With the Release of His New Film, Behind the Candelabra, Scott Bakula Takes Us Back to the Early Days of the Epidemic to Take Stock of What We’ve Learned
by Dann Dulin
It impacted Scott Bakula right from the start. In 1976, at the age of twenty-one, he had dropped out of college and moved to New York City from his hometown of St. Louis to pursue an acting career. Just a few years later, close friends of his were dying from a mysterious disease called GRID (gay-related immune deficiency), later called AIDS.
“It was a time of not understanding and misdirection,” notes Scott, shaking his head in wonderment. “My friends had no idea what was happening to them. I can vividly remember that…, ” he laments, looking back on those menacing times. “Today there’s this feeling that we’ve got a handle on it and everything is under control, and I know that’s not accurate. That’s why it’s great to have a movie like Behind the Candelabra that says, ‘We’re looking back,’ but, oh boy, it’s completely relatable, especially with the current issue of gay marriage and the rise of HIV in young adults. It’s great to be here talking to you and to be associated with a piece like this. It’s a time capsule, but it’s completely relevant today.”
Behind The Candelabra, an HBO release, recently premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s based on an autobiography by Scott Thorson, who was the partner of Liberace, the glitzy entertainer and virtuoso pianist extraordinaire who died of AIDS-related complications in 1987. The film explores their five-year relationship and Liberace’s ultimate demise. Scott Bakula plays Bob Black, a choreographer, who had dated Thorson, and Matt Damon stunningly portrays him in the film. Bob later introduces Thorson to his friend Liberace at one of the entertainer’s jubilant Las Vegas extravaganzas. Michael Douglas gives a mesmerizing performance with his eerie portrayal of the flamboyant showman. (For those who may not be familiar with the legendary Liberace, he set the stage for such colorful entertainers as Elton John, Madonna, Adam Lambert, Cher, and Lady Gaga—and he inspired Elvis as well!) Rounding out the cast are Debbie Reynolds, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, and Cheyenne Jackson, all of whom are nearly unrecognizable in their characters.
Scott is also transformed in the film. Clad in late seventies garb, his character sports long hair (a wig), a moustache (his own), bell-bottom trousers, and platform shoes. He looks like he just stepped on stage with The Village People.
“The tragedy for Liberace and that generation was that he felt alone and completely at the mercy of his fame. I’m not a big fan of the Internet, but it can help others who feel alone, not be alone,” attests Scott, today dressed casually preppy in khaki slacks, short-sleeved black Polo shirt, and grey Dockers. He’s distinguished and yet rugged looking in a boyish sort of way—a man’s man, if you will, like Clark Gable, Harrison Ford, or Cary Grant, whom he highly respects. Scott oozes gentility, charm, genuineness, and likeability.
While actor Rock Hudson had gone public about his AIDS diagnosis years earlier, Liberace never admitted that he had the disease. His doctors lied on his death certificate to cover up the real cause. In those days, AIDS carried a weighty stigma. Even tennis pro Arthur Ashe, who went public with his HIV-positive status a few years later, was netted by AIDS stigma. Forced to go public with his diagnosis before a USA Today article was about to out him, Ashe won the day by using his voice to educate the public about HIV/AIDS. Scott counts Ashe, a St. Louis native, as a hero in the epidemic.
Stigma has arguably lessened a bit today. But HIV still carries with it shame and fear, where many are too terrified to get tested. Scott reflects on this. “What we need to learn from those days is: How do we express our differences and how do we survive being different? How can we exist in a world where not everybody is open to people’s differences? And that’s across the board…color, gender, sexual identity….
“Anytime anybody steps forward, it helps so many people who we don’t hear about,” offers the Emmy and Tony-nominated actor. “It’s just so important that people continue to speak their identity. It’s not easy and there’s still a lot of fear. But the spectrum is widening and acceptance is widening. My four kids range in age from thirteen to twenty-nine and they don’t see color, they don’t see sexual identity, and so on,” he remarks, though acknowledging that he does live in the diverse megalopolis of Los Angeles. “And most of their friends are that way, too. So I think the future’s going to be much brighter.” He takes a sip of his Venti-size Starbucks that he brought with him. “We’re in the United States and we’re kind of behind the rest of the world on so many levels. In other countries most everybody doesn’t give a rat’s ass!”
Case in point. The film’s director, Steven Soderbergh couldn’t sell Behind the Candelabra to the big studios, even with two Academy Award-winning actors in the lead roles. It didn’t even have a huge budget. The studios thought the film was “too gay.” Though Behind the Candelabra will only be seen on American television, it’s being released theatrically across the pond. Scott points out that one of the film’s producers commented that showing it on HBO may be better, because more people will see it.
