HIV-Positivist : Michael Kearns has made a stage career of his activism, and a successful life in Hollywood--saying the heck with homophobia

Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar

For more than 20 years, Michael Kearns has divided his time between the highly visible world of mainstream TV and film and the less-seen arena of gay theater. It hasn't been a cakewalk.

But what Kearns is best known for is the fact that he has insisted on working without camouflaging who he is--an outspoken, openly gay and, later, openly HIV-positive actor.

He has, after all, been "out" for two decades in an entertainment industry infamous for its homophobia. And while he's found himself turned away often for reasons that he feels may be connected to his sexuality, he's also gotten a lot of work, perhaps as much as anything by virtue of what he calls his "unwillingness to take 'no' for an answer." For example, he's managed to find directors and others to cast him in such shows as "The Waltons"--as John Boy's older brother--as well as for guest appearances in "Murder, She Wrote" and "Cheers." He also had a part in the TV movie "And the Band Played On."

Yet for all the Hollywood barriers Kearns has helped to dent, he is most often hailed as one of the outspoken pioneers of the emerging genre known as AIDS theater. Especially in the past decade, as it's become clear that there--and not on the sitcoms--is where Kearns' true life's work lies.

"It's a contradiction, but to me it makes perfect sense," says Kearns of his Jekyll-and-Hyde creative life. "There's the assumption that L.A. is this nirvana for gay people, but Los Angeles is more homophobic at its core than Des Moines, because it's a factory town ruled by television and motion pictures."

As a writer, actor, director and teacher--and co-founder, with playwright James Carroll Pickett, of Artists Confronting AIDS (ACA)--Kearns has been making AIDS-related theater in L.A. for more than a decade.

He has been dubbed both "the only openly gay actor in Hollywood" and, later, the "only openly gay, openly HIV-positive actor in Hollywood," and he hasn't shied away from either label. He has appeared on network television news and talk shows, speaking out against entertainment industry homophobia and on AIDS issues.

Yet as visible as Kearns has been as an advocate for gay concerns, he has also reached many people through his performances in theaters across the country. His multi-character monologues featuring men and women whose lives have been touched by AIDS have played to gay and straight audiences alike, in both big cities and small. And the many other projects Kearns has produced, directed, written or conceived have given the theater-going public important new perspectives on the complexity of the AIDS epidemic.

Kearns will perform his newest solo, "Heart Copy," Wednesday at Highways. The following night, also at Highways, he will open "Robert's Memorial," an interactive environmental theater piece in the style of "Tony & Tina's Wedding" and "Grandma Sylvia's Funeral," where the audience is situated in the midst of the event. His play "Mijo" reopens at the Whitefire Theatre in two weeks, and Kearns is also producing several other upcoming ACA shows.

This nonstop productivity, in part, has made Kearns a role model for many gay actors. But the fact that he has managed to be successful in both the entertainment industry and the theater without compromising his identity as an HIV-positive gay man has been even more of an inspiration.

Indeed, his unwillingness to compromise has earned Kearns respect from some lofty quarters. "As a performance artist, Michael Kearns has my admiration," says Sir Ian McKellen, the acclaimed, openly gay British classical stage and film actor, who was in New York recently to perform his "A Knight Out." "And as an openly gay man working in Hollywood, he has earned a place in the history books."

Kearns, 44, was raised in St. Louis and came of age at the cultural moment--25 years ago last week--when the gay civil rights movement first came busting out of the Stonewall bar in New York's Greenwich Village.

In the summer of 1968, the then-teen-age Kearns had gone to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but he ended up doing most of his "studying" at the Stonewall bar. One year later that downtown hangout became the site of the riots now cited as the first defiant act of the modern gay movement.

