[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter screening the tender film, Eat With Me, and witnessing Sharon Omi’s stunning portrayal of the distraught mother going through crisis, I was intent on connecting with this talented lady. (George Takei, Teddy Chen Culver, Nicole Sullivan, and Aidan Bristow costar.) Lordie be, after some snappy detective work, I found that she lived just across town from me in the beachfront free-spirited community of Venice, California.
Doing my homework, I discovered that Sharon is a third-generation Japanese-American, also known as “Sansei.” She’s been married for twenty-eight years to an actor/writer and they have a twenty-four-year-old daughter who is also a writer. Ms. Omi is an accomplished character actor who has racked up many credits in theater, film and television. On the big screen she appeared in Prom and Spiderman 3, while on the tube she’s co-starred on Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. In her new film, Family Gathering, Sharon co-stars with her husband, Ken.
This woman was at Ground Zero during the epidemic, living in San Francisco, and like all of us who lived through it, was devastated at what seemed to be unreal. An advocate for human rights, Sharon has stood up for intolerance throughout her life.
Weeks pass after we speak on the horn. Then on a crisp luminous day, I drive Mother Lincoln (my ’69
classic) and leadfoot it over to Sharon’s place. Knowing that she recently performed in Elektra at The Getty Villa in Malibu, a desired cultural spot, I suggest we catch the Noah Purifoy show at LACMA, the prolific assemblage artist and sculptor (1917–2004). Once there, we take the extensive how-did-they-build-this? escalator up to the third level of the BCAM building.
We mosey through the rousing exhibit and end up outside on the balcony, overlooking the neon red, green, and blue buildings of the Pacific Design Centers and the scenic peaceful Hollywood Hills. We stand marveling at the view.
Ruby Comer: Whata…gorgeous…day. [Sharon nods, with a sigh.] My body and my soul, I’m so glad I’m here because I never heard of Purifoy. Where have I been?! What an inspiration! Say, tell me Sharon—
Sharon Omi: [She interrupts.] Ruby, I have to tell you. You inspired me! [I look at her with a doubting frown.] After our initial phone contact, I realized that I have not done enough for the AIDS community, so last week I volunteered for the Venice Family Clinic at Common Ground.
Well, wackadoo! You are something Ms. Omi. [I lean in on the red railing and look at her directly.] Personally, Sharon, who has affected you the most in the epidemic?
My friend Rodney Kageyama. He was my first acting teacher in San Francisco, who now lives in L.A. and who I hang with as much as possible! He has been living with HIV for years. He has a host of health issues but stays on top of them all. He manages to live with zest and energy, and is the unofficial mayor of Little Tokyo. He also emcees Japanese-American events, large and small.
Sounds like an enchanting fellow. Did you lose anyone early on?
Sadly, yes. My beautiful friend Raymond Tasco died in October of 1986. Losing him to AIDS had a huge impact on my husband and I. We knew Raymond for years and when he was in need of a roommate I suggested my then-boyfriend—now husband—move in. Raymond lived with a houseful of gay black actor/directors who had started the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in S.F. That was a house full of theater! [She giggles.] People doing performance art in the backyard, rehearsals happening in the living room, and lots of cast parties.
How stimulating and full of life.
Shortly after my husband moved in, Raymond started to get sick. He was always battling a cold and a cough. He’d get sick, recover, and then get sick again. Then he started to lose a lot of weight. We were just starting to hear about the “gay cancer.” Raymond was sure that he didn’t have it, and he convinced us that he was fine.
My Lordie, what happened? Details please.
Oh, Ruby, it was terrifying. There was a big party for his fortieth birthday, which must have been in 1985. That was when I got really scared. We watched him shrink and lose control of his bowels. Then he contracted pneumonia. We were all actors, and no one had any money, and it quickly became very clear that Raymond had to have someone to care for him twenty-four hours a day.
