Sunday, June 9, 2013

Harvey Fierstein: A Sign of the Times

It's early Sunday morning here on the West Coast.  Moments ago, I read online news reports that a few protestors who are against marriage equality in France disrupted the French Open.  I saw that one man was wearing a mask.  I don't know if any of the French anti-gay marriage protestors held up signs that read "It's Adam & Eve. Not Adam & Yves."

Which brings me to a few quick notes about the incomparable Harvey Fierstein.  Tonight, he will once again hear his name read as a Tony nominee.  I do hope he goes home a winner.  To millions of us, this beloved Broadway icon already is.
He and Cyndi Lauper teamed their talents to put folks in Kinky Boots, one of tonight's top Tony Awards contenders.  This musical comedy got 13 nominations.
Harvey has given us another Broadway experience that challenges exclusion and inequality.  And they do with it with showtunes and fabulous footwear!
Here's an example of what he challenges.  These are the kinds of barriers he strives to break down with his art as a writer/actor.  It seems like last month, but it was really twenty -- twenty! -- years ago when I worked on a weekend local morning news show for a top New York City TV station.  This was at the height of the AIDS crisis and before celebrities were coming out the way they do today.  This was when ACT-UP was a loud collective voice in Manhattan and GMHC, the Gay Men's Health Crisis, was a new and needed organization.  Harvey was...and is...a vocal activist.  In those days, he was actively involved in getting into the community and urging guys to protect themselves and each other.  I saw him do this at community events in the mid 1980s -- and these events were not photo opportunities for press.  Press was often not around.  He was being an activist and a mensch.  This was a Broadway star who'd won top 1982 Tony Awards for Torch Song Trilogy giving us this "kitchen sink" quality involvement, time and attention.  He did this from the heart.  Not for publicity.  He was on NY city streets.  Not red carpets.

Harvey had been a guest on my VH1 talk show back in the late 1980s when Rosie O'Donnell and I were both VJs on the network.  After three great years of working at VH1, I was approached to be a weekly contributor on a new local morning news program.  I took the gig but there were problems behind the scenes.  Let's just say that some management members employed at that time had not embraced racial and sexual diversity.  And this was a newsroom.  Quite the opposite of VH1 which was entertainment and a workplace with an "everyone's invited" coupled with a "let and let live" attitude.

Harvey and other stars were doing interviews to promote Mrs. Doubtfire.  Robin Williams starred as Dan, the divorced dad who will go to any harmless lengths to see his kids.  Harvey played Dan's loving gay brother, Frank.  Audiences loved Harvey in this hit film.
Through trial and error, Frank and his partner come up with a great disguise that will enable Dan to spend time with his kids without being recognized by their strict mother.



I taped a good 1993 interview with Harvey at the 20th Century Fox Mrs. Doubtfire movie junket.  The head of publicity and Robin Williams' then-wife were in the room watching the interview and complimented me on it.  It was funny and informative.  Harvey talked about a stretch of time in which he wasn't getting so much employment and how this festive role came to be his.  He talked about how his being openly gay affected his opportunities for future work consideration.  I loved the interview.

But our news program executive boss wouldn't let me air it.  Why?  He said, "I have a problem with him being openly gay."  This was in New York City.  My interview of Harvey Fierstein had nothing inappropriate in it.  The package could've aired on TVs in Radio City and Vatican City.  Harvey appeared on national talk shows.  He was even a guest on Sesame Street.  Besides, he was a top Tony Award winner for acting in and writing 1982's Torch Song Trilogy.  But that local TV news station was a work environment in which I did not feel free.  I didn't feel I'd still have a job if I told management that I wasn't straight either... and I was caring for my partner who'd been diagnosed with AIDS a little over a year ago.  I needed that job to take care of him.  Also, Harvey wasn't the only one my boss excluded.  I was denied being able to cover a weekend community benefit street fair for SAGE -- Senior Advocacy for Gay Elders.  I guess that news executive had a great fear of aging lesbians with macrame plant holders and Joni Mitchell albums.  Neither SAGE nor Broadway/film powerhouse Harvey Fierstein got the exposure our news program frequently gave Joey Buttafuoco.  What really hurt was the fact that this was a TV news decision.  You'd expect TV journalism to enlighten, inform and broaden a viewpoint instead of being narrow-minded.  That limited view affected the way images were presented in newscasts.  It prevented positive images from being shown.

That executive is long gone.  I do believe that attitude is also long gone from the TV station.  Today, I'm sure that show would love having Harvey on to talk about his current hit accomplishment -- he and Cyndi Lauper are Tony nominees for giving us the book, the words and music for Kinky Boots. That TV news show would also welcome his comments on gay rights and marriage equality, I bet.

The Tony Awards air tonight on CBS.  Returning as host -- an openly gay man who plays a lovable swingin' bachelor who's a real ladies' man on the hit CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother.  The extremely talented Neil Patrick Harris is one of the best hosts that awards telecast has ever had.  I wish he'd host the Oscars too.  Back when that TV news exec refused to air my interview of Harvey Fierstein because of what seemed like a personal prejudice....who'd have thought that, years later, an openly gay actor with a husband would be starring on a hit sitcom as a ladies' man bachelor?  Think about it.


Kinky Boots stars the wonderfully talented actor/singer and openly gay black Christian...Billy Porter.  Billy's also a Tony nominee.  He'll be performing in tonight's telecast.  Neil Patrick Harris as host and a critically acclaimed new work from Harvey Fierstein will be in the network TV spotlight tonight.  Wow.  That's progress.  That's breaking down barriers.  That's the power of the arts.  That's showbiz.



Those boots are a sign of the times.  A sign of positive change.  How I wish my late partner could have lived to see all this.  He'd be so thrilled.  I know I am.  Thanks, Harvey.  Happy Pride Month.



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