Full disclosure: the Broadway, television and film actor Lou Liberatore is a dear friend of mine. We initially met following each other on Twitter and many DMs later, decided to meet up for brunch on one of my trips to New York City. We hit it off and became good friends. I rarely make a trip to the city now without getting together with Lou to share a meal and catch up.
While it always amazes me how many roles I have seen him play on TV, and how often he pops up when I least expect him in a favorite series, Lou’s real home will always be Broadway, and though I haven’t had the chance to see him live on stage yet, I look forward to doing so when New York theater resumes after its recent closure due to COVID 19. This past June, I did have the incredible chance to see him star in an online production/reading of Mart Crowley’s sequel to his groundbreaking play, and subsequent film, Boys in the Band entitled Men from the Boys, airing live on the Playbill website as part of the 2020 Pride Plays festival in a Zoom format. Benefiting the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS organization, it is directed by Zachary Quinto and stars Denis O’Hara, Rick Elice, Mario Cantone, Joseph James O’Neil, Kevyn Marrow, Carson McCaley, Charlie Carver, Telly Leung, and Lou. Without the props, set, costumes, blocking and normal interaction between actors and without the artifice of a stage production, it’s up to this cast of legendary talents to engage and enthrall their online audience. They did not disappoint!
The play takes place thirty-five years after that legendary birthday party and the friends gather once more for a funeral. My first thought, when I heard of it was, of course, who will play the often acerbic and always cuttingly funny Harold? I was not at all disappointed to learn it would be Lou. Who better to pull off such a star turn among such a legendary cast? As in Boys in the Band, Harold makes a late and memorable entrance and, although the format would limit less talented actors, Lou pulls it off with aplomb and demands attention every moment thereafter. He gives us Harold’s legendary and cutting one-liners but tempers them with a humanity sometimes lacking in the film version. And that’s what Lou does, he takes any role, big or small, and makes it his own. He’s a character actor in the best sense of the term. As he expresses to me often in our interview, he enjoys giving a role everything he’s got, he’s not afraid to admit that he’s at his best supporting other actors.
As I’d known already, Lou is a storyteller, all actors are. We talked about doing an interview for the magazine for a few years, but never got around to it. I sensed a reluctance on his part and didn’t want to push, but early this year I asked again and he agreed. I interviewed him twice, first on March 19 when the coronavirus was first hitting, in New York City particularly hard. With photography for this story delayed until late this summer, I called Lou again for an update and I’ll touch more on that later in this piece.
With New York theater shutting down and the lights of Broadway dark, many were out of work. Lou wasn’t too worried at the time, he had been in between jobs anyway. Things didn’t change much for him, but all future projects were on hold indefinitely. As a New Yorker, he was concerned however saying, ‘“Who knows how long this thing’s going to last. That’s the frightening part, it could be endless.” He had lost his mother a year ago this September, but in a way was thankful she hadn’t been affected. She had been in rehab for a bad fall, and it would have been frightening with her at such risk and being unable to see her family. Lou lives with his partner in Chelsea and has a boyfriend who lives on the Upper East Side. When I ask him if they’re polyamorous he replies, “They’re not polyamorous, I am. I’m sort of a Mormon in that respect.” He tells me that the three of them were taking precautions and had just had a family meeting about the situation.
Things are definitely different for him and everyone. He says that the city is eerily quiet, like all of the major holidays rolled into one.
Our conversation turns to the similarities and differences between this pandemic and the AIDS pandemic early on. Lou’s initial thought is: “The big difference is if we had this sort of response to AIDS back then, we would have gotten a handle on it much more quickly.”
He points out that it was years before they knew what caused AIDS. With COVID, they knew straight away that it was a virus and how it was likely transmitted. Not to mention that AIDS affected an already marginalized community and it was a problem long ignored because of the communities affected and a country’s disdain. There is a parallel here, however, Lou points out that the segment of our population most at risk from COVI-19, the elderly, are too often looked at as expendable. We begin talking, complaining really, about the irresponsibility of young people still flocking to Spring Break in Florida and young gay people still celebrating the Winter Party in Miami in the midst of a pandemic.
“Look at the pair of us, John,” Lou laughs, “We’re like two old men with towels around our waists in the steam room kvetching and complaining about kids today!” We share a good laugh and I move on to ask him a bit about his childhood and background.
Lou grew up in New Jersey, the son of a stockbroker father and a mom who was a bookkeeper and homemaker. “I wish it were a terribly interesting story,” he says, as he recalls, “but it was a solidly middle to upper middle class background.”
One word that he uses again and again to describe his parents is supportive. They supported their children and their dreams, whatever they might be. One thing that wasn’t up for debate, however, was getting an education and that meant college for all of them. He says of his parents that they never said no to them, a wonderful thing on one hand, but remember, Lou became an actor and if there’s one word you hear often in acting, it’s no. Lou recalls his mom taking him into the city periodically to see Broadway shows and it was seeing Joel Grey play the emcee in Cabaret that captured a young boy’s imagination and showed him his future path. Lou wrestled throughout high school and after college was active in amateur leagues even taking home a silver medal in the 2016 Gay Games, but was sidelined by a pulled hamstring. To his great disappointment, he hasn’t been able to wrestle since.
