Ruby’s Rap by Ruby Comer
I miss Karen Carpenter. Every time I hear her angelic voice on a recording it soothes and stimulates my whole being. The other night I watched The Karen Carpenter Story, with Cynthia Gibb and Mitchell Anderson, as my fireplace was roarin’ and my legs were propped up on my hot-magenta lounger couch. The two lead actors captured every single nuance of their characters. What stellar performances!
Afterward, I began to wonder about Mitchell, who played Richard Carpenter. I remember watching him in the eighties and nineties on TV series like Doogie Howser, M.D., and Party of Five. He also made guest appearances on 21 Jump Street, Highway to Heaven, Melrose Place, Matlock, and even the Jaws sequel, Jaws: The Revenge, where the shark ate him. So what happened to this cutie-pie?
The next day, I fasten on my Hollywood antennae and discover that he’s living in Atlanta with his longtime partner, Richie Arpino. They own a restaurant. Mitchell ended his two-decade rein in Hollywood in 2002 after appearing on the wildly popular Popular and Showtime’s Beggars and Choosers. His talent is now culinary and his stage is the restaurant.
During our initial phone chat, I tell Mitchell that I want to do a story on him. The lad’s modest reaction is, “Ever since I changed careers, I sometimes forget I had a former life!” Several weeks later, I’m parked across the intimate square blond-wood table from him in his mid-town restaurant, MetroFresh—a hi-tech, airy place decorated in lightwood and eggshell colored brick paneled walls, multi-contrasted stained wood floors, and splashed with neon lime and emerald chairs.
Ruby Comer: Oh! Before I forget and before I take a nibble of this marinated kale salad (with roasted brussel sprouts, pears, and walnuts), lemme ask you something. You grew up in Lucille Ball’s hometown of Jamestown, New York; are you a Lucy fanatic like me?!
Mitchell Anderson: I love Lucille Ball…you kinda have to, coming from Jamestown! [He flashes a full grin.]
What do you think about when you think about the AIDS epidemic?
[He rattles off, with many sighs in between] Life…death…fear…change…activism…care-giving…love…hate…hope…despair.
When did you first hear about the disease?
I had just moved to New York after graduating from Williams College in 1983. I was in a show that summer before my first semester at Julliard and was aware of this new horrible disease, but not many people were talking about it. At that time, I was completely in the closet and barely wanted to travel below 42nd Street. I was afraid of everything and AIDS was foremost in my mind.
How has the epidemic affected you?
Oddly, it both kept me in the closet and pushed me out. At first I was afraid, but then, after moving to L.A. in 1985 and having friends start to die, I came to see that we just couldn’t be in the closet any longer. I learned to be more comfortable with myself and learned that only by coming out—at least to friends and family—were we able to defend ourselves against the great scourge of bigotry that was coming our way. [He takes a spoonful of “Mitchili,” turkey chili soup he named after himself.] My first best friend in Los Angeles was the actor Timothy Patrick Murphy (who played Mickey Trotter in Dallas). Tim was the first person I knew who got sick and died. After that, about five or six of my friends from the New York days got sick and died. It was devastating, Ruby, time after time.
So sorry to hear, Mitchell. Were you ever in an AIDS-themed production?
I was in the L.A. premier of Love! Valour! Compassion! by Terrence McNally, which was an amazing experience. I also did a staged reading of The Normal Heart in Atlanta to raise money for Emory Vaccine Center and the AIDS Quilt.
Tell me about your AIDS fundraising.
I started working as a volunteer on the Los Angeles AIDS Walk in about 1988 and kept on as a key volunteer for many years. I participated in the San Francisco and Chicago Walks as well. It gave me a purpose and introduced me to many kind and loving people.
Years later, after I worked on the 1992 Barbara Boxer and Clinton campaigns, I found a greater purpose than just booking the next acting job. Then, after I publicly came out in 1996, I went all over the country working for various organizations and political campaigns that were furthering the cause of equality, medical awareness, and liberal ideals.
“You’ve got spunk, boy!,” as Mr. Grant would say to Mary on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I like your enthusiasm and your humanity….
