Wesley Autrey makes the most of his 15 minutes of fame. But the 50-year-old New Yorker, who became an instant celebrity and was showered with gifts, honors and praise after he jumped on subway tracks to save another man’s life earlier this year, is learning that fame can be bittersweet.
“I have lost friends and I have gained friends,” Autrey told TODAY’s Al Roker. “It’s amazing what money can make some people do.”
Autrey and his two young daughters were standing on a Manhattan subway platform on Jan. 2 when 20-year-old Cameron Hollopeter suffered a seizure and fell onto the tracks. As a train approached the Harlem station, Autrey jumped onto the tracks and pulled himself and Hollopeter into a drainage ditch between the rails.
The train passed overhead; neither man was hurt.
Since then, Autrey has appeared on all of the major television talk shows, was hailed as a hero by President Bush during the State of the Union address, and been showered with tens of thousands of dollars and a Jeep Patriot. He even competed for $1 million on “Deal or No Deal,” NBC’s hit TV game show (although he left with just $25 and a second Jeep).
“My fame is still moving up,” Autrey told Roker.
Downside of fame
But it hasn’t all been good for the Navy veteran dubbed the “Subway Hero” by the Big Apple tabloids.
He sued his first lawyer, Diane Kleiman, claiming she and a business partner coerced him into signing a contract that would have paid them half of anything he made from book and movie deals. The lawsuit, and her counter-claim, were recently settled, but Autrey is still locked in litigation with his former lawyer’s business partner.
Autrey also learned just how many relatives and friends he has. Some came out of the woodwork when they learned of his newfound fame and fortune. He even got a call out of the blue from his long-lost father.
“I hadn't heard from him for 30 years,” Autrey said. “But you know, I don’t hold onto grudges. He asked me if I could come down to the family reunion. And he asked if I could bring him some money ... He’s still my father.”
Autrey's current attorney, Barbara S. Mehlsack, said Autrey has somehow managed to say humble and true to his values, even as people come to him with their hands out.
“In our society, unfortunately, you become the object of attention,” she said. “The wonderful thing about Wes, and we are very proud to be representing him, is he stays who he is throughout the process. He remains a genuinely good human being.”
Of all the downsides to his fame, Autrey laments most that he has not spent a lot of time lately with his daughters: Syshe, 4, and Shuqui, 6.
“They like the old guy, because I was able to spend more time with them,” Autrey told Roker. “They have to share their dad with the world and society, and they don't too much like that.”