Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tom Hanks, O.J. and Me

I was curious to see the movie when it opened.  I'm a longtime Tom Hanks fan, going back to his ABC sitcom years on Bosom Buddies in the 1980s.  He'd proven his dramatic acting chops with his Oscar-winning performance in Philadelphia.  Now I wanted to see if he could effectively play a big, blond musclebound idiot savant with a crewcut who said "Bein' an idiot is no box o' chocolates."  That's how Forrest Gump was and that's what he said in the tart, satirical and outrageously funny novel written by Winston Groom.  I read the novel early in 1994 and it made me laugh out loud.  I laughed at the big handsome idiot's adventures as a football player, a pro wrestler, an astronaut and as sci-fi movie movie in Hollywood with cheap costumes a very cranky actress named Raquel Welch.  Forrest needed to get away from his annoying old bitty of a mother.   That was the novel.
A publicity head for a movie company not releasing Forrest Gump had seen the screen version.  He and I ran into each other one day and he gave me a tip.  "Go if there's a screening.  It's really good."

At that time, I was one of the original on-air regulars on WNBC's Weekend Today in New York.  We premiered in September 1992.  I was approached to be on the show and the initial offer appealed to me.    I was to do entertainment features, film reviews, and lifestyle reports.  This was after my three years as a veejay and a celebrity talk show host on VH1.  I'd done appearances on CBS late night shows. Also, in 1992, I'd hosted a late night syndicated summer replacement game show.

When the WNBC local news show premiered, my assignments changed and that's when friction began.  I was to do "funny" community events live shots from street fairs, shopping malls and such instead of being at the desk doing upscale entertainment features on a regular basis.  I do not mean this as a slam against WNBC because the executives with whom I had problems are long gone, but there were diversity issues then.  To me, there seemed to be something racially funky in its 1990s corporate culture that needed to be plucked out.  If you know classic Hollywood history, I felt like Lena Horne at MGM in the 1940s.  I was with an A-list studio but I'd be limited in how high up I could go.

Adding heat to the diversity issues was the AIDS crisis which was in the headlines at the time and still claiming hundreds and hundreds of lives.  Positive gay images on weekly TV were rare.  Last month on NPR's Weekend Edition, Scott Simon presented a May 24th feature on what The Normal Heart teaches a new generation.  This aired before the premiere of the HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer's gut-punching play about the 1980s AIDS crisis in New York City.  One thing mentioned was the fear prevalent at that time.  I remember that fear vividly.  It lingered in the air like oppressive summer humidity.  When Tom Hanks won his Best Actor Oscar for Philadelphia, it was a landmark victory.  He played an openly gay man with AIDS.  I proudly watched Hanks' acceptance speech with my equally proud partner.  He was also an openly gay man with AIDS.  Richard was diagnosed three months after our Weekend Today in New York show premiered.

WNBC co-workers in whom I could confide urged me not to tell management that my partner had AIDS.  I told them "My health is good, thank Heaven.  He's the ill one."  They felt that since I was part-time and not under contract, management might find some way of not needing me on the show anymore even though I was very popular with viewers.  Again, this is how the climate with the management in place at that time was.  I was not making big money but the money I did make helped me be a good caregiver to my terminally ill partner.  During the course of show, our top news executive denied my being able to do a morning remote from a SAGE fundraiser street fair in Greenwich Village. SAGE is an organization of gay & lesbian seniors.  I guess he thought aging lesbians selling macrame plant holders and old Joni Mitchell records was too controversial for live morning TV.  He would not air my interview of Tony-winning actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein when he was promoting Mrs. Doubtfire.  He aired my Robin Williams interview but wouldn't let us air Harvey's.  Why?  He said, "I have a problem with him being openly gay."  There was fear and ignorance in the air.  And I was afraid of losing that job because I was taking care of Richard.  I often went to work at WNBC directly from having slept in a chair at Richard's beside in Mt. Sinai hospital.

I was invited to be a part of the Forrest Gump press junket in L.A.  Interviews would be done in the Four Seasons Beverly Hills Hotel.  Two days before I left for the junket, I had to get Richard to the hospital again for something minor.  His wonderful doctor wanted him to stay a couple of days for some tests.  She felt he be ready to come back home the day I returned from L.A.  She had my phone number to my room at the hotel.  I called Richard and called her as soon as I arrived.

