This is the second of three excerpted chapters from Michael Kearns’ just-released autobiography, “The Truth is Bad Enough: What Became of the Happy Huster?” now available on Amazon (you can read my interview with Michael here). It’s an often entertaining, often cringe-inducing, always honest look at a life that makes you say, If there was no Michael Kearns, somebody would have had to invent him. – Mark McNease/Editor
“We are all lucky to still have Michael Kearns with us,” Sir Ian McKellen says “now recording his private and public story with an honesty and humor that put most other show-biz autobiographies to shame.” THE TRUTH IS BAD ENOUGH, What Became of The Happy Hustler? traverses more than a half of century—from Kearns’ roles as ribald party boy to impassioned artist-activist to doting father. From the Seventies’ sexual revolution to the gay parenting boom of the Twenty First Century, Michael Kearns has defined nearly a half a century of American life: culturally, politically, and sexually. In many instances, he was not only at the forefront of the historical milestones, he created them.” From the description for “The Truth is Bad Enough: What Became of the Happy Hustler?”
FROM: ACTIVIST/ARTIST – CHAPTER 32
“Mr. Hudson is suffering from anorexia nervosa,” Ross Hunter lied to the media, standing in the shadows of the ailing actor’s estate. That announcement—made with a straight face, as it were—sent shock waves through my system, giving birth to my role as an activist. The degree of anger I experienced would motivate me for years to come.
Hunter was the director of Rock’s greatest romps with Doris Day (Pillow Talk and Lover, Come Back) and obviously took his job—to make Hudson believably heterosexual, onscreen and off—with somber seriousness.
While Hudson lay dying of AIDS, which had been widely reported, Hunter pathetically continued to attempt covering up for his gay leading man. Every homophobic act that had been perpetrated upon Hollywood was summed up by Hunter’s refusal to divulge the truth. Two truths, in fact: Hudson was gay and dying of AIDS.
Like the son who has to deliver the news of his diagnosis as well as his sexual orientation to his parents, this was a double whammy that Hollywood would be forced to acknowledge. But there was resistance and not only from the duplicitous Ross Hunter.
The media wanted the response of “Hollywood’s openly gay actor.” I vociferously castigated Hollywood on ABC’s Nightline while offering a somewhat softer analysis to People magazine: “I have this fantasy. Tomorrow they discover a cure for AIDS and Hudson recovers. I wonder, would he be ostracized from the business? Would he be relegated to playing screaming queens? Or would he simply be allowed to continue his career as an openly gay actor? Would he simply be respected?”
My responses to Hudson’s death didn’t end there. Yes, I was angry that his handlers couldn’t dignify his demise by telling the truth. In the midst of Ross Hunter’s denials, there were reported deathbed acts of valour which were obvious sound bites fabricated by the image makers.
The feeling that eclipsed all of the others was a deep sorrow. I flashed back to our brief dance. Hudson’s life was a tragic one, played out in an atmosphere that obliterated much of his authentic self. I prayed that his death would not be in vain.
Oozing with queer authenticity, actors David Stebbins and Joe Fraser had fallen crazily in love when they both appeared in Chesley’s Night Sweat and Ranson’s Warren. Our shared links to both of those playwrights would cement our bond. When I read Chesley’s Jerker for the first time, I was paralyzed by the time I reached the final scene. Never had I experienced such a reaction to a piece of theater. I was sitting, outside in the sunshine, on a lounge chair, and as I closed the script and attempted to stand up, I couldn’t. It was as if I’d been frozen in an abyss of emotion.
The idea of Joe and David playing the characters who fall in love over long-distance lines was ignited, to some extent, by their offstage chemistry. Not only were they both in their thirties and hot, but thank God they could act.
I had begun touring in Dream Man and, thanks to Rebecca, I had a gig in Atlanta. Not only would I perform the role of the phone hustler; I would open the evening playing the tortured bartender, John, in Pickett’s Bathhouse Benediction. While in the process of studying the new role that I was taking on, I received word that my father had died.
The nurse I spoke to told me that during his final days, he would watch the television and identify every male actor who appeared on the screen as his son. “There’s Mike,” he’d say. “That’s my son.” It didn’t matter what the TV actors looked like; he saw me in every one of them. “That’s my boy,” he’d tell anyone within earshot. The irony of his mania, considering that he had never once come to see me in a play, was strangely comforting. In the end, he did know that I existed, confirmed by multiple versions of me “visiting” him as he lay dying.
Determined not to let the freshness of my feelings fade, I rushed to the theater after getting the news. John, the character I was about to play, was also dealing with the death of his father, so I would explore John’s feelings while simultaneously dealing with my own. Life marries art.
Joe and David, along with Pickett, came with me to Atlanta and the first reading of Jerker took place in Rebecca’s backyard. This was quite a trajectory from the theatrics I had concocted in the backyard of my childhood. To suggest that the play was shocking was only part of a larger context. The title not only referred to the dirty talk scenes of masturbation but also subliminally defined the play’s genre: tear jerker. Response to the raw reading was uncommonly enthusiastic, confirming that Joe and David were destined to create the roles of the star-crossed lovers.
Before leaving Atlanta, I was asked to speak at a gay church that was doing a tribute to Atlantans who had died of AIDS. I remembered that John Austin, my high school hero, lived in Atlanta, and not very long into the list, somewhere between Adams and Ayers, I heard his name. John Austin. I knew it was him.
I thought back to the summer, several years after we’d graduated from high school, when I ran into John in a gay bar. The teenaged boy who had played the middle-aged man with an imaginary rabbit and I wound up fucking like bunnies—on a water bed, releasing all the pent-up feelings we’d been avoiding.
Now he was dead, along with too many others. I wish I could have kissed him good-bye. I wish I could have kissed all of them good-bye, everyone whose name was read from the endless lists that I would hear during the next thirty-five years.
Jerker premiered at Celebration Theater, a dilapidated space that was nonetheless devoted to producing gay work. The play is comprised of twenty phone calls, switching imperceptibly from comedy to tragedy. In the final moments of the play, the character played by Joe doesn’t answer the phone. In our production, we had purchased the perfect blanket to represent the character’s inner life, contrasting with his overt butchness. It was silvery and satin, sensual without being girly. I directed Joe to spread the blanket out, almost like a shroud, when he exited, as the phone calls from David’s character became more desperate and more frequent.
Finally, as David hears that the “number you have called is no longer in service,” confirming the death of his long-distance lover, all that’s left in Joe’s “room” is the silver blanket, shimmering in a pool of light. Slow fade as David convulses in anguish.
As often was the case with my endeavors, we did a live broadcast from KPFK (Pacifica) that included selected excerpts from the play. Little did we realize that we would be responsible for altering the course of radio history.