Scott is presently between trips to India where he’s filming a musical project, Basmati Blues, with Donald Sutherland, Brie Larson, and Tyne Daly. There are four American actors in the cast and the rest are Indian. One might call it Bollywood meets Hollywood. There’s singing and dancing, romance and drama. Though mostly known for his work on sci-fi series (Quantum Leap; Enterprise) and sitcoms, Scott’s roots are in music. In the fourth grade he started a rock band and in the fifth grade he was singing in a choir with the local symphony orchestra. He’s also an accomplished pianist and guitarist.
Scott is comfortably seated in a high-back black leather upholstered executive desk chair in his publicist’s tiny office, which is located in Los Angeles between Warner Bros. Studios where he shot the TV series, Chuck, and Universal Studios where he filmed Enterprise. He rips into a burst of laughter about his India trip. “It’s hard to go back!…because I already experienced the jetlag. It’s a thirty-hour flight!” It was his first visit to India and a shock to him on many levels. Scott describes his encounter bunching together run-on sentences, swiftly rattling off the facts.
“You don’t recognize anything and it doesn’t smell like anything you know. Forget L.A. traffic! There are no traffic lights over there so you’ve got five lanes of traffic and they all go together in the middle of the street, four streets come together and they play chicken and make their way through and honk their horns the whole time and there’s bikes and dogs and cows and goats and chickens and people pushing wooden carts and motorcycles and tuk-tuks, the electric rickshaws, and the taxis, and children running to your window tapping on it begging for money, and there’s no crosswalks, pedestrians are on their own!, and then you’re looking out at these slums stacked on top of each other.”
He briefly looks out the window on this late morning onto two nearby towering sun-soaked pine trees that sway in the subtle breeze and exhales. “The Indian culture is a lot to take in…but the people are beautiful. Their faces light up and they exist in this strange third world—you can barely even say that due to the circumstances—in a relatively gentle peaceful way. With nothing. Most of them have nothing.”
Back here on American turf, some parents might be uninvolved and unevolved when it comes to talking with their children about STDs; however Scott seems to be skilled at the task. He’s had a lot of practice. “The conversations with my kids have all been different and they’ve all had different school experiences. And through the years, schools have changed too,” he observes. “I only have one girl, who’s the oldest, and we had conversations about everything, including HIV. I talked differently to the boys, where it was more about responsibility. I’d say to them, ‘Don’t ever assume it is not your responsibility. Period. End of story.’ I remember telling this to my younger brother years ago as well,” he recalls. “The talk about STDs is unavoidable, just like you cannot not have a conversation about drugs, alcohol, and texting while you’re driving. Things like that are life-changers. You can’t assume the schools are doing it, although most of the schools are doing it in different ways, at least in L.A. In some places you’re not even allowed to bring it up! You can’t talk about—God forbid—condoms.” I shake my head in disgust and Scott says, “I feel exactly the same way but…that’s a fight that we all have to keep fighting. Find a way to coerce people into allowing information out. Change takes a long time. When people are afraid of something or they don’t understand something, it takes longer.
“Just the mere fact that I have to teach my kids about dying, potentially dying, from having sex is so messed up.” He mutters a couple of words trying to begin a sentence, but is distraught and overwhelmed by emotion. “Sex is a beautiful act of loving somebody. And knowing you have to associate death with that, potential death or disease…I don’t really understand what’s going on with that. It’s the roll of the dice. There’s no way to figure it out.”
But Scott did figure out one thing early on. By stepping forward to raise AIDS awareness, his own grieving process eased. In the eighties he participated in the L.A. AIDS Walk and in the early nineties he shot an AIDS PSA. Through the years he’s been involved with such organizations as the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, TJ Martell Foundation, and Broadway Cares, for which he has a keen affection. His Broadway debut came in November 1983, playing Joe DiMaggio in Marilyn, and Scott has been affiliated with Broadway Cares since its inception in 1987.
In 1995, Scott sang in Sondheim’s one-night performance of Anyone Can Whistle at a Carnegie Hall benefit for GMHC. Angela Lansbury, Madeline Kahn, and Bernadette Peters, among others, joined him on stage.
Scott is also involved with environmental issues and is active with such grass-roots organizations as Our Little Haven and Friends of the Family. The exercise enthusiast and sportsman has run the L.A. and the San Diego Marathons, which explains his strong, slender, though solid, physique. “When I run during the week, I choose not to take a phone or listen to music. I just go out to be by myself. I put all that other stuff on hold.” He loves the beach, snowboarding, skiing, and hiking in the mountains.
When Scott is off by himself he occasionally reminisces about the dawn of AIDS and taps into a spiritual zone. “Just the other day I was thinking, I don’t know if any of us really get the opportunity very often to be around an epidemic at the beginning when nobody knows what it is. It’s like terrorism. None of us were exposed to that until all of a sudden it was in our backyard.”
