He became the country's most-trusted journalist first after fronting Nine's 60 Minutes in the late 1970s, the Midday Show in the 1980s then on to A Current Affair from the mid-90s. He has won five Gold Logies.
On Australian life, Ray knows he sees it through rose-coloured glasses: "but I think we are pretty special".
"WE'RE NOT RACIST, WE'RE IGNORANT"
It might be coloured, but it's not blinkered.
Ray describes the ongoing Aboriginal health and social crisis as Australia's "festering sore".
As host of SBS's "First Contact" last year, Ray took six Australians into the bush. It was the first time they would meet Indigenous Australians.
The six imagined Aboriginal Australia to be rife with petrol sniffing, drugs, fraud and laziness.
"What they proved is that we're not so much racist. I don't think we are racist. We're ignorant." Ray tells me.
"I don't think it's racist, for example, to ask Aboriginal people today why don't they send their kids to school.
"I don't think it's racist to ask why they drink so much.
"The truth is that Aboriginal people drink less than white Australians but nevertheless, if that's the image, it's not racist to ask those questions.
"They were valid questions that people asked, and they got answers."
In the video below, Ray Martin recounts his 1998 run-in with John Safran, which led to him grabbing the aspiring performer
THE MAN WITH THE QUESTIONS
Divining answers from people is a skill Ray has honed since starting as an ABC cadet in 1965.
Australians are great in interviews, he says, regardless of whether they are asking or answering the questions.
"I remember doing an interview for Batman -- Nicole Kidman was in it and Jim Carry was in it and Val Kilmer was in it.
"Val Kilmer was very stitched-up and very uptight.
"Then you get someone like Nicole Kidman who came in, kissed everybody, all our crew, jumped on the bed, crossed her legs, looked a million bucks and I just said, 'Tell me about home' and away we went."
That could explain why the only two people to walk out on a Ray Martin interview were Americans. Neither wanted to answer questions about drugs.
In 2000, Michael Johnson - the world's fastest man over 400m at the time -- agreed to be interviewed if drugs were not part of the conversation.
This was after six medals were stripped from doping Americans during the Sydney Olympics.
When the question was asked, Ray knew the sprinter's reaction was being captured by three cameras.
"He got up and I thought he was going to hit me he was so angry," Ray says, smiling.
"I thought, 'Please hit me because we'll have this forever more, but don't hit me hard' because if he hit me hard, I'd be knocked until next week and I would've been out of it."
The other was Michael Jackson's notorious sister La Toya, who had landed in the headlines for cocaine use.
Though still in front of the camera for special editions of 60 Minutes, passion projects or documentaries, Ray's cherished spare time is spent behind his own still cameras.
MOVING BEHIND THE SCENES
Last year Ray published a book of photographs spanning 40 years of adventures. Elton John is in there, as is Clive Palmer, along with an array of stunning land and cityscapes.
"That's the obsession of my life for someone who has really made a career out of writing stuff and out of words and being in front of a camera."
"It's like (cricketing legend) Ian Chappell used to say about batting, 'The more I practice, the luckier I get'."
Our interview wraps up and it's raining heavily.
He asks if we could give him a lift 100m down the road to his lakeside house. The adult kids are arriving to visit Ray and Dianne, his wife of more than 45 years.
After half a century of work and about 10,000 interviews conducted, it seems like the cricketer's motto could be right.
Ray does seem quite lucky.
This piece is the part of the series, From The Heart: Aussie Icons Speak Out from Australian Regional Media.
Monday's edition will feature former Queensland Premier Anna Bligh.
In this video series we have also spoken to: