Big man in town

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Times Staff Writer

For a man accustomed to the spotlight, Harvey Fierstein is in danger of being upstaged. As the star of “Hairspray” emcees the Drama League Awards luncheon, introducing a glittering array of theater celebrities, all eyes turn to Antonio Banderas, who is appearing in the hit revival of “Nine.”

Actress Cherry Jones tells the packed gathering at a midtown hotel that she has just seen the musical, declaring: “I am a gay woman, and I loved every woman up there. But Antonio, I want you to know that I am now a latent heterosexual.”

Then actor Stanley Tucci turns to the tanned, handsome performer and says: “Antonio, I, too, have seen your show. And now I am a latent homosexual.”


As the audience roars, Fierstein -- a gay man who plays a frumpy, overweight housewife in “Hairspray” -- notes dryly: “What an educational afternoon it’s been.” He speaks in his trademark gravelly voice, a rumbling, rasping spiel that has been compared with the sound of a vacuum cleaner backing up. And for many Broadway insiders, his comment is laced with irony: Both Banderas and Fierstein are considered the front-runners for this year’s Tony Award for best actor in a musical.

But there is no doubting who steals the show at the recent luncheon. Fierstein’s crack gets the biggest laugh, and he also takes home the league’s award for performance of the year, winning a tumultuous ovation.

“I guess [the award] was seen as a homecoming by some people, and they got very emotional,” he says several days later, pausing for a quick dinner at an Italian restaurant between Saturday performances of New York’s hottest musical. “But the fact is, I really haven’t gone anywhere. I’ve been working hard for a long time. Maybe it’s because I’m back here on Broadway now for the first time in nearly 20 years.”

Fierstein’s eye-popping performance as Edna Turnblad -- an insecure, agoraphobic mother with a heart of gold -- will be featured prominently in tonight’s national broadcast of the Tony Awards. And it marks a new high point in the career of a pioneering gay activist, playwright, actor, essayist and cabaret performer whose outrageous shtick and blunt humor only make him more endearing.

A big papa bear of a man in his comic yet realistic portrayal of a shy woman in housecoat and scuffies, he bears no resemblance to the edgy drag characters he played in “Torch Song Trilogy” and other shows. Edna Turnblad is loving, vulnerable, gossipy and defiantly protective of those she loves -- the very image of the real Harvey Fierstein, according to many longtime friends, stagehands and cast members.

In a recent essay on, the 48-year-old actor described the painstaking 90-minute process by which he is transformed nightly into a Big Baltimore Mama: “My chest, hands, arms, underarms and legs are all clean-shaven,” he wrote in “Becoming a Woman, or How Edna Gets Born.” “My hair is grown longer than I’d like to accommodate the wigs. Even my face is strangely unrecognizable as my eyebrows are daily shorn to allow the painting of a more feminine line.”


The transformation is complete with the application of “56 EEE breasts of rubbery silicone,” he continued. “From there they added childbearing hips, a pie loving tummy and a rear end upon which tailgate parties could be staged.” Fierstein and other cast members won glowing reviews from a host of critics. His portrayal is “absolutely transcendent,” wrote Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News. Clive Barnes, in the New York Post, said, “There’s just one question: When Tony time comes, is Fierstein to be nominated as Best Actress or Best Actor?”


On a recent afternoon, Harvey (or is it Edna?) revels in the confusion as he walks three blocks from the Neil Simon Theatre to a nearby restaurant. It takes time to get there because he begins by patiently signing 49 autographs for screaming fans outside the stage door. Then he turns a casual stroll into street theater.

“Hey, you wanna have sex?” he adds, striding past a colleague from the show.

“Uh, I don’t know,” the man jokes, checking his watch. “Gotta go.”

“He’s just a drummer,” sniffs Fierstein, pushing on.

Turning the corner, he spies a longtime friend and spontaneously pinches both his cheeks, a classic Harvey hello. Then a woman, a star-struck fan, confronts him.

“Oooooh, I love you,” she gushes. “I mean, I love your performance. I mean....”

“My dear,” he says solemnly, clasping both her hands, his voice growling and grating. “The single most important thing is that we’re here together.”

Motorists honk as they drive by, a VH1 television crew doing sidewalk interviews for a rock music special surrounds Fierstein with cameras, and other passersby turn what should have been a three-minute walk into a 15-minute journey. One after another, strangers tell him he’s a shoo-in for the Tony.

If Fierstein is nervous, he doesn’t show it. “I didn’t pay these people to walk by and do all this, you know,” he jokes. Yet the hoopla clearly weighs on his mind.