Kearns went on to get training at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Then he followed his ambition--and a lover--to Los Angeles. Armed with leading-man cheekbones and the vicarious aspirations of Midwestern relatives, Kearns came to Hollywood with the hope of becoming a movie star, but found himself instead cast in Tom Eyen's "The Dirtiest Show in Town," a flamboyant revue featuring nudity that was about sexual freedom and other 1970s hot issues, such as war and pollution.

"During that show it dawned on me that I was much more comfortable on the live stage, playing gay characters," says Kearns. "That didn't stop my pursuit of the other, but the invigorating work was in small theater playing gay roles."

Kearns continued to do theater while beginning to work as a screen actor during the 1970s. He had some success landing a number of other "straight" roles, yet it was his exploits as the fictitious "Happy Hustler" making the rounds on the talk-show circuit that brought Kearns the most attention, and probably also the most unhappiness.

The Happy Hustler began when Kearns sold a photograph of himself to Warner Paperback Library for use on the cover of "The Happy Hustler," by Grant Tracy Saxon. Saxon was Kearns' lover at the time, and his work was a takeoff on Xaviera Hollander's best-selling "The Happy Hooker."

When a New York talk show wanted an interview with Saxon, the publishers suggested that Kearns could instead pose as the character in the book, passing the novel off as his autobiography. He went along with the ruse for two years, twice appearing on "Donahue" because he thought it would help his career, but found himself increasingly miserable in the role, feeling he was "only playing an untrue fraction and a distorted version" of himself.

Toward the end of the 1970s, Kearns began to wend his way out of a period of what he describes as "self-loathing." He acted in a couple of productions now seen as landmarks in local gay theater: Robert Patrick's "T-Shirts" and Harvey Fierstein's "International Stud." The productions were staged in tiny houses--including the now-defunct Smitty's Deja Vu Coffee-house, a pioneering gay theater venue--but they became word-of-mouth cult hits that are still recalled today.

"Suddenly there was this audience for gay theater," says Kearns. "Meanwhile, the community had bloomed in that decade. We were even being reflected in television and film to some extent. That was the honeymoon period." Kearns hosted a KNBC documentary called "Gay" and network TV began to include gays in mainstream shows, such as Billy Crystal's character on "Soap," played, not insignificantly, by a straight actor. Other advances came in such films as William Friedkin's "Cruising," which, while much-criticized for its depiction of gay life, nonetheless made gays less invisible.

But these semi-halcyon days weren't to last. "Then comes AIDS," says Kearns. "People started dying." And as the deaths started to accumulate during the early 1980s, Kearns continued in both gay theater and TV and film roles, although he began to feel more urgency about his role as an activist and spokesperson.

He also wrote his first autobiographical solo, "The Truth Is Bad Enough," formed a professional partnership with playwright Pickett, directed several theater pieces that were the first widely seen works of AIDS theater in Los Angeles and did a stint as artistic director of the gay-oriented Celebration Theatre.

Paradoxically, Kearns found a new lease on creative life in the midst of all the dying. "Somewhere in that time, I became an artist," recalls Kearns. "Whatever that pain, that loss, that tragedy was, I managed to spin it like an alchemist into something passionate. And it's been increasingly so since."

During the pivotal mid-1980s, he continued to expand his theater efforts. He also hooked up with such fellow-traveler activists as performance artist Tim Miller, who co-founded both New York's PS 122 and, later, Santa Monica's Highways.

In 1984, Kearns and Pickett founded ACA, an organization of artists and others who were intent on finding ways to nurture their own works, as well as those of other artists, about AIDS. "We realized that art and AIDS were inextricably linked and that somehow we wanted to address this--whether it was by raising money or consciousness or both," he says.

A docudrama series titled "AIDS/US" quickly became ACA's calling card. The works consisted of various men and women whose lives had been affected by AIDS, telling their stories to the audience in a collage-style format of direct-address speeches, with only minimal staging.

"The 'AIDS/US' pieces have always been the backbone of our organization," says Kearns. "We're taking real-life stories and telling them in first-person docudrama form--which, for my money, is somehow more artistically meritorious than most AIDS plays, just because it's so raw and edgy."

