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News / Life / Clark County Life

‘I’ve always been fascinated by faces’: Vancouver man collects 300 autographs of celebrities

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: December 28, 2023, 6:05am
14 Photos
Autograph collector Todd Sheets describes his distant-but-real personal connection to casting director Richard Newkirk of &ldquo;Frasier&rdquo; and &ldquo;NCIS&rdquo; fame.
Autograph collector Todd Sheets describes his distant-but-real personal connection to casting director Richard Newkirk of “Frasier” and “NCIS” fame. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When Todd Sheets sent an admiring letter to former President Ronald Reagan, the cordial reply he received was tagged “photo enclosed,” but there was no photo in the envelope. Sheets, who is genial and persistent, chalked up the mistake to Reagan’s busy schedule and advanced age, and tried a second time by writing directly to Reagan’s No. 1 supporter, his wife.

He was rewarded with a sweet personal note from Nancy Reagan and a proud photograph signed by both halves of the former First Couple.

That photograph has been on display for the past few years in the so-called “celebrity room” in Sheets’ basement alongside 300-plus other famous faces and fat-markered autographs.

For just over 40 years, Sheets has been reaching out to prominent people — movie and TV stars, country singers and U.S. presidents — to describe how and why they caught his attention and earned his admiration. And, by the way, could he please have an autographed photo for his wall?

Most responded with gratitude and generosity. Celebrities know they owe it all to their fans, Sheets said.

“They have egos,” Sheets said of all those million-dollar smiles and wrinkle-free faces. “But they’re also human.”

Sheets, 69, likes to believe that the stars themselves (rather than invisible support staffers) have been reading and handling his requests all along. Maybe that’s naive faith in humanity, but Sheets said his whole life has been an exercise in keeping such faith.

Sheets said he was molested as a boy growing up in central Oregon. Despite his mother’s love and strength, the experience robbed him of his childhood, he said. He had a high school sweetheart but was too traumatized to maintain a relationship and broke up with her again and again, until a reunion seemed inevitable. The couple married not long after graduation.

“Trudy is the one who saved my life,” Sheets said. “My life began at age 18.”

A decade later, in 1982, Sheets took a notion to send a tape of Trudy and her sister’s harmony-and-guitar duo to Dudley Moore, the actor-comedian-pianist then at a career peak (after starring roles in the films “10” and “Arthur.”) Was there any way Moore could give the tape a listen?

The answer was no, but Moore’s letter back was respectful and kind — and signed.

“That just ignited me,” Sheets said.

He got busy reaching out to more stars and building his collection of autographed photos.

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Sheets describes himself as a “people person.” He is also an amateur painter. Sheets said he has always struggled to capture the subtle magic of facial expressions.

“I’ve always been fascinated by faces,” he said.

Heartfelt

Most celebrities whom Sheets pursues are ones whose performances, or personal stories, have touched him.

Why Jim Nabors, the singer and comic actor of “Andy Griffith” fame? Sheets, a kidney cancer survivor, said he wrote a “heartfelt letter” to the ailing Nabors in 2017. Nabors, who’d undergone a liver transplant and suffered hepatitis B, died not long afterwards, at age 87.

“I just told him how much he had entertained our families,” Sheets said. Nabors’ agent replied graciously, with a signed photo and note.

Why movie star Greg Kinnear? Because his moving performance as a gay man in “As Good as It Gets” (alongside Jack Nicholson) reminded Sheets of a longtime, closeted friend from central Oregon — a good buddy to this day — who would have been bullied and victimized if his truth had come out in that place and time, he said.

Why former President George W. Bush? The painter in Sheets admires the faces in Bush’s portrait paintings, he said.

Why former President Donald Trump? Because he was president. (Sheets said he affixed typed disclaimers to his two photos of Trump that detail the former president’s impeachments, indictments and other legal troubles.)

Why does a freestanding display in Sheets’ celebrity room highlight the late Richard Newkirk, a Hollywood insider less known as a crowd-scene extra than as a casting director for shows like “NCIS” and “Frasier”? Because of an unlikely family connection: Newkirk was his brother’s girlfriend’s brother.

“You’ve heard of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon?” Sheets said, referring to the parlor game where players create elaborate chains of actors who have appeared together on screen. Newkirk was a frequent guest at his brother’s girlfriend’s dinner table, Sheets said. After Newkirk’s death, much of his private memorabilia collection was given to Sheets.

Why the cast of “Hogan’s Heroes,” decades later? Because Sheets liked the show. Among the mementos he received from its lead actors is an autographed photo of Werner Klemperer (Col. Klink) and, separately, a note that maybe was a joke, but maybe not: Did Sheets know anybody interested in hiring an aging, typecast character actor?

Christmas in June

Sheets is a former self-employed builder and building inspector who eventually left central Oregon and moved to Vancouver to take a job with the Bonneville Power Administration. Sheets and his wife have lived here since 2012, but nobody except family has ever seen their household hall of fame, not even nearby neighbors and friends.

It’s not meant to be a big secret, Sheets said. He’s just a busy guy, even in retirement, and never thinks to mention it to anybody. But his house is starting to refill with family these days, including his 91-year-old mother, who is ailing, as well as his daughter and granddaughter. So his celebrities must make some room. The Sheets’ basement will soon become their daughter’s family’s apartment, he said.

Therefore, Sheets called The Columbian for this exclusive look, before anything changes. Until now, nobody outside Sheets’ family has seen his collection.

Sheets said he’s actually slowed down on gathering celebrity photos in recent years — after Trudy started suggesting that, just maybe, their home celebrity-display space was full. Still, Trudy traveled with Sheets to Kansas City, Kan., earlier this year to celebrate the couple’s 50th anniversary at the annual Hallmark Christmas Con held every June, where they scooped up the autographs of their favorite Hallmark TV movie stars.

Sheets admitted that he hasn’t even tried for the autograph of the most famous person on Earth today: Taylor Swift.

“That would be like wishing on a falling star,” he said.

But he does have fingers crossed about hearing back from Vice President Kamala Harris and movie star Tom Hanks.

“It doesn’t hurt to ask,” he said. “You just have to ask nicely.”

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