In the early 1970s a teenage superfan composed an eloquent letter to movie star and musician Barbra Streisand. In the message, the boy told his hero that he was a big fan of her work, and he even made a remarkable proposal. This youngster, as it happens, was named Richard E. Grant.
Grant began life as Richard Grant Esterhuysen, and it wasn’t just his name that was exotic. No, he’s actually a native of Swaziland and entered life in the capital city of Mbabane in 1957. Grant came to be born there because his father was part of the British colonial administration.
Grant became attracted to the world of acting during his childhood in the southern African nation. According to NPR, he used to create theaters from shoeboxes and filled them with little paper figures snipped from magazines. Soon enough, he was starring in school dramas and became part of clubs that put on their own theater.
However, just being keen didn’t mean that an actual life on the stage would be possible, as Grant told the broadcaster in 2018. He said, “What wasn’t clear is that anybody from [Swaziland] could possibly make a living and pursue this as a career seriously – that was what was deemed ludicrous.”
Grant then elaborated on what life was like growing up in the African country. Talking to NPR, the actor explained that his father had told him “even though you’re born here, you are essentially a guest in this country. And you have to learn the local language in order to be able to justify why we’re here.” And indeed, his father Henrik Esterhuysen spoke Swazi perfectly.
When Grant started at school in 1963, it happened to be the first year that Swazi kids had mixed with the white offspring of colonialists after being segregated. So schools were mixed without distinctions. As he told the broadcaster, “I wasn’t aware in my childhood that there was a division.”
The school Grant went to in those early years was called Waterford Kamhlaba. The latter part of the name had come from the king of Eswatini, and it was appropriate because it means “all the world in one” in Swazi. The student body of 300 was composed of 27 nationalities. Many of the students were the kids of dissidents from South Africa – among them Nelson Mandela’s children.
Grant’s mixed-race schooling had an influence on his later life, but so too did an incident that happened when he was ten years of age. His mom had sex with a man who wasn’t his dad in a car in which Grant was “sleeping” on the backseat, he claimed. The actor had to pretend that he’d seen nothing and long lived with the secret.
Worse yet happened when Grant’s father Esterhuysen came across him emptying several bottles of Scotch whisky in a bid to stop his father drinking. The latter was enraged and chased him with a gun. Thankfully, his dad was too drunk to shoot him, and the youngster escaped. The next day Esterhuysen had forgotten all about it, but Grant lived with the memory.
Despite Esterhuysen’s drinking problems, Grant told NPR that he “absolutely loved and adored him…” He had many great qualities, but the transformation that he underwent after drinking was incredible. Grant said that he’d never felt that the man whom he became when drunk was really his dad at all.
After secondary school, Grant went on to study drama and English at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. There, he was a member of the Space Theatre Company. But brighter lights beckoned, and Grant shifted home to London, where he would find the role that made him a star.
That role was as the eponymous character in the hilarious 1987 comedy Withnail & I. In the Bruce Robinson-directed film, Grant was note-perfect as the alcoholic bad boy in 1960s London. What made the actor’s performance astonishing is that although he’s very credible as a drunk, Grant is actually a teetotaler who can’t drink a drop for getting sick.
A couple of years later Grant took a lead role in another Robinson comedy movie. This time, he appeared as an unscrupulous marketer in How to Get Ahead in Advertising. However, the film was less popular among critics than Withnail & I, with some finding the satire unsubtle and coarse.
The latter film didn’t dent Grant’s career too much, though, and he forged ahead as a character actor. Those parts tended to be rather nasty, however, which was a speciality of his. Grant did appear as a lead in several productions, wowing viewers in the BBC TV show The Scarlet Pimpernel, where he cut a dashing figure.
Grant was often to be seen in costume dramas. In 1992 he turned up in Francis Ford Coppola’s version of the vampire classic Dracula. The year after, the actor played a New Yorker with an acid tongue in high society in Martin Scorsese’s period drama The Age of Innocence. Indeed, he’s something of a go-to for the aristocrat with a cutting remark.
Meanwhile, Grant has often been seen on television. He appeared in the Lena Dunham hit Girls and unsurprisingly in U.K. toff drama Downton Abbey. He also had his own documentary show – Richard E. Grant’s Hotel Secrets on U.K. channel Sky – in which he looked into scandals among the rich and famous.
However, fame was not a cushion for the dark stain that a tough childhood had left on Grant. He had a breakdown when aged 42, but after recovering, he was able to make an autobiographical film called Wah-Wah. After that, he proved that he wasn’t limited to work on the screen by releasing his own scent and taking on fraudsters in Swaziland who were running a fake HIV drug ring.
A definite career high point for Grant was his nomination for an Oscar in 2019. He got the nod for Best Supporting Actor for the part of Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me?. In that movie, he excelled alongside Melissa McCarthy – portraying what Rolling Stone magazine described as her writer’s “Sancho Panza.”
And it’s not just Grant’s professional life that has been successful. He’s also happily married to fellow actress Joan Washington. They got hitched in 1986 and have been together ever since. The couple have one daughter, Olivia, and Washington has a son from a previous relationship.
Grant told British magazine Saga in 2019, “I once thought I would never dare fall in love with anybody and certainly never have a child. Then, of course, I fell in love, and we had a child, so that was the most profound thing, and everybody who is a parent will always say that. That has been the most life-changing thing. I never could have imagined how important that is.”