“The Tony Awards, especially this year, has begun to feel like a mad popularity contest,” he says. “It’s becoming much more like the Oscars than it used to be. All of this seems so different than it was years ago. You know, when it all began for me.”

Has it really been two decades since Fierstein, a young Brooklyn-born writer and actor, burst onto the scene with “Torch Song Trilogy”? The story of Arnold Beckoff, a drag queen who was looking for love, family and understanding like everyone else, Fierstein’s revolutionary play was one of the first to put deeply human gay characters on the Broadway stage. It won two Tony Awards, for best actor and best play in 1982.

The next year, he won a third Tony -- for the book of the musical “La Cage Aux Folles” -- and for a while, nobody on the Great White Way was as hot as Fierstein. Yet even though he remained productive, penning several plays, appearing on TV sitcoms, writing a children’s book, performing cabaret acts and winning roles in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Independence Day” and other films, the big stage hits stopped coming.

Critics were lukewarm about his later plays, and Fierstein says his crusade to put honest gay characters on TV and movie screens -- “I’m talking about casting actual gay people in real-life situations, not straight people playing stereotypical gay roles” -- was only partially successful. Meanwhile, AIDS exploded and Fierstein’s national activism on behalf of safe-sex policies “took a lot of energy out of me, a lot of time,” he concedes.

“I’ve been living and working hard for the last 20 years,” he says, wolfing down a plate of pasta. “I’ve had some real wonderful artistic moments, maybe not what the public wanted from me, but what I wanted for me. I’ve had some horrible losses, friends who died of AIDS. I’ve been skinny and overweight twice in that period alone.”

Now he’s starring in a big fat hit. The musical -- based on John Waters’ 1988 cult movie -- stresses familiar themes in Fierstein’s career: People should not just accept, but openly celebrate what makes them special. Always be true to your own values.


What makes “Hairspray” different, however, is that the key theme is racial integration in the early 1960s, not gay liberation, and while Fierstein is one of the main attractions, he’s performing someone else’s books and lyrics.


Once a resident of Brooklyn and then Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the actor now lives comfortably in rural Connecticut with a menagerie of pets. Although he continues to date, he says the full-time pursuit of a Significant Other is no longer his top priority.

At least not now.

“Do I have a personal life? I don’t have one!” Fierstein complains. “Who’s going to date someone who shaves themself from here to here?” he says, pointing to the area between his upper chest and navel. “I look in the mirror and it’s not even me. It’s me, working for Edna!”

Given his hectic performance schedule, Fierstein adds, “who are you gonna be with but actors? And I have an absolute rule about [dating] actors. It’s very much like the old Mel Brooks line: ‘You don’t think actors are animals -- but did you ever eat with one?’ ”

In other ways, however, Fierstein is unchanged. When he delivered a commencement speech at Vermont’s Bennington College, he defined himself “as an activist who thinks that Washington makes Hollywood seem like a temple of truth.” Criticizing tax breaks for religious institutions, he said: “Just what God needs -- another building.” He was on the front lines three months ago, when Actors’ Equity joined Broadway’s musicians union on strike against proposed rules limiting the numbers of musicians to be used in orchestras.

Based on “Hairspray’s” phenomenal success, Fierstein has been in talks to develop an ABC sitcom in which he would play a female character similar to his in the musical. The pilot is set to be shot in August, and the actor harbors no illusions.


“I’ve been down this road so many times,” he says, noting that his previous efforts to create a show with gay themes have gone nowhere. But he remains optimistic, saying the value of playing a woman character “means I don’t have to try and fit into what a [gay] stereotype demands. I can do something different and new.”

Hollywood and Broadway have come a long way since “Torch Song Trilogy,” Fierstein concedes, because “when I was a kid we couldn’t convince people that gay rights was a civil rights issue. We won that fight, but the battle cost us a lot.” On the night he won his first Tony Award, Fierstein caused a stir on the nationwide telecast when he thanked his gay lover for providing emotional support. The next year, angered by an emcee’s suggestion that people avoid similar comments on the Tony broadcast, Fierstein collected another award and thanked his lover again.

But if he wins this year, he promises, there will be no such speeches. He’s having fun, more fun on stage than he’s had in years, and he feels humble about his craft.

When he won the distinguished performance award at the Drama League Awards last month, Fierstein looked shocked, because he was convinced it would go to someone else. As the room exploded with cheers, he was moved to tears. “Thank you so much for this,” said Fierstein, his voice for once a whisper. “It is such a joy to bring joy to human beings. There’s no better job in the entire world.”