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Will Work for Health Coverage : To Qualify, HIV-Positive Actor Lee Mathis Needs to Find Roles

December 22, 1993|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Facing the loss of his Screen Actors Guild health insurance, Lee Mathis was on edge. Eight years ago, he tested positive for HIV and, despite the fact he's asymptomatic, the prospect of developing AIDS looms large.

"Anyone could be hit by a truck," Mathis says. "But with HIV, the wolf is at the door."

Against the advice of friends who feared a homophobic backlash, Mathis placed a $99 ad in Variety a few weeks ago. Without it, he knew he had little chance of earning the minimum needed to qualify for SAG medical coverage by the end of the year. Besides, a similar ad placed a month earlier had secured 73-year-old actress Blanche Rubin both a TV stint and a full SAG pension.

"Healthy HIV-positive actor needs $3,500 worth of SAG work by Dec. 31 to maintain his health insurance," read the item, which ran on Nov. 29. A headshot of Mathis--a 42-year-old Aidan Quinn look-alike--was included.

"I can pass for 'straight,' " the actor says, digging into a plate of scrambled eggs and sausage at a popular Beverly Hills breakfast spot. "I don't send out signals either way. What I do at night is no one's business. Though I was leery that the ad would tattoo me as gay and limit casting possibilities, running it without a name or a picture struck me as half-assed. This is still a business, after all, and people want to see the product."

The product, in this case, is a Pittsburgh native who appeared in three