He’ll Act for Free as Long as His Shirts Are on Your Back


Among the many T-shirts that have made Stanley DeSantis a very wealthy man is one that reads, “But what I really want to do is direct.” Making money hand over fist peddling reasonably priced leisure wear is all well and good, but, well, what DeSantis really wants to do is act.

Not at any price, though. There came a point a few years back, on a movie set, when DeSantis decided enough was enough. “This was the thing that made me say, I can’t be in this business: I had a really nice scene at the beginning of the movie. I went to all these auditions . . . to get this part. So I got to the set. . . . I was so excited, and (the lead actress) wouldn’t talk to me--she went to (the director) and said, ‘I want my makeup guy to play that part,’ because she didn’t want anyone else touching her. I said, ‘What?

“So the (assistant director) came up to me and said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll still get paid.’ And I went, ‘I’m rich ! I don’t care about getting paid! I want this part!

“It wasn’t that she didn’t like me--she never ran the scene with me. She said, ‘No, I don’t like how this is going,’ and cut me out. I’ve been cut out of movies in the cutting room, but never right before the camera.”

So DeSantis took some time and built up his T-shirt business--which he began on a very modest level in 1975 as a college student, with “Surrender Dorothy,” the best-selling tweaking of “The Wizard of Oz”--a company that DeSantis reports grossed $18 million last year alone.


Today, at age 40, he’s finally an extremely busy actor. He received acclaim for his role in the PBS miniseries “Tales of the City” as Norman, the tenant so tragically troubled he could make for a season of “Very Special Geraldo’s.”

He will appear in Julie Brown’s upcoming Showtime special, “The Attack of the 5’2” Women” (in a segment titled “He Giva Me No Orgasm: The Lorena Bobbitt Story”), as well as Tim Burton’s seriocomic biopic about the worst cross-dressing moviemaker ever, “Ed Wood.” DeSantis also has a recurring role as a no-longer-idealistic high school teacher on “My So-Called Life,” the upcoming ABC fall series from the creators of “thirtysomething,” and he is set to go before the cameras for director Paul Schrader on an HBO film, “Witchcraft.”

And, since his T-shirt company has made him extremely comfortable (he recently moved into a nosebleed-high home in the Hollywood Hills), he takes only the roles that appeal to him.

The unassuming gig--started to pay for college--soon made him a titan of industry. “I think what I am recognized for in the industry is for taking the humorous T-shirts to the gift-store level,” he says. “At the time, they were sold in truck stops, or as fashion T’s, but I melded the funny T-shirts into a fashion statement. Before, T-shirts like that were never sold in department stores. I remember, when I was trying to sell ‘Surrender Dorothy,’ calling Bloomingdale’s from my little apartment in New York and they said, ‘T-shirts are over. You couldn’t put a thing on a T-shirt that we would ever buy.’ ”

Subsequent shirts--”Ward, I’m Worried About the Beaver,” “Auntie Em--Hate You, Hate Kansas, Taking the Dog, Dorothy,” and depicting any number of pop-culture heroes (from Rocky and Bullwinkle to Beavis and Butt-head)--proved Bloomingdale’s wrong and charted the tides of pop culture. “I couldn’t go anywhere without seeing someone wearing one of my T-shirts.”

Acting, nonetheless, beckoned. “I came out here at the end of ’76 and was a regular on ‘The Paper Chase’ right away. I thought, ‘This is easy, this acting stuff--you come to town, they give you a series!’ ”


That illusion didn’t last long, with a series of blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearances in sundry movies--”Annie Hall,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” “Taking Care of Business,” “Postcards From the Edge”--until his friend Julie Brown drew him out of retirement in 1991 for her Madonna parody, “Medusa: Dare to Tell the Truth.”

But it was his performance as Norman that started winning DeSantis attention--some of it unwanted. “I’ve been offered a lot of pedophile parts after that--it made me wonder, how many pedophile parts are there?” DeSantis asks with bemusement. “I can see the executives: ‘Get Stan DeSantis! He’s got a lock on pedophiles!’ ” In London, DeSantis hears, people attend costume parties as Norman; and Armistead Maupin, author of “Tales,” proudly reported to DeSantis that the Rev. Donald Wildmon, in one of his routine harangues against the media, has been sending out a fax, asking “Where are your PBS dollars going?” and featuring a photo of Norman in his underwear.

“He added a note, ‘See? You’ve arrived!’ ” DeSantis says with a laugh. “I looked at it and said, ‘The only crime being done here is my skinny legs!’ I can’t believe I’m being faxed around in my underwear.”

Though he has been in Los Angeles for near two decades now, DeSantis finds himself a veritable fledgling talent as far as the industry is concerned. “Casting people ask, ‘Why don’t I know you?’ ” he says. “It’s interesting to be 40 years old and to be a new face.

“Usually at my age, people have to re-evaluate what they want to do in their life,” DeSantis reflects. “I did all that in my late 20s, early 30s, and am now pretty fulfilled.”