Born to Be Bad
Long-Time activist Michael Kearns endures and thankfully won’t give up
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Annie Tritt
Michael Kearns is always ready for his closeup. “If you say you’re going to take my picture, I’ll be there!” he quips. “Just give me twenty-five minutes to phoof my hair.” A fierce famemonger, in the same spirit as Oscar Wilde, he echoes the literary icon’s phrase, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.” This multi-career man (actor, director, playwright, writer, producer, teacher) has never had that problem.
Michael came to prominence in the mid-seventies when he posed as memoirist Grant Tracy Saxon for the book The Happy Hustler, which included a completely nude centerfold. During this reporter’s college days, it was the talk of the campus; however, he was neither the writer nor the hustler. (Though later, Michael did mirror the book and became a working hustler and porn star, indulging in drinks and drugs which led him down a dark, narrow alley). This was decades before Oprah exposed James Frey and his faux book, A Million Little Pieces. But being ahead of his time is nothing new. Michael’s checkered CV also contains other “firsts:” first actor to come out, and the first actor to go public with being HIV-positive, which he announced in 1991 on TV’s Entertainment Tonight. In 1995, this single HIV-positive man adopted an African-American child, Katharine. That may also be a first.
As an actor he’s appeared on such hit shows as Cheers, Murder She Wrote, General Hospital, Knot’s Landing, Beverly Hills 90210, and The Waltons (YouTube it as there’s a touching scene between Michael and Richard Thomas). In films, to name a few, he appeared in Brian DePalma’s Body Double, Kentucky Fried Movie, River Made to Drown In, and HBO’s And the Band Played On (playing Cleve Jones). He also performed on Broadway in Tubstrip. As a writer he’s published six books; his latest title is The Truth is Bad Enough: What Became of The Happy Hustler?—a juicy full-on no-holds-barred tell-all.
Though he calls himself notorious, what you may not know about Michael Kearns is that he’s been in the trenches of the AIDS war from the beginning of the onslaught. In the mid-eighties he formed Artists Confronting AIDS, a group that produced AIDS-themed plays and he co-founded S.T.A.G.E. (Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event), an annual Los Angeles fundraiser that is the longest running AIDS benefit in the country. His advocacy is intensely integrated into his projects, having performed solo theater pieces such as Intimacies and the follow-up, More Intimacies, portraying many ethnic characters with HIV/AIDS. Michael’s groundbreaking impact on the arts garnered him numerous awards over the years, as well as grants, for his performances and humanitarian accomplishments.
Today, though he’s older, he’s hardly mellowed. There’s still a glint of the bad boy and that mischievous, incorrigible force of courage and strength. Clad in baggy jeans, an open striped grey and white dress shirt that renders a loose-fitting red T-shirt, the tall lad has a serious thick head of stunning hair, now streaked grey, and his looks are still alluring, though somewhat weathered and a speck scruffy. Throughout our afternoon together he’s playful, direct, animated, enthusiastic, effusive, entertaining, engaging…and definitively endearing. Yes, the man has more energy than Richard Simmons.
In his new tome, The Truth is Bad Enough, he writes an excruciating passage about losing his partner, Eric, in 1997, who is dying from AIDS. “…I kissed his forehead and then his eyes, gently and softly. Without realizing what was happening, I felt my tongue inside his mouth and his tongue was inside mine and we were kissing, as the saying goes, like there was no tomorrow. It was one of the most erotically charged kisses I’d ever experienced—driven and hot, all at once calming and utterly unsettling. He could barely breathe or speak or move his head, but jeez, could he kiss. On his deathbed. Our last kiss.”
Eric is but one of countless deaths that Michael has endured through the years. The losses still haunt him. “I think it increases with time. I miss the people more this year than I did last year!,” he laments with an upbeat quality from his apartment in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, overlooking the Hollywood Hills. His cheerfully colorful, modest pad is a mix-mash orgy of tchotchkes and antiques. “The longer I’m around the more I look at those lives that were truncated. I’m sixty-three and so many of my friends didn’t live to be forty! When I was forty-three that didn’t seem sooo horrible and I thought I would be dead about this age or so.” His deadpan tone is offset by an articulate charisma. “Now that I’m older and have done so many things that my friends never experienced, like having a child, taking trips abroad, achieving dreams….” He shakes his head. “To be taken away so early without any warning. My depression is partly due to survivor’s guilt.”
Having been HIV-positive for over twenty years, Michael feels fortunate in comparison to others, since he’s only suffered with depression and severe peripheral neuropathy in his feet. He ascribes these conditions somewhat to the meds. “I just can’t believe that these so-called ‘miracle’ medications don’t eventually have some kind of long-term effects,” he contends. “There must be things we don’t know yet, as there were things we didn’t know about protease inhibitors either. My neuropathy could take another eight or ten years to progress to a point where I need a cane, but that might never happen. If it does, it’s a Big Deal because that requires pain medication and that results in other side effects.” He rationalizes that his depression could be, in part, genetic, as both his parents suffered from the condition. “Those are my two things,” he remarks with a flippant wave of a hand, “and, at times, can be pretty tough to fight.”
