Johnny Galecki, Star of THE BIG BANG THEORY, converges with A&U’S Dann Dulin to discuss his encounter with the AIDS epidemic during the catastrophic onset of the disease
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Dr. Leonard Hofstadter, a brilliant young physicist on the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory, can apply his enormous intellect to solving the mysteries of the quantum structure of the universe, yet he is still a young man rattled by all the challenges of everyday life. Johnny Galecki, the actor who portrays Hofstadter, can draw on his own treasure trove of life experiences to give substance to this fictional character. But some of these experiences have been charged with fear.
“I was completely influenced by the AIDS fear campaigns. It was instilled in me!” bemoans Johnny, his big gleaming brown eyes gaping while he chews gum. As a child actor in the 1980s, Johnny witnessed the panic in the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic. “I mean, when you sleep with someone, you’re sleeping with everyone they’ve had sex with….Forget the romance, it was absolutely paralyzing! It was fear. When your introduction to sex was so full of terror you can’t really shed that.” He looks away for a second. “AIDS is like the Katrina of my generation.”
Johnny, who turned thirty-five at the end of April, sits comfortably in my living room. Behind him, a few feet away, sits Kevin, his affable publicist, while other members of today’s interview and shoot are scattered about the room. Johnny, unlike Leonard Hofstadter, sports cool low-rise holey jeans, a white V-neck T-shirt, and worn combat boots, which he politely left at the front door. Johnny’s socks are brightly mustard colored, with one black and white stripe around the arch and solid ebony at the toes. At top of the sock is a scull and crossbones. Like his character, Leonard, Johnny is intelligent, compassionate, and friendly.
Since his days as a regular on the long-running series Roseanne, for which he won a Young Artist’s Award, Johnny has been in demand, working alongside such other notables as Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Christina Ricci, and Marlo Thomas. He’s performed at Chicago’s prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre and at the Goodman Theatre, as well. Johnny also appears in one of those seasonal guilty pleasures, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation! The epitome of cute, Johnny was a casting director’s dream at the age of fourteen.
Johnny is an acting veteran. His career began at age seven. “I was dearly, dearly close to the people I was working with. They certainly had a good hand in raising me.” He stops. His killer smile now becomes drawn. “To be frank, I’m really scared to track any of them down now. They could have died from AIDS.” There are beads of perspiration on his forehead. He takes his hand and sweeps through his trademark curly, foppy, chestnut hair. “I was thinking about it driving here today.”
In the early eighties, Johnny was in a production of Pippin, a show that requires a large cast. “I was so close to the guys in the chorus. They used to babysit me when my parents weren’t around. We’d take the bus together to the theater. I was just ten or eleven, but I’d have a Shirley Temple with them at the bar after the show.”
Johnny felt like he was just one of the guys, yet the producers placed him in the dressing room with the women. “I knew that was weird,” remarks Johnny clearing his throat. “I had worked in several theater productions [before] and all of them had a dressing room for the boys and one for the girls. Here I was with these women who were changing in front of me. I wasn’t in the room with all my guy friends.” He sits up and leans in. “When I’d go in to say ‘Hello’ to the guys, they’d say, ‘Hi Johnny,’ and then announce to the others, ‘Johnny’s here.’” He chuckles, then reflects hesitantly, “I guess they thought they were protecting me…I suppose. I knew the boys had relationships with other guys, but it was never an issue till others made it an issue. I guess some thought it was unhealthy or inappropriate for me to see affection between two men, especially at that time when they thought AIDS might be transmitted by touch. But by separating me, it made me feel different from them.” He recoils and props his colorful foot up on the sofa. “I’m a little bitter about it now and I’m left with sadness and anger. I’m angry about all that ignorance—and the ignorance lingers today.”