[He nods in appreciation.] This became my life, Ruby, and looking back…I believe the path I took was perfect. I was able to relate my story about being a closeted actor in the eighties and early nineties to speaking out and finding my voice as a man. Even my parents, who were slow to come around to having a gay son, saw my work as an activist as a means of teaching tolerance and acceptance in the world. My father [one of his heroes] said to me before I went to a huge gay Democratic convention in 1996 in Chicago, “Go out there and be a leader.” To have my father understand that my life had, at that time, a great purpose, was incredible.
Touching. What keeps you volunteering?
Volunteering and being involved in the community really comes from my parents, who, even though they vote on the other side of the aisle from me, taught me that the most important thing is community. If you have the ability, you have to give back. I stood on street corners as a young child collecting money for the local hospital. That was how it started. It’s really the only thing that matters in life—how you relate to those around you, how you find your place in the community, and how you give.
Thank you Mom and Dad Anderson, and thank you for your contributions. How long have you and Richie been together? Do you guys get tested for HIV?
We’ve been together for nearly seventeen years. We’re completely monogamous so our perspective about testing has changed. Now that we’re well into our fifties, we are much less “active” so we have much less to worry about.
Understood! Briefly, tell me about your overall experience filming The Karen Carpenter Story.
I have many great memories. This was my first major lead in a big movie. It put me on the map as an actor and gave me an entry into bigger roles. The next part I got was Doogie Howser.
What was it like working on that set?
I loved it, but at that point in my life I was too freaked out to let anyone find out I was gay. I was playing a real skirt chaser and it was hard for me to feel comfortable on the set. Still, it was all part of the process of just growing up.
So fascinating that you and your co-star on Doogie Howser, Neil Patrick Harris, are both gay….
I don’t keep in touch with Neil anymore, but I’m so impressed by his career and life. He has really made an incredible life for himself in the crazy world of show business. I watched him host the Emmy’s last year. How cool is that? If I ever do run into him again, I’m sure it will be great.
Were you a fan of the Carpenters’ music?
I was! But back then when I was in junior high and high school, you weren’t really allowed to favor them. We were supposed to listen to America, Supertramp, and Queen! But I secretly loved Karen’s voice. “Rainy Days and Mondays” was my secret favorite song.
Me too! It was so “white bread” and you were unpopular with your peers if you liked them—and The Osmonds, too. Now I’m proud that I did. I love “Rainy Days and Mondays,” Mitchell! I know Richard Carpenter had a firm hand in the making of the film. What was your impression of him?
Richard was nice, but somewhat distant. I think the filming of the story was hard on him and his family, but he was the executive producer so he could have the last word. Cindy [Cynthia Gibb] and I wore their [personal] clothes—right out of the warehouse. I remember one olive green leisure suit; I looked like the Jolly Green Giant with a giant “package.”
Um…I want more backstories! Were any of the scenes shot in the real Carpenter’s Downey home? I went there in the early nineties just to see it in person.
Yes—we shot for a few days at their house. I remember the shot of the ambulance pulling away [with Karen’s dead body] from the driveway just as Richard pulls up [not knowing his sister had just died]. That still gives me chills….
Oh, me too, Mitchell. In 2012, you performed on stage in Next Fall at Actor’s Express in Atlanta. Do you plan to act again?
I’m sure I’ll act again, but I don’t know when. It has to be right and I have to feel like I’m not taking too much time away from my personal and business life. It’s a great feeling not to need it anymore. Next Fall was probably one of the highlights of my acting life, since I didn’t need anything from it and I could just enjoy the process of rehearsal and the joy of performing.
Oh, those days of trying to break into show biz, I know. It’s the ultimate stressor. Wanting someone to like you….Oy! [I take a nip of green tea and look at him.] I’m thrilled to be here with you, Mitchell. Do you have any final words?
I believe that my life has come full circle. There was an important time that I was out front. Now I live the quiet activism of everyday life with an openness and honesty that comes with age and confidence. I write a blog every day and include my partner, my family, and my life in the stories of the restaurant. My audience is a bit smaller, but I still believe that we make a difference just by living our lives with grace, honesty, and the confidence that we’re just as deserving of happiness as everyone else. My customers are part of the journey—wherever that takes us.
[For a pensive moment he places his elbow on the table and rests his chin on his hand. Mitchell’s brownish-green eyes look into the distance, sparkling.] Today, I work seventy to ninety hours a week in our restaurant so time is short, but I use the restaurant as a conduit to my service work. We raise money for the high school across the street and we stay connected to the little non-profits that ask for help. Whenever we can, we do.
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]