We were so scared. Towards the end he was admitted to a hospice on his V.A. benefits. I was so grateful for that. His boyfriend bailed towards the very end. It’s understandable because it’s so painful to watch someone you love go through this. I remember an awful day at the hospice when his disapproving parents—who had traveled across the country—sat at his bedside. They had so much anger and grief. They never accepted his lifestyle but yet they sat vigil at the hospice.
[She takes an extended pause.] Raymond was a beautiful man, full of love, creativity, and generosity. I loved his sense of humor and his booming laugh. Raymond was the first director to cast me in a show, and we worked together several times. He understood the challenges of being an ethnic actor and he took me under his wing, opened the doors, and invited me into a life in the theater! [Sharon displays an enormous grin.]
I see he was a dear-heart for you. Were you guys able to get funding for Raymond?
The Equity Actors Fund was really supportive. I’m not sure how much Raymond received from them, but I know it was one of the few sources of financial support that he had at the time. I contribute to them every year in his memory and in gratitude for their help in those dire times.
EAF is a champion organization that makes a difference in many people’s lives. What did you learn from all this?
Even when Raymond was sick, I remember not believing that such a disease could exist. I was obsessed with every detail and physical sign of the disease. I wanted to know all of the symptoms in case another friend got sick.
What was it like to live in San Francisco at the onslaught of the epidemic?
It was unbelievable. We spent many nights, all of us, Raymond included, denying that he was sick. And I think it was like that for a lot of people, because to admit that you had the disease would scare people away and you would be isolated. At one point I remember he ate healthier to make himself stronger. We all prayed. [She lowers her head for a moment then glances out as if reminiscing.] The gay scene was so vibrant and strong and the disease was so insidious. It was hard to reconcile.
Like Raymond’s parents, even though it was long ago, AIDS stigma still rears its ugly head in 2015. And like your character, Emma, in Eat With Me, she had a tendency to discriminate and grapple with compassion. Any idea how to break down this barrier?
I think that the more people own their identity and sexual orientation, the more the barriers will come down. It will force people to look closely at their own intolerance and hopefully choose to make more loving choices.
When I was doing research for Eat With Me, I attended a PFLAG [Parents and Friends of Lesbian And Gays] meeting and met up with some really inspiring parents. These were parents who were sick with grief when they discovered that their children were gay, but then worked through their discrimination to become activists. I marched in the Gay Pride Day parade in June and met a Korean father who told me, with tears in his eyes, that he never imagined in a million years that he would be marching in this parade. He said his life is so much deeper than it was before his son came out.
Kudos! Good stories to hear. I remember seeing you in the parade, missy!
As I explored Emma, my character, I came to understand that much of the distance between her and Elliot [Emma’s son] has to do with their discomfort over intimacy. That I can relate to, Ruby. I experience it with my own parents and even with my daughter. When there’s silence you have to guess at what the other person is thinking and sometimes you start to make things up to make sense of the silence.
How darn frustrating! You know, many Asian guys are too afraid to tell their families and consequently don’t seek help and eventually die.
Yeh, I came from a family that recognizes [she breaks for effect]—the Silence. Basically, you just don’t
talk about anything that might make anyone vaguely uncomfortable. There is so much that I felt my parents wouldn’t approve of but you don’t really know for sure because they never really tell you. [She takes a heavy breath.] My hope is that Asian children will have the courage to be honest with themselves and to ask for help. Even if their parents don’t immediately embrace the situation, in the long run they have a great understanding of discrimination and they will eventually understand. It just might take a little time….
Did you and your daughter ever have “The Talk”?
No, my daughter is an avid reader of all things having to do with diseases, so I have no doubt that she’s safe. From the age of four she was asking me if I thought she might have tuberculosis and was it possible for her to die of Scarlet Fever. I have to admit that I’ve been kinda silent while she was growing up, though I did tell her numerous times that we accept her for who she is.
I have to ask, I noticed on your resume that you were on Roseanne. What was that experience like?
She was a little scary, Ruby—but very funny! Me and another actor played Korean masseuses and she looked at us and said, “I want one of them to jump on top of me and start pounding.” She paused. “Better be the little one!” I’m glad it wasn’t me. I wouldn’t want to piss her off!
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].