Grant’s relationship with Olivia is strong; he’s demonstrated that many times on his Instagram, where his daughter often features. She’s also a partner in his line of fragrances – Jack – which he designed to be unisex. Away from that, she works as a casting agent. But Grant has enough love left for one more woman.
Grant’s first love was actually superstar Barbra Streisand. He developed an admiration for her as a child and explained to Rolling Stone in 2019 why that was. The actor said, “I think that [I connected with her] because I had read everything about her and that she was somebody that, even though she was famous by the time she was 19 years old, her childhood was so dysfunctional.”
And the fact that they’d both had difficult childhoods struck a chord with Grant. He said, “That is an immediate bond that you have with somebody because you go, ‘This person I understand.’ So, when you hear the voice singing, that’s what you hear, whether true or not.”
And the fascination didn’t fade with age. Grant continued, “When I said to my analyst, ‘Why do I have this ongoing obsession with it?’ Because, that fan worship should really pass by the time you’re an adult. He said, ‘Well some people are sort of emotionally arrested at that stage – and you clearly are.’”
But the depth of Grant’s hero worship only really became apparent when he took a selfie in the road outside of Streisand’s residence. When the actor posted it to Twitter, he also shared a letter that he had written to her when only 14 years of age. Its contents are touching – revealing as they do a generous and romantic spirit.
Young Grant opened his missive by introducing himself to the superstar singer-actress. According to The Guardian, he wrote, “You don’t know me yet, but I am writing to offer you an idea you might like to consider. My name is Richard, and I live in a small African kingdom called Swaziland in southeast Africa.”
The youngster then explained that he was a fervent supporter of Streisand’s. A young Grant wrote, “Since seeing Funny Girl, we, my family that is, and I have been very big fans. I have followed your career avidly. We have all your records. I am 14 years old.”
Then Grant showed that he really had been following Streisand’s doings very closely. He wrote, “I read in the paper that you were feeling very tired and pressurized by your fame and failed romance with Mr. Ryan O’Neal.” Streisand had indeed been dating the latter, with their chemistry obvious in 1972’s What’s Up, Doc?.
Grant had a solution for Streisand’s broken heart and exhaustion, though. In fact, he would make quite an astonishing proposal. The future actor continued, “I would like to offer you a two-week holiday, or longer, at our house, which is very beautiful with a pool and a magnificent view of the Ezulwini Valley.”
The young Grant went on, “No one will trouble you and I assure you [that] you will not be mobbed in the street as your films only show in our one cinema for three days, so not that many people will know who you are, so [there’s] no chance of being mobbed. Please consider this respite seriously. You will always be welcome.”
The future actor finished up with some Shakespeare, which he hoped would be comforting. He wrote, “[I] hope these lines will reassure you. Theseus, ‘For never anything can be amiss when simpleness and duty tender it,’ or Puck, ‘If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended. That you have but slumber’d here, while these visions did appear.’”
But despite the attractions of Grant’s home in Eswatini, reply there came none. Indeed, the actor shared with Ellen DeGeneres on her chat show that he did encounter Streisand once – meeting her in 1991. But although his younger self had hoped for a “hasty reply,” he didn’t hear a word about what he’d written.
Everything changed in February 2019, however. Grant told Rolling Stone that after he’d been interviewed with them, the actor was off to stan the legendary singer. The star said, “We’re touring [Streisand’s] childhood neighborhood. She’s just so fabulous and amazing.” And it wasn’t long after that that he revealed how far his obsession had led him.
That was when Grant posted the selfie on Twitter. He wrote, “As a lifelong fan of someone, you’ll understand what it meant for me to take this snap outside [of Streisand’s home].” The British star had even asked security if it would be okay. And then Grant shared the letter that he had written.
The tweet received plenty of attention – with 25,000 likes and over 2,000 retweets at the time of writing. But among the many replies, one in particular caught the eye. Amazing as it may seem, it was Streisand, who wrote, “What a wonderful letter… and look at you now! You’re terrific in your latest movie with Melissa. Congratulations and love, Barbra.”
After all the years that had passed, Grant was still stunned and appreciative of Streisand’s response. He tweeted, “I cannot begin to properly express what your generous reply has meant to me! Thank you. And most especially for not calling security to have me arrested!” But if that was exciting, something more thrilling was yet to come.
When Grant went to the Oscars in February 2020, Streisand was also in attendance. And the Eswatini-born actor shared the thrill of meeting her. The two of them starred together in a selfie that he posted to Twitter, and Grant told the world how it had felt to meet her.
On both Instagram and Twitter, Grant shared, “Being Oscar-nominated was pretty amazing, but meeting with [Streisand] and having a proper conversation was an absolute astonishment.” He summed up what he thought of the singer succinctly, adding, “40 carat gold.” And alongside the selfie, he had more to say.
In a tweet festooned with emojis of musical notes, the actor explained that the image that he’d had of Streisand since he’d watched Funny Girl as a boy was quite accurate. Grant wrote, “Suitably blurry eyed selfie with [Streisand] who was everything I’d hoped, expected and dreamt she’d be. Queen bee.”
And clearly Grant remained a massive fan because not long afterwards, he was telling Twitter all about another endeavor of his. The actor wrote, “Commissioned a sculpture of [Streisand] as I’ve been an avid fan for over half a century. It’s two-foot tall and finally received it today!” Apparently, when she heard about it, Streisand made a simple diagnosis. She said, “You’re insane.”