This ignorance abounds in the teen and young adult community and Johnny is troubled by the high infection rates currently in this population. Yet, he does not advocate abstinence. “These kids’ hormones, curiosity, and emotions are all out of control! And the statistics I’ve read about abstinence prove it just doesn’t work. Teenagers who take the virginity track of abstaining from intercourse contract the same amount of STDs because they’re much more willing to perform other types of sex. Plus, anybody who wants out of a contract [of abstinence] is going to find a loop hole—no pun intended,” he chuckles and realizes, “I think that was the first time I ever quoted Bill Maher! Though I’m not sure if he said it or not, but it sounds like him.”
Johnny takes a second, folds his arms and then puts one arm up to his face, reminding me of Jack Benny’s iconic pose. He continues. “You need to be realistic about sex. If I were a parent I would love to believe that my kid would be independent enough, strong enough, and patient enough….” He halts, briefly looking down at his Nat Sherman cigarettes and blue Bic lighter that rest on the glass coffee table. “You gotta think back to how tough it was when you were seventeen. It’s nearly impossible not to have sex,” he beams, sounding more like David, Darlene’s boyfriend, whom he played on Roseanne.
AIDS prevention wasn’t taught at Johnny’s public school in Chicago. It was during the Reagan era and sex education was taboo. Discussing this summons up a memory for him. “Oh, I remember those posters hanging up when I was in fifth grade: ‘Just Say No,’” he laboriously mocks First Lady Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug slogan. “If anything, it sparked curiosity. I said, “Say ‘No’ to what?!” Johnny is most critical of President Reagan’s long delay in addressing the epidemic. “The gay community was hurting so very much,” he laments, gently playing with his ChapStick. The publicist’s cell rings but Johnny doesn’t miss a beat. He’s agitated. “We didn’t need money spent on the kinds of speakers who visited my junior high school or on those posters in the hallways. The money was spread so thin for all the wrong reasons instead of focusing it on the people who really needed it at the time. It was such a disservice and I think it was responsible for many, many deaths.”
But Johnny has positively channeled his anger by working for such organizations as Global Green, Matthew Shepherd Foundation, Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and Save the Children, which aids needy children around the world. Created over seventy-five years ago, Save the Children reaches over sixty million children a year in over fifty countries! Johnny has organized fundraisers with his friends to benefit Save the Children.
In 2006, Johnny appeared in Broadway’s The Little Dog Laughed, for which he received a Theater World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut. He also strut his stuff in Broadway Cares’ annual AIDS fundraiser, Gypsy of the Year Competition. Johnny and three other of his castmates walked out on stage naked wrapped only in white terry-cloth towels. Once they were center stage, they did an about-face, and dropped the towels. Screams were heard throughout the audience along with rip-roaring applause, which led to sizeable donations. He also filmed a PSA for an anti-hate campaign for CBS Cares and he did a reading of The Laramie Project for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. “I remember the church that we read in. It was that church over on Hollywood and Franklin Boulevards [in Hollywood, California] where for years it has displayed a giant red AIDS ribbon on the front,” notes Johnny. “It must be the only United Methodist Church in the country that displays a red AIDS ribbon! They do some incredible work.”
When touching on his personal life Johnny becomes shy. “I have been HIV tested, but…but…ahh…,” he stumbles then continues, “without getting too personal, there’s no real need for me to be tested regularly. I have been seeing someone for several years… yeah…but it has just ended.” It’s clearly evident that he doesn’t want to discuss the relationship. Johnny rubs the top of his chest near the collarbone as if soothing a hurt.
“Protection has always been a reality,” he offers straightforwardly. “Maybe people younger than me feel differently since they didn’t grow up in the epicenter of the fear campaign. Having grown up in the theater community with gay people, I was influenced by their behavior to have safe sex.” He takes a moment to alter his body, leaning his elbow up on the back of the sofa. “Being tested is not the most enjoyable thing to do but it’s part of the process. Not knowing would create so much more anxiety. Safe sex has always been a part of life for me.” And like a statement Dr. Hofstadter might articulate, Johnny lowers his voice and concludes, “It’s really hard to analyze why others don’t have safe sex because it was so normal for me. I think that’s how it is with most of my thirty-something generation.”
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.