12/10/2010 12:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chatting and Chuckling With Wavy Gravy

Wavy Gravy, bowed but unbroken, walks into a generic-seeming deli-café in New York's SoHo, holding a fish on a leash, protesting that, despite recurring back troubles, he has no problem walking down stairs, as long as there aren't a lot of them.

He's making the rounds in Manhattan, doing interviews to publicize Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie, a documentary about his life directed by Michelle Esrick, who accompanies him, along with his wife, Jahanara (who he refers to as "Mrs. Wavy," which is fitting since everyone addresses him as Wavy). The film opened Wednesday at the IFC Center in New York and will roll out slowly across the country.

So Wavy walks down the stairs to the café's dining room -- carefully -- and settles into a chair that allows him to lean against a wall. He's smiling, though he's in pain. He's had several surgeries to fuse his spine, which was injured through numerous encounters with police, who roughed him up at protests against the Vietnam war and other causes over the years. And he faces the prospect of another surgery, sometime before he turns 75 next May.

"I'm not too thrilled about that," he admits, his crinkly smile fading for just a moment. "But if it gets me down the street a little slicker, it'll be OK. Right now, I'm not walking so good. But everything else works good."

He smiles broadly, displaying a row of teeth each a different color: "My rainbow bridge," he jokes. Discussion of his back leads to mention of friends who have had artificial joints installed: "(Spiritual leader) Ram Dass got two new knees," Wavy says. "He's tap-dancing -- and he's older than me."

Bald with a long snowy fringe of hair, a large belly wrapped in a tie-dyed t-shirt, Wavy Gravy looks like a mischievous grandfather. But as Esrick's film shows, Wavy (who was born Hugh Romney, a name he lived with until 1969, when B.B. King christened him Wavy Gravy) has been working at making the world a better place -- whether through large charitable acts or simple things like bringing a smile to the faces of passersby -- for almost 50 years.

Esrick met him while helping to launch the marketing campaign for Grateful Dead apparel a few years back. Wavy had a flannel-pants design as part of the line and toured the country to help promote them, launching the clothes with appearances at department stores.

"At Marshall Field in Chicago, I had them take a big bed into the menswear department, one with black sheets," Wavy says. "I'd get in bed wearing a nightcap and my fans would get in bed with me, one at a time, and I'd sign their memorabilia. And then I'd give them a free pint of Ben & Jerry's." (Ben & Jerry's made a Wavy Gravy flavor, no longer available, with caramel, cashews, Brazil nuts, a chocolate hazelnut fudge swirl and roasted almonds; the proceeds went to charity.)

"At the end of spending a lot of time with Wavy, I just had this Field of Dreams moment," Esrick says. "I felt personally inspired by him. I wanted to share his commitment to make this a better world. The way he presents himself with humor, the way he doesn't take himself too seriously, I just thought people would be inspired to help change the world."

The name itself is funny -- Wavy Gravy -- and Romney has spent his life both getting laughs and getting things done.