ONE of my favourite interview moments came when I once asked Sir Rod Stewart during our Life Stories encounter: “Do you regret all those years of womanising, boozing, drug-taking and hotel room-trashing?”
“I do,” he replied, solemnly, his face etched in what seemed to be sincere reflective remorse.
“REALLY?” I exclaimed, stunned and incredulous.
The great man paused for maximum effect, nodding slowly and very seriously.
Then a massive smirk appeared on his “tormented” face and he cackled loudly: “Do I f***!! I loved it all!”
And we both fell about laughing.
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Those few seconds perfectly encapsulated the character of the man who I’m lucky enough to call a friend, and who I consider to be Britain’s most genuine, down-to- earth and amusing star.
But as we were reminded a few days ago, there’s a lot more to Rod than just a great raspy voice, iconic spiky barnet and wise-cracking sense of humour.
He’s also an incredibly big-hearted and generous guy, who cares passionately about his country.
That’s why I wasn’t surprised to see him randomly call into Sky News last Thursday (though I did email him immediately afterwards, suggesting that next time he feels the urge to do something like that, could he please call into MY show!) to express his raw anger at the terrible state of the NHS.
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In an emotional exchange, Rod said he’d “never seen it so bad” and raged: “There are people dying because they cannot get scans.”
He then offered to pay for “ten or 20 scans” for people who aren’t able to go private like him — something that may have saved his life when he got prostate cancer a few years ago, but survived because it was thankfully caught early.
“I don’t need the publicity,” he said. “I just want to do some good things, and this I think is a good thing.
“If other people follow me, I would love that.”
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The next day, he emailed me to say: “No idea how I’m going to organise and pay for 20 scans for people who are desperate . . . any ideas?”
I’m sure there will be a way for Rod, who turned 78 two weeks ago, to fulfil his extraordinary pledge, and I will help him in any way I can.
But, more significantly, his unexpected public intervention into the mounting crisis of NHS waiting times fuelled days of newspaper headlines and TV and radio debate, and may shame the Government into doing more, faster, to get people the life-or-death treatment they so urgently need.
It’s not the first time Rod’s put his money where his mouth is.
Three months ago, it emerged that he’d rented and furnished a house in Berkshire for a family of seven Ukrainian refugees, including five kids between two and 17, after he and his wife Penny were reduced to tears seeing the horrors of the Russian invasion unfold on TV.
“Words couldn’t describe what we were watching,” he said.
“The bombing of innocent children, of hospitals and playgrounds. Like everyone else, we were completely beside ourselves. This is pure evil.”
Again, he spoke out publicly about his act of compassion because he wanted others to follow his lead.
“I am now a knight,” he said. “I should be using my power to do something for people. I am sure that if there are people out there who see what I am doing, they will pick up some slack, too.”
Rod also hired three trucks filled with supplies for refugees and had them driven to Ukraine, using them to then safely transport 16 people out of the war-torn country to safety in Germany.
None of this surprised me.
Despite long-running rumours of his supposed meanness (Ronnie Wood branded him “tight as two coats of paint” and George Michael told me he and Elton John were convinced Rod once served them Dairylea cheese triangles for the starter at a fancy dinner at his Beverly Hills home, claiming it was rare, imported cheese), I’ve always found him to be extraordinarily generous, both with his money and his time.
Three years ago, my father Glynne suddenly announced he’d bought four top-priced (£250 each) tickets to see Rod perform at the Sussex County Cricket Ground in Hove.
He’d never done anything like this before. Indeed, my shocked mother disclosed after he dropped the bombshell that they hadn’t attended a single concert in their entire five-decade marriage.
But Dad, who used to play drums in a jazz band, explained: “I’m 78, Rod’s 74, and I want to see him play live before one of us dies.”
When I emailed Rod to break this startling news, he replied: “Brilliant, Piers! I’d love to meet them!”
He then fixed it for me, my parents and my sister to park our car backstage next to his chauffeur-driven Bentley — and invited us all to a meal in the green room with some of his own delightful family, including his 90-year-old sister Mary and brother Don, 89.
Later, after a brilliant show, he invited us back for a few bottles of fine wine outside his trailer, where he chatted to Mum and Dad for ages like they were old friends.
(When she got home, my mother posted a Facebook photo of herself gleefully hugging Rod with the caption: “Died and gone to heaven!”
Despite this, Dad announced it had been “a wonderful evening — worth every penny”.)
Those who know Rod well all have stories like this, especially if it involves family, which is the most important thing in his life.
Honest and hilarious
He’s a rarity for a popular celebrity: someone who is just as charming off camera as he is on it.
There’s no sinister dark side to him, and no raging narcissistic ego lurking beneath the cheeky grin.
Rod’s just a really good bloke who loves his wife, his kids, his siblings (Don and his other brother Bob both sadly died in recent months), his country and his football.
When we bumped into each other at an LA party just before the 2015 Champions League Final, and I said I was going to watch it on my own, he exclaimed: “Can’t have that! Come and watch it with me at my mate Eddie Kerkhofs’ house.”
Eddie is a celebrated restaurateur who ran LA’s hottest eaterie, Le Dome, for 25 years.
We had a great afternoon, including a long boozy lunch during which Eddie revealed he once banned Rod from his restaurant.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because Dudley Moore threw a pork chop at him, and Rod threw back a piece of calf’s liver . . . then all hell broke loose.”
As for unsubstantiated Hollywood folklore that he once had sex in Le Dome’s bathroom in between courses, Rod chuckled: “No comment. Some things are best left to the imagination, old boy.”
I’ve interviewed him many times and he is always refreshingly candid, honest and hilarious.
After I replaced chat show legend Larry King at CNN, the network ran promos of me calling myself “a little bit dangerous”.
So when I turned up at Rod’s Beverly Hills home to interview him in launch week, he greeted me at the door by hurling a very convincing toy hand grenade at me, shouting: “I heard you’re DANGEROUS so thought I’d come prepared!”
As we walked inside, Rod then pinched my backside for the CNN cameras, causing me to yelp.
“That’ll kill your female audience,” he chortled.
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The words “national treasure” are bandied about way too often these days about luminaries whom I would regard more in the way comic Jack Whitehall once described me — “a regional trinket”.
But Sir Rod really IS a national treasure; he’s one of Britain’s greatest musical talents, a fun-loving, thoroughly decent family man and, as we saw again last week, a ferociously proud patriot who wants to help those less fortunate than himself.