Following in the footsteps of a fellow high school wrestler he had eyes for, Lou began his undergraduate work at Boston College but soon transferred to Fordham in New York, whose theater program was affiliated with Lincoln Center. After college he was an intern with the legendary Circle Repertory Company where he would remain until it disbanded in 1996. He made his stage debut with that company in 1982 in their production of Richard ll but as he puts it, “I only carried Richard’s dead body on and off stage, and one night I managed to drop the actor playing Richard who was quite heavy.” He made his Broadway debut in the company’s production of As Is, followed by Burn This, the latter of which earning him both Drama Desk and Tony nominations.
From our talk so far, it is obvious that, with his role in Burn This, he finally felt that he had made it as an actor. It opened in 1987 at the Mark Taper Forum and went on to several major cities to fulfill its obligation to Circle Repertory subscribers before playing on Broadway where it ran for a year. In 1990 there was an offer to take it to London with its original cast but cast member Joan Allen wasn’t interested. “Totally understandable,” recalls Lou “Her career was taking off and it’s not a great role for a woman.” The producers decided to go ahead with just John Malkovich who was a big star and had international name recognition. He said okay, but only if they brought Lou over as well. Lou says of John, “He has the biggest heart, I really adore him.”
Lou tells me of an epiphany he had during the run. He was in his London apartment, sitting down to dinner, when he burst into tears. “I broke down crying out of happiness because I realized I had worked, gotten paid, shopped for chicken, cooked the chicken and fed myself. Everything I was doing, I was taking care of myself and it was due to doing something that I loved.” He tells me that it wasn’t something that he hadn’t done previously, but it was in that moment that it really hit him. He was thankful and happy.
I’m eager to hear Lou’s thoughts on the AIDS pandemic and how it shaped his early years. He shares a story with me that goes back to his senior year in college at Fordham, before he graduatated in 1981 and joined Circle Rep. He had a friend and lover named Bob who lived on Christopher Street. One weekend, Lou drove his father’s car into the city to Bob’s place for a night out at the legendary gay club, The Flamingo. They shared a meal at Bob’s and Lou was ready to get on with the festivities when Bob told him that it was actually time for a disco nap. Unfamiliar with the gay circuit, Lou acquiesced and they rose in the early morning around 2 to drive to the club through a snowstorm. The theme that night was tattooed cowboys, Lou recalls, and he donned a t-shirt picturing Mickey Mouse wearing spurs and a cowboy hat. When they got there and went upstairs Lou was blown away by the music, the men, and the bodies on those men. It was his first experience with party drugs and the kind of party where they’re taken. After they returned to Bob’s, he offered Lou a quaalude, but Lou had rehearsal in a few hours. He went to rehearsal and afterwards his director told him it was his best yet. He then returned to Jersey, ate a large meal, then slept for days. A few years later, while working in a clothing store, Lou saw Bob passing by out the window. He went out to say hello, but was alarmed at how sick Bob looked. He went to hug him, but he jumped back. “The doctors don’t know what I have,” Bob said. Lou embraced him anyway.
It wouldn’t be long before Lou himself would be diagnosed. It didn’t slow him down one bit. He went on with his life and career despite brushes with opportunistic infections. I like to think that it was partly good health and luck, but even more so, when he talks about it you can see that he fought, as so many did. He was able to live his life fully and well until antivirals came to the fore in ’96. This interview is the first time Lou has discussed his diagnosis publicly, but I hesitate in talking about it too much. Because it’s not what defines Lou. What defines him is a career he loves, his family and friends and his personal relationships. Despite his diagnosis at such an early time in the crisis, Lou has built a solid career in the theater, on television, and in film. He is the epitome of what a long-term survivor is, with a little luck and a lot of heart.
Lou and I caught up again for a follow up interview on June 30. With the COVID crisis in New York City, the photography for this story had to be put on hold and I thought it would be a great idea to find out what was happening for him now that things were slowly opening up again. It’s still slow going as far as any of his theater projects are concerned, “I’ve lost two gigs,” says Lou, “or as I prefer to say, they’ve been postponed.” He would have been in rehearsal for a play with the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires right now, but that’s been put off until next summer.
He’s been keeping busy, though, with readings and events online and says, “I don’t know how comfortable I’d be walking into a theater or rehearsal space until there’s a vaccine anyway.”
I had just watched Men from the Boys online a few days previously and our conversation turns to that and how different it and the recent Broadway revival of Boys in the Band are in tone from the original play and film. The characters are more forgiving of themselves and each other and gone is a lot of the self-loathing of the original piece. We also talk briefly of the recent passing of Larry Kramer and while he never worked on any of his pieces, Lou recalls meeting Larry in the early eighties in the steam room at the YMCA. He says of Larry that while he may have been a polarizing figure at times, “[w]e’ve all benefitted from his righteous anger; he’s a modern-day hero.”
Lou’s résumé is a long and distinguished one. What’s important to him, however, is not fame or celebrity. That was never important to him. What’s important to Lou is the work of acting itself. He’s spent years honing his craft and admittedly, is much more comfortable as a supporting player than anything else. He’s also a character actor of the first order who inhabits any role he takes on fully, be it large or small. Lou is a survivor both in a field where careers can be short and in life surviving an illness that was often a certain death sentence at the time of his diagnosis. Actors come and go, thriving one day and gone the next, but Lou Liberatore has built a career on longevity doing something that he truly loves.
John Francis Leonard writes the column Bright Lights, Small City for A&U.