He pauses, swivels in the chair then scratches the top of his head of short floppy hair.“Let me tell you the hardest conversation in the world,” Scott says deliberately. “You fall in love or you’re hugely attracted to somebody. The last thing you want to have is a conversation about sexually transmitted diseases. It’s like…the erection goes down. You know what I mean?!” He chuckles, his light avocado-hued eyes widening as his bushy eyebrows lift. “Let’s, before we fall into bed, ask each other, ‘Can we get tested?’ or ‘Can you show me your test results?’ I don’t have that issue because I’m in a relationship for a lot of years. We started clean and we remain that way because we don’t have any other partners. But we’ve had ‘The Conversation’ in our relationship.”
Scott says he’s known long-married couples where one partner has had sex outside of the relationship and brought home an STD, infecting their partner. “But man…,” he asserts, letting out a deep sigh with a soulful gust of air, “it’s hard enough to slap a condom on. I mean, really, in the heat of the moment?! First you have to have it with you!…It sucks for these kids today….”
Scott’s interrupted when his publicist peeks in to inform him of his next interview. After a few words are exchanged, the publicist closes the door. Scott ponders a moment, looks straight ahead, firm and unsmiling. “Younger people who are coming out now are heroes to me. I root, not for the famous people, but for the kids who are growing up in small towns. The bullying they have to endure….There’s so much confusion and so much upset for them.” He uncrosses his legs, his forehead creases, and he softly squints, leaning forward with Starbuck’s cup in tow. Fervently focused, he smiles gently. “The best way to educate them, and others, about prevention is to continue writing articles like this one and making movies like Behind the Candelabra. They spark dialogue.”
What kind of music do you listen to?
I listen to everything! I have the Broadway channel on in my car more often than not. I’m in my son’s car today so I listened to country music coming over. I play the piano, I love classical, I sing everything from Broadway to Opera, and I love jazz. I grew up in the Sixties so I’m a rock and roll guy at heart.
Are you more spiritual or more religious?
What do you believe happens after we die?
I don’t think we die. Our physical bodies die, we don’t.
What ticks you off?
Texting and driving! Especially while going 70 mph on the freeway. That disturbs me.
Complete this sentence: It’s going to be a great day when . . .
[He chuckles.] . . . our Congress can work together.
How much are you like your character, Terry Elliott, in Men of a Certain Age?
The show was great . . . [He beams a bursting smile recalling memories.] I’m not that guy at all, but I certainly know people like him; guys who never want to grow up. In a funny way, I wished sometimes when I was younger that I could have been more like Terry. But it was not part of who I was. My whole life has always been kind of filled with relationships. Very seldom have I even flirted with the idea of more than one at a time. There have been a couple of times when it wasn’t that way . . .” he giggles, “and it was uncomfortable.”
What’s your favorite film of all time?
[He mulls over the question.] I love American Beauty and it’s not just because I was in it. The script came to me and I wanted to be a part of this movie. I would have carried water on that set! This movie has paved the way for so many shows. You wouldn’t have had Desperate Housewives and all those other reality shows. (He thinks.) I love To Kill a Mockingbird. I love all Alfred Hitchcock films. I love old movies a lot. One of the first movies I ever saw was How the West Was Won; then, 2001: A Space Odyssey; then, Goldfinger.
If you could star in any movie in history, which film would it be?
Any Gary Grant movie! But it would probably be North by Northwest.
Of the many people you have met, are there any in particular who stand out?
The first Broadway show I saw was Shenandoah with John Cullum. He won the Tony Award for his performance. Later he did Quantum Leap and we became good friends. I did the national tour of Shenandoah with Ed Ames; then he was replaced by John Raitt.
So early on, before I was the “star of the show,” I met these older actors and learned a lot from them. I learned how to be, how to behave, how to take care of myself, how to be disciplined, and what’s important. Then there was Leslie Nielsen. He loved his whoopee cushion; how funny he was! I had these collective experiences and they were woven into the fabric of who I am. I’m lucky to have worked with these role models. Being in the theater was a great educator.
Scott gives a pithy reaction to the actors he has known
Jon Cryer: Whacky inspiration.
Felicity Huffman: Fake best friend.
Steven Soderbergh: Genius.
Shirley MaClaine: Original.
Matt Damon: Too much fun, too much talent.
Christopher Plummer: Hysterical.
Geena Davis: [He laughs.] I can’t say that. [He looks off searching for the right word, all the while sporting an ear-to-ear grin.] Present.
Ray Romano: Pro golfer.
Andre Braugher: Presence.
Kevin Spacey: Generous.
Annette Bening: Dedication.
Candace Bergen: Loving.
Michael Douglas: Transformational.
Andy Griffith: Multi-faceted.
One word to describe himself: [After a long stretch of laughter, he answers] Questioning.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U. He interviewed Gloria Gaynor for the April cover story.