We saw Forrest Gump.  All the main characters were in it.  The vinegar had been replaced with sugar.  It was a very sentimental movie. Forrest was not 6'6 and 240 pounds of solid beefcake like in the book.  Forrest now said, "Life is like a box of chocolates."  His mother was now sweet, strong and devoted to him. Not a needy old bat.

 We knew the movie would be a colossal box office hit.  Which it was.  The next morning, I'm preparing for my Tom Hanks interview when the phone rang.  It was Richard's doctor.  She told me not to panic, but she felt I should call his parents.  Unfortunately, his body was not responding to any treatments.  It was a call I'd hoped I'd never get.  And the call I had to place to his extraordinary mother in Tennessee was one I'd hoped I'd never have to make.  My initial thought was, "Get the next plane back to New York.  Scratch the interviews.  Tell the publicity people why."  The phone rang again.  It was his doctor calling back.  She said that Richard had ordered me not to come back without having done my work.  I was to do my interviews.  She added, "Somehow, I don't think anything serious will happen before you get here.  Do what he said.  Do your work."

I wanted to do something to honor Richard in my Hanks interview.  Something to honor him and to bring attention to how gay people were treated and the need for diversity.  There was a time when interviewing a top star like Tom Hanks would've been the most important thing in my life.  It would've been what I'd worked for in my career.  That morning was different.  My life had changed.  Richard changed it.  He was more important than any international movie star.  I'd follow his orders and do the work.

I walked into the room, pre-occupied with thoughts of Richard.  Tom Hanks, who'd watched me on VH1, greeted me enthusiastically,  like an old college buddy.  That was a blessing.  It calmed me down and helped me focus.  He gave me a good interview.  The question that I knew Richard would love (and did when I told him) was asking Hanks how Hollywood would've reacted if he was single, gay  and came out during his Oscar acceptance speech for Philadelphia.

He liked my question.  He said, if that had happened, he wouldn't be surprised if he was never again cast in a romantic comedy as the guy who got Meg Ryan.  William Hurt was the first actor to win an Oscar for playing an openly gay man.  He was the Latin American prisoner in Kiss of the Spider Woman.  Hanks was the second. And he played an openly gay American with AIDS during America's AIDS crisis.  Celebrities were not coming out then.  We did not have gay talk show hosts and gay regulars on popular reality shows.  Actors were nervous about playing gay characters and more nervous about coming out because that could lead to unemployment.  There was the fear of losing work.

I did all my interviews.  Instead of flying back the following afternoon, I rescheduled myself on a redeye flight that night.  There was buzz among the junket press folks about O.J. Simpson and a murder.  Anything with a celebrity and a murder in L.A. gets instant live local coverage.  And O.J. had been extremely popular in TV commercials and in movies.  The NBA Finals were being played.

A bunch of us gathered in the hospitality suite of The Four Seasons.  Big movie stars were walking around but we were riveted to the special live news broadcast of the now-famous O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase with him being pursued by L.A. cop cars....

...and in a smaller box in a corner of the same screen was that evening's NBA game in process.

Meanwhile I was waiting for a friend who'd offered to pick me up at the hotel and drive me to LAX so I could fly back to my terminally ill partner.  This day in history twenty years ago was one surreal day for me.  Tom Hanks, O. J. Simpson and me -- publicity, crime and love.

Here's a short demo reel that includes my June 17th question to Hanks that aired in my WNBC feature before Forrest Gump opened nationwide:

I wrote that there seemed to be something funky in the TV station's corporate culture at that time.  Here's an example in a newspaper article about a comment from a network news executive:

Other actors have since gone on to Oscar nominations and Oscar wins for playing gay characters.  Sean Penn (as Harvey Milk) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Truman Capote) won Oscars.  We now have openly gay network news anchors such as Anderson Cooper and CNN's Don Lemon.  There's a gay contestant in just about every season of Dancing with the Stars.

I'd love to interview Tom Hanks again and talk about how much diversity has been embraced since he won his Oscar for Philadelphia.  And I wish Richard was here so he could see it.  He passed peacefully on June 20th 1994.  He was only in his 20s.

In his short life, he added a great light to the world around him.  Especially to my world.  My relationship with him taught me to be brave, to never deny the truth of myself and to use my talents to help others.  I stayed at WNBC long enough to pay off his funeral expenses.  I quit in January 1995.  Was it a smart move to leave a hit show?  I felt it was.  The same executive who had a problem with Harvey Fierstein being openly gay told me that, although I was popular on the show and my work was good, I would never go full-time and I'd never move up to doing features for the network edition of Weekend Today. 

It was time to move on.

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