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On Stage: the Happy Hustler finds a new role



When Michael Kearns graduated from Chicago's Goodman School of Drama in 1971, he didn't feel the school thought much of his chances as an actor.

"I was considered a mediocre actor," says Kearns, "whose gayness would get in the way of a career. On the one hand, there was an openness about being gay around the school, but the message you really heard was, you wouldn't get very far if you were out."

But Kearns, stagestruck since his days as a child actor in Saint Louis, was determined to make it on his own terms. So he headed to Hollywood to prove the world wrong, intending to make a splash as an unashamedly gay man who was also a good actor. And a splash is what he made--but he nearly drowned in the wake.

The vehicle that launched Kearns to notoriety was a steamy little book called The Happy Hustler. Published in 1975 as a paperback original by Warner Books, The Happy Hustler was the alleged autobiography of one Grant Tracy Saxon, a high-priced call boy whose rise from rags to riches by servicing rich men and women made him, according to the publisher's promotional copy, "a modern Whoratio Alger."

In fact, Saxon was the fictional creation of Thom Racina, a writer whom Kearns had met at Goodman. Racina, now a TV soap-opera writer, had been inspired by the financial success of Xaviera Hollander's memoir, The Happy Hooker, to cook up Grant Tracy Saxon as a bisexual male equivalent. Though Kearns was not the book's coauthor, as was widely believed, he agreed to pose as "Grant" for a suggestive cover photo, as well as for a nude foldout that appeared only in the book's first printing. He also popped up on TV for talk-show hosts like Phil Donahue and Tom Snyder, spreading the message of sexual liberation for fun and profit.

In reality, Kearns says now, he was anything but the carefree fellow Saxon was supposed to be. "I was a self-loathing alcoholic boy with no identity," he recalls. "The reason I could fall into the 'happy hustler' identity was that I didn't have one of my own. It was like The Twilight Zone on one hand; on the other it was a case history of addiction and self-loathing. That took a lot of my life during the 1970s.

"The book established me as two things," Kearns continues. "A writer, which I wasn't, and a hustler, which I wasn't." But when the book hoax backfired and Kearns found himself almost totally unemployable in the TV and movie industry, he turned to both writing and hustling on a part-time basis, meanwhile sinking deeper into addiction. "I had no self-esteem and no money," he says.

The turning point, he recalls, came in 1979, when he produced and starred in the west-coast stage premiere of Robert Patrick's gay comedy T-Shirts. "Although I was still drinking, I reestablished the fact that I was an actor," he says of the production. "I got a sense of self-worth back. I was playing a gay character, I was funny, I had a nice role, the reviews were wonderful. It showed me a way that I could be in control of my career." Kearns followed up T-Shirts with the west-coast premiere of Harvey Fierstein's The International Stud, the first part of what became the Broadway hit Torch Song Trilogy. With the success of these and other shows, Kearns emerged in the early 1980s as Los Angeles's leading figure in gay theater; his renewed confidence gave him the courage to enter an alcoholism-recovery program in 1982.

As part of that program, Kearns set down on paper his unhappy memories of the Happy Hustler experience. The result was a one-man performance piece, The Truth Is Bad Enough. Candid, funny, and moving, it established Kearns as "the happy hyphenate": an actor-writer-director-producer with an interesting, easily tourable show. About this time, his film and TV career enjoyed a brief upswing: he had roles in movies like Body Double and the made-for-TV The Making of a Male Model, and appeared in series like Cheers and Murder, She Wrote. But it is as a stage actor with a mission that Kearns has gained his reputation as an artist and a professional.

Today, Kearns maintains a repertoire of four one-man shows: The Truth Is Bad Enough; Dream Man, a portrayal of a phone-sex hustler; An Artist Confronts AIDS, an anthology of selections from various plays by Kearns and other writers; and his newest work, Intimacies, which he is bringing to Chicago starting this weekend for a limited engagement.

Premiered in California last June to glowing reviews, Intimacies is a series of character sketches. The six people Kearns plays have AIDS, but their monologues address other issues as well: homelessness, drug addiction, alcoholism, religion, motherhood, sexual politics, and the dynamics of love. One character is a gay yuppie who lies about his homosexuality and his illness; another is a black female streetwalker worried about her AIDS-infected newborn baby. A third figure is based on a demented man Kearns saw wandering around a New York subway station in a hospital gown. For a fourth role, a teenage hustler strung out on speed, Kearns found inspiration closer to home.

"The kid is what I could have become," says Kearns. "It's the hardest and most painful part to play. I dread it every time it comes along."

Despite the provocative nature of his one-man shows, Kearns is a familiar and admired figure in many small communities outside of his home base of Los Angeles. He's performed in locales as varied as New York City and Vermillion, South Dakota; Edinburgh, Scotland, and Visalia, California; Denver and Des Moines, where he was honored with a key to the city. ("When I accepted it, I said that the only other key I've ever received was to a room at the YMCA," he says. "They screamed.")

"I think people generally underestimate the audiences that aren't on either coast," Kearns says of his popularity in the heartland. "I find a certain benevolence and hipness and enthusiasm in what some would call the hinterlands, more than I do on the coasts. It has nothing to do with shock value; it has to do with the humanity of my material."

As his repertory of plays grows--along with his confidence and the recognition given him as an actor--Kearns finds his interest in dealing with a wider range of characters growing as well.

"I don't feel very aligned with gay theater," says the man who was once dubbed "Mr. Gay Theater in Los Angeles." "We're saying that AIDS is not a gay disease. But at the same time, the stage seems to be churning out a lot of plays about white gay men with AIDS. I can't align myself with gay theater under those circumstances. I don't see myself as a gay theater artist any longer. I'm not saying I'm not gay anymore. But my palette is much larger than it was a year ago. It's a matter of awareness, maturity--a growing sense of my smallness. It's part of my evolution."

Michael Kearns's Intimacies opens Friday, December 1, and runs through December 19 at the Halsted Theatre Centre, 2700 N. Halsted. For ticket information, call 348-0110.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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