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FOLLOW-UP : HIV-Positive Actor Gets Casting Calls

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lee Mathis has just shaved his head, a step he had been contemplating for a long time but lacked the courage to take. Advertising himself as an HIV-positive actor who needed work to qualify for union health coverage bolstered his resolve not to pull punches--as did the outpouring of concern in its wake.

“I was stopped in grocery stores, at the gym, the dentist, by friends and strangers alike--people wishing me luck, saying, ‘Way to go,’ ” says Mathis, whose plight was profiled in a recent Los Angeles Times article. “After the story, I was asked to appear on a couple of local TV news shows. Two national gay magazines wrote me up. The success of my campaign made me braver, determined not to put anything off.”

The good news, the 41-year-old actor reports, is that he exceeded the amount necessary for Screen Actors Guild health insurance--by $44.36. And the bad news? There was a three-month waiting period before the coverage kicked in--a risky situation for anyone, let alone someone whose immune system is in disrepair.

Mathis, a dancer-turned-actor who bartends part time, enlisted the help of the Actors’ Fund of America--an organization created to assist performers in crisis. After hearing his case, the group agreed to pay the $690 needed to cover him until April. Pride prevented him from accepting help from John Sousa, a Long Beach-based actor who had contacted SAG the day the newspaper story ran.

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Sousa, who runs a window covering concern to make ends meet, had offered to pay the union $2,400--the difference between Mathis’ earnings and the amount needed to qualify for health insurance. Informed that SAG income is the sole criteria for coverage, Sousa volunteered to reimburse any production company using Mathis’ services.

“Last year I had a gall bladder/appendix operation which left me $32,000 in the hole,” says Sousa, 41, “and I know how hard it is to get work as an actor. Though I’m not gay, I have tremendous compassion for people in Mathis’ position. If you have cancer, everyone’s there for you. If you have AIDS--or even announce that you’re HIV-positive--you’re treated like a leper. This isn’t a gay issue but a human one.”

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Pierre David, producer of “Open Fire,” an action feature on which Mathis had worked in October, evidently thought so. After reading about Mathis, he placed a call to the actor asking if he was available for a night of “pickups” (fine-tuning a movie for editing purposes). Four hundred and fifty-five dollars from that gig, plus an extra day’s pay when a job on TV’s “Lois & Clark” was abruptly postponed nudged the actor toward his goal.

It was the nearly $2,000 from “Murder in the First"--a Warner Bros. feature cast by Mary Jo Slater--however, that pushed Mathis over.

“Mary Jo had lined me up for a day’s work but managed to extend the job to a week,” says Mathis. “The thought of total strangers reaching out to me leaves me totally overwhelmed. Mary Jo is truly my guardian angel.”

Mathis got a running start toward qualifying for his 1994 insurance when casting director Tracy Lilienfield, who had been trading calls with the actor since the newspaper story appeared, hired him to play a paramedic on HBO’s “Dream On.” Slater also cast him as a fighter pilot for an episode of “Babylon 5,” a syndicated sci-fi series that premiered last week.

“The (“Babylon”) part requires me to wear a helmet, so you don’t see my head,” says Mathis, who was hired a half hour after he read for the role. “That’s probably a good thing since I’ve decided to grow my hair back. My hair is now at the ‘baby bird’ stage and, despite my newfound abandon, I feel more than a little silly.”

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The AIDS-related death of a producer friend last weekend, however, put things in perspective. “You can never relax and take a deep breath,” says Mathis. “Just like with the earthquake, the tremors keep coming.”


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