"AIDS/US/TEENS," which will tour to various locations throughout L.A. beginning in September, will be the fourth piece in the series that began with "AIDS/US."

"Jim (Pickett) and I conceived of that (docudrama) format together because we felt that no matter how close to the bone the plays were that were coming out around 1984-85--and there were only a handful of them--they weren't really giving the entire picture of AIDS," Kearns says. "They certainly weren't, and still aren't for that matter, dealing with issues of class, race, sexism and all those myriad issues which seem to rear their ugly heads in relationship to AIDS."

The students in one of the small group acting classes that Kearns teaches out of the back-yard studio of his Glendale home take 10 before heading back for more of the intensive coaching that is Kearns' specialty. When they reconvene, it's time for scene work.

First, there's some fine-tuning to do on a section from "Waiting for Godot." Then, next up is an excerpt from Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." This is not standard casting, though: Two guys play the leads, so the original script's Strindbergian dance of George and Martha becomes a George and Martin pas de deux.

After nearly 15 minutes of visceral work--with Kearns constantly coaxing the actors to stretch and experiment--fatigue begins to set in and humor gets the better of the group.

"You know, I'm going to lead a workshop called 'Discovering Your Inner Martha,' " jests Kearns, who soon has the room in stitches. "We'll do it at the retreat. We'll bring costumes, booze, slutty clothes. Well, everybody just seems to be so drawn to this material."

But then, it figures that Kearns should be a master of making fun of this stuff. Hollywood and he have had, after all, as tempestuous a relationship as George and Martha. And it's only gotten rockier during the past decade.

When Rock Hudson died in 1985, Kearns, who once had a brief affair with Hudson, spoke out about industry homophobia and AIDS. "Although I had been out, never was I so out as when Hudson died," Kearns says. "I got assigned a middle name--'Michael (only openly gay actor in Hollywood) Kearns'--because I was the only one who was willing to go on 'Nightline' and scream and yell and stamp my feet, which I did. Then I made a habit of that."

Kearns took his own HIV test in 1989, the same week he premiered his multi-character show "intimacies." This one-man show, and its sequel, "more intimacies," quickly garnered Kearns new recognition as a performer.

In these works, which remain among the artist's most popular, he portrays a gallery of people whose lives have been affected by AIDS. Using just a long red scarf, he transfigures into such disparate characters as a deaf boy, a priest, a flamenco dancer, a prostitute-mom and an accountant.

" '(I)ntimacies' is where I took flight and thank God haven't landed," says Kearns. " '(I)ntimacies' was proof that I had something to say and I took that seriously. Then, not only was I an artist, I was an activist. So at 39, I accepted myself as an artist-activist. That's really only a short time ago.

"I could have easily died at age 38," Kearns continues. "Think of all the poor people who did. That's why I have a tendency to not take one day for granted and to overwork the way that I do."

Among those who have died is film and TV actor Brad Davis. When Davis died in 1991, Kearns spoke out again, and went public about his own HIV-positive status during an NBC interview.

"Rock Hudson dies of AIDS, Brad Davis dies of AIDS--it's six years later and people wore a few red ribbons, but the shocking thing was that nothing had changed," Kearns says.

Despite his often-scathing criticisms of industry prejudice and inattention to AIDS, Kearns continued to work in the entertainment business, including roles on the sitcom "Life Goes On" and in "And the Band Played On."

Meanwhile, Kearns-the-stage-performer kept writing and performing new shows like "Rock." Inspired by his own 1983 "dalliance" with the late actor, Kearns again used this production to play multiple roles: himself, Marilyn Monroe, an Arkansas teen called Rocky and Reggie, a composite character based on men whose job it had been to "butch-up" Hudson's mannerisms. Rock himself never appears.

In "Rock," Kearns more directly attacked Hollywood's homophobia than he had in his previous shows, pointing toward the even higher-profile stance he has maintained since Davis' death.