Through all his combat though, he’s survived with energy and feistiness intact. His longevity, he says, is due to helping others, being vocal about HIV, and having adopted Katharine. She has brought joy to the proud father and she’s unquestionably played an important role in his health.Now eighteen and attending Idyllwild Arts Academy, she’s a filmmaker whose documentary about gay parents adopting children recently aired on PBS. It bothers Michael, though, to count her as one of the reasons for his prolonged existence. “Now…I don’t want to put that on her. It’s not her responsibility to keep me alive. So I try to avoid that reason.” He quickly scans his living room, focusing in on his snowy white cat, Sir Ian (named after his friend Ian McKellen), who nestles next to him. “Maybe I’m still around because of my cat, or the neighborhood I live in, or the paintings I’ve collected.” He points to the original portrait paintings hanging on the wall just above me. “I think all those things are a part of the reason I’m still here.”
Another element of his survival is his eternal outspokenness about HIV. He heard years ago that if you were out about your status you would live longer. Even mental health professionals agree that secrets destroy one’s life. “Well, there’s probably some truth to that,” he confirms, sliding one leg under his thigh which gives him a lift and straightens his spine. “Get involved, be of service to others, and don’t hide.” I mention Larry Kramer as a role model and Michael instantly shouts out with enormous passion, “Larry Kramer! God love him! He’d be the prime example of somebody in terms of longevity based on anger.” Michael laughs, nods, and adds, “Righteous anger and not holding anything back.”
“But I’ll tell you, helping other people, for me, has been the most valuable,” he expresses with compassionate sincerity. “I’ll give an example. The other day I took a friend to County [Hospital] because he doesn’t have any money at the moment. He’s got some skin issues going on, which may or may not be HIV-related. But going to County is a six-hour—at least—process,” he moans, hunching down, leaning into the top of the L-shaped sofa propped up by his elbow. “Some people need others to handle things like this, because it’s not fun and one can easily start awful-izing and catastroph-izing.” His remark hangs in the air. He looks at me with friendly intensity, “Helping others has saved my life as much as the medication.”
Michael’s altruistic nature was rocked when he first heard about the epidemic at Conrad’s Coffee shop in Glendale, California, in 1982. A friend from Michael’s hometown of Chicago was visiting and they were having lunch. His friend said, “You know, I’ve heard of a bunch of guys getting sick and it seems like it’s a serious kind of a cancer. A lot of them are into hardcore sex.” He takes a gulp of Diet Coke. “We started almost immediately separating ourselves: ‘Well, it’s the guys who do poppers, it’s the guys into S&M, it’s the bottoms.’ We tried to believe, ‘It’s-not-going-to-be-me.’”
One of his first, of many, encounters with AIDS came when he called upon a sick friend who lived not far from where Michael resides now. “He lived on Hyperion, I remember, and he was walking around his bed—I believe he was in the Gay Men’s Chorus—and he was…sweating profusely. I never saw anything like it in my life! I don’t think he was forty years-old,” groans Michael, clenching his fists. “And he was repeating over and over, ‘What am I going to do? What am I going to do?’ He knew what was going on.” Snapping his fingers, Michael broods, “That was one of the first memories I have of feeling like, ‘What am I going to do?’
Despite his fears, Michael took action, like James Bond setting out on a new mission gunning his Aston Martin. He established organizations, looked after others, and jolted the arts world with prolific HIV/AIDS-related material. “I feel like I went to college studying how to care for people and learning how to deal with these issues of illness and death,” declares the former Goodman School of Drama graduate. “I feel that it’s some kind of blessing that came with all the horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible years of panic, of fear, of sadness, and of grief…” His voice wobbles and he stops momentarily. Michael continues, “It was just sheer horror.” He repositions himself. “Look, you have two choices [when you are diagnosed]. You either allow it to paralyze you or you do something, and I’ve always been sort of an action-kind-of-guy. Sometimes not for all the right reasons….” He lets out a flutter of cackles sounding like the flamboyant comic Rip Taylor then counters, “But I’ve always taken action!”
Michael is a proactive parent as well. When Katharine was twelve, he expanded her awareness by taking her to Johannesburg, South Africa, to volunteer for a month at Cotlands, an orphanage where most of the kids are either HIV-positive or have lost their parents to AIDS. He writes about their experiences in The Truth is Bad Enough, “One little girl was attached to an oxygen machine; another wore a hearing aid; yet another had virtually no control of her legs and could not walk….The object of my affection was Karabo. Karabo was less than two feet in length and had virtually no muscle tissue. Holding her in my arms was like holding a puppet made of wooden sticks; her flimsy arms and legs hung limp. Although she had a ravenous appetite, she weighed no more than my shoe. Karabo was about to turn three years-old.”
