How Leslie Jordan turned Instagram into his greatest showcase of all
Some actors are admired, and many enjoyed, but Leslie Jordan, who died unexpectedly Monday, had the rare gift of being beloved. His presence in a series, whether in the main cast, a recurring role or as a guest, was not necessarily alchemical, but it would elevate every moment he was onscreen. He was, to be sure, good at what he did; a long career of steady work on stage and television and in the movies testifies not merely to his ability but to his flexibility.
At the same time, he was never not to some degree himself; most every role offered a combination of Leslie Jordan and whoever else he was supposed to be. That’s how it is with the best character and comic actors — they embody types, even as they prove endlessly useful, and you are glad to see the player, like an old friend at your door, even as you believe in the part.
In recent years, he dropped the parts and just played himself, finding unexpected greater fame with a pandemic-inspired series of Instagram posts in which he sang, danced, told stories, acted silly and let you into pieces of his actual life. (He had 5.8 million followers at the time of his death.) A new twist on an older practice, expressed in memoirs — “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet,” and “How Y’all Doing?: Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well Lived” — and one-man shows such as “Like a Dog on Linoleum” and “Hysterical Blindness and Other Southern Tragedies That Have Plagued My Life” — it felt of a piece with the rest of his work, a confirmation of what one already felt about him.
Actor Leslie Jordan, known for TV roles in ‘Will & Grace’ and ‘American Horror Story,’ died after a car crash in Los Angeles on Monday. He was 67.
Jordan was elfin to look at and Southern to hear, “limitations” that proved assets. And often his characters were explicitly gay, or implicitly gay, before explicit gayness was an option for an actor who wanted to work a lot in a business that took its time coming to terms with homosexuality. But even in straight roles, his softer side worked for him. “I fell out of the womb and landed in my mother’s high heels” he liked to say. Two of his signature roles were originally conceived as women: Beverley Leslie, the frenemy of Megan Mullally’s Karen Walker on “Will & Grace,” where he stepped in for Joan Collins, and the baker Phil (formerly Phyllis) on Fox’s “Call Me Kat.”
And though his character on the ’90s sitcom “Hearts Afire,” Lonnie Garr, was not gay, he would get lines like, “Don’t you remember how in sixth grade I wore that Dr. Ben Casey shirt to school? Unfortunately one day I paired it with my Ben Hur lace-up sandals and these boys in my phys. ed. class just beat the hell out of me. I guess that’s what you call a fashion don’t.” Which sounds like something off Jordan’s Instagram feed.
His life was not uncomplicated — losing his father at 11, growing up queer in the churchgoing South, self-medicating for decades with drugs and alcohol until he got sober at 42. (And coming to realize a few years later, as he said on “Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown,” a podcast hosted by his “Call Me Kat” co-star, that “the little dark cloud that had always followed me was not my homosexuality… It was depression, mild depression.”) His characters were not always pleasant. Yet what he brought to the screen (and to the internet) was unerringly delightful. His timing was superb, his delivery, couched in the vocal equivalent of “wide-eyed,” musical. He was rarely histrionic or loud, and though he never seemed to be working to get your attention, you couldn’t help but notice him. Really, he never seemed to be working at all.
Jordan arrived in Hollywood from Tennessee in 1982, as he often recounted, with $1,200 his mother had sewn into his underwear. His first screen credit dates from 1986, an episode of “The Fall Guy,” which began a steady stream of work in shows and films of varying distinction, including “Ski Patrol,” “Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday,” “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” “Murphy Brown,” “Newhart,” “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” “Star Trek: Voyager,” “Ally McBeal,” “Desperate Housewives,” a Tammy Wynette impersonator in Del Shores’ “Sordid Lives” (reprising a part he played onstage) and the Ryan Murphy “American Horror Story” stock company. He also lasted 12 days on the U.K. “Celebrity Big Brother.”
After decades in showbiz, the 65-year-old found fame on social media — and has a new TV show and a second book on the way. ‘It’s all gravy,’ he says.
Given his size, sound and Southern volubility — Jordan made a great talk show guest — it’s not surprising that most of his career was spent in comedy or that, along with his internet postings, he’s best known for the broadcast sitcoms in which he played regular or recurring roles: “Hearts Afire,” among an ensemble that included John Ritter, Markie Post, Conchata Ferrell and Billy Bob Thornton; “Will & Grace,” for which he won an outstanding guest actor Emmy; “The Cool Kids,” the 2018 retirement-home series in which he co-starred alongside Martin Mull, David Alan Grier and Vicki Lawrence; and the still-running “Call Me Kat.” Comedy was his baseline, into which he could inject piquancy or poignancy or wickedness as the occasion demanded. Even his most sustained dramatic work, in “Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel” — Jordan’s own play about his wild young years in Atlanta, turned into a low-budget film in 2000 — was in something he considered a comedy. (You can read all about that production, which co-starred Mark Pellegrino and featured cameos from Ritter, Marilu Henner, and Sheryl Lee Ralph, in “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet,” and find the film itself on YouTube.)
Death has a strange way of making coincidence seem predictive. Jordan’s last Instagram post featured him singing the hymn “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” which he earlier recorded with Tanya Tucker for his charming 2021 album, “Company’s Comin’.” (As of Monday night there were more than 400,000 comments on the post.) And in an episode of “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” I happened to watch in the course of assembling this appreciation, his character — a sad case who had briefly become a superhero named Mr. Resplendent — observes, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all this, it’s that life is worth living. Because you never know what’s going to happen next.”
Which strikes me as another thing Leslie Jordan might have said. And is all too true.
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