Progress since then has been no more than incremental. "Since Brad died, there has been more movement on some level," says Kearns. "Yet the thing that Hollywood would probably break its arm patting itself on the back over is 'Philadelphia,' which is a dismal, pathetic representation of AIDS and gayness."

Kearns believes that the powers in the entertainment industry are homophobic and that they cater to a perceived homophobic audience. "And lots of (these decision-makers) are gay. But they, who are gay, have chandeliers that need to be cleaned and car phones and Bill Blass suits and blah . . . blah . . . blah. At what point is one selling out? How many people do they have to have die of AIDS before they wake up?

"It's internalized homophobia, an unquenchable self-loathing," Kearns says. "There's some 'physician heal thyself' which needs to go on here--and which has, a little. There are a few more out writers, producers and even actors. But it's still unsafe overall, and that has been created by 'us.' "

Kearns doesn't turn the other cheek. "I like to be in the ring fighting with these people," he says. "That's what spurs us on: the contradictions, the red ribbons and the superciliousness, self-serving qualities of Hollywood that have been around AIDS from the beginning. That's what fuels us theater artists."

It was a warm Sunday afternoon on May 29 when Kearns was feeling pre-show butterflies--and then some. His latest play, "Mijo," was about to open in front of critics and he'd spent the day ministering to his longtime colleague, the increasingly ill Pickett.

"Jim had spent the day getting markedly more demented," recalls Kearns. "Eventually I said to the nurse, 'Is it my imagination or is he going downhill fast?' The nurse agreed that he was. So at 2:20, literally 40 minutes before 'Mijo' is to open at 3, we're getting Jim ready to go. It becomes slapstick: 'Get him out the door, take him to the hospital. Go to the play.' It's so farcical that it's sad."

But the show must go on. And Kearns continues to create in defiance of the devastation that surrounds him. He has, however, noticed some unconscious accommodations on his part.

In 1993, Kearns wrote or performed works that featured characters who died, including an elaborate revival of Charles Ludlam's version of "Camille," with Kearns in the title role. Yet even though audiences could sometimes be heard sniffling as the heroine died in the third act, Kearns feels that some gay people may have stayed away because it was just too difficult to watch.

" 'Camille' was not the audience-grabbing play we had anticipated, because no matter how it was gift-wrapped, it was about death," says Kearns. "And they didn't want to see death, even in a $1,000 dress."

Significantly, Kearns' two 1994 works--"Mijo" and "Robert's Memorial"--have the deaths occur offstage. In the former, a play about the mother and lover of a dying man, the person who has AIDS is unseen. And in the latter, he has already died before the play begins.

Perhaps that will break down some of the resistance--although the urge to look away is a response that Kearns understands all too well. He's seen too much death himself. And that--along with a longstanding desire to parent--is partly what has driven him to recently become accredited to be a foster parent.

During the period in which he was interviewed for this article, Kearns was playing temporary host to a pair of 4-year-old boys, and he looks forward to having more young charges in the future. "I want to see somebody go from age 1 to age 2 to age 3, as opposed to seeing somebody in their final days," he says. "I want to see the life process, as opposed to the death process, begin."

Foster-parenting also marks another battlefield for Kearns. "Just like I deserve to work in the entertainment industry as an openly gay, openly HIV-positive actor, I also deserve to be a foster parent as an openly gay, openly HIV-positive man," says Kearns. "That's another battle I'm fighting here, to point out that HIV does not equal immediate death and that people with HIV can have productive, busy lives.

"I want to leave a mark, more than just in terms of 'he was this loud gay actor-activist.' I want to leave it on a personal level, with individuals--kids, students, anyone."

* "Heart Copy," Wednesday, and "Robert's Memorial," Thursday-next Sunday, 8:30 p.m. (continues on Sundays, 5 p.m., indefinitely), both at Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica, $10. (213) 660-TKTS.

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