Beside all the hardcore in-your-face devastation, what captivated him the most about the trip was Katharine’s relationship with the kids. “It preceded anything I could have expected,” he shares, his steel grey-blue eyes moisten. “She’s broken all stereotypes. This is a child whose mother left her at the hospital, was born addicted to crack cocaine, and weighed less than two pounds so she was put in an incubator.
Written on the body: Michael shows off one of his tattoos. Photo courtesy M. KearnsThen they put her into foster care and at five months I got her.”
Naturally, Michael has well-documented Katharine’s adoption in his new memoir. Is there anything presently on the wordsmith’s worktable dealing with the epidemic? He answers at once, “Of course!” He thinks, briefly glancing away. “It’s so painful…I guess I haven’t worked it out yet. That’s the truth. HIV is always going to be part of the story.” His new project is centered on guns. The story is about a white male character with HIV who lost his lover to suicide just before the cocktails arrived. He then adopts a black kid, not knowing fully about his South Central Los Angeles roots. Father and son have a close relationship though the kid has bouts of eruptive anger. One day the kid goes into…well, never mind. I’ll stop here and not reveal the spellbinding plot so as to not invite piracy.” As with the character’s adoption, Michael notes he likes weaving a bit of himself into each story. For World AIDS Day this year, he’ll be performing his nightclub act, titled Look Who’s Here, accompanied by maestro Wayne Moore. It will be produced, in part, by Broadway Cares.
“Certainly AIDS matured me if anything did. It gave me a sense of purpose,” he offers. “I think the sad thing is that we do think it’s over and no longer sexy and a lot of people don’t want to deal with it. I think there’s a lot more risk taking now, too. And these young kids who think, ‘Well, I’ll just take medication and everything will be dandy. Weeeellll…they don’t know what that medication is ultimately gonna do when they become forty or fifty.” He pauses. “If I tried to put myself into the shoes of one of those kids, I know that I wouldn’t necessarily be listening either. You know, it’s the recklessness of youth. But I don’t want them to have to go through what we’ve gone through to learn the lesson and then have another whole wave of people suffering.”
This man bears no regrets for his spicy past because his life journey has brought a depth of clarity to his rebel spirit. Michael takes a deep breath and concludes, “I think HIV/AIDS is the most important thing that happened to me and it certainly formed me—and I don’t just mean my diagnosis. I mean, in many ways, the whole AIDS epidemic is who I am.”
Kernels of Kearns
Michael plays favorites.
What’s your favorite film of all time?
Some Like It Hot.
What’s your favorite television show while growing up?
I loved all those variety shows like Red Skelton, Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett, The Hollywood Palace, and so on.
Where’s your favorite place to disappear to?
New York. I’m nuts about New York!
Who’s your favorite hero in the AIDS epidemic?
Ian McKellen. He is not HIV-positive, certainly, but is one of my huge heroes because he devoted himself to the AIDS crisis way before it was chic. He was raising money in England in the early to mid-eighties as an openly gay actor who had a mainstream career. He really put himself on the line, I think. Even now he’s always there to commandeer events. He has not used it to his benefit as a lot of stars have and then have forgotten about it. He’s an advocate and an activist.
Who’s your favorite person that inspired and influenced you the most?
Greg Louganis. He has a sort of serenity, genuineness, and a sweetness that is pretty amazing when you consider what he went through. He’s gorgeous inside and out.
As you sail into your sixties, what’s your favorite “words of wisdom” on aging?
Just own it! [He then adds] There’s nothing wrong with a little plastic surgery if one wants to do that. That’s totally cool. But, I think, sexiness and attractiveness, whether you’re sixty-five or twenty-five, is being comfortable with yourself.
What’s your favorite physical asset above the waist?
What’s your favorite physical asset below the waist?
You know…. [He bursts with delight]
Who would be your favorite encounter?
Matt Bomer—I’m fascinated by him. He’s a leading man who’s the Rock Hudson among us who are not in the closet.
What theory do you favor about the hereafter?
Wow. (He ponders.) I believe we continue to live through other people and maybe even their things, like someone’s desk. How could my energy die? There’s so much of it! [He tee-hees.]
Michael provides a one-word reaction when asked about these people who’ve intersected with his life.
Tim Miller: Rebel.
Paul Lynde: Hateful.
Richard Thomas: Sweet.
Randy Shilts: Brilliant.
Roddy McDowall: Okay.
Charles Nelson Reilly: Conflicted.
Dennis Christopher: Angel.
Margaret Cho: Hilarious.
Angela Lansbury: Businesslike.
John Rechy: Hero.
Rhea Perlman: Troubled.
Will Geer: Lecherous.
Lily Tomlin: Genius.
Joan Collins: Fabulous!
Shelley Long: Nuts.
Jason Priestly: Sweet.
Sal Mineo: The best.
When asked to give one-word to depict himself, after a long hesitation, Michael retorts, “Compassionate.”
Even more of Michael is exposed in an episode of In Bed with Dann & Kelly at www.DANNandKELLY.com.
For more about the photography of Annie Tritt, log on to: www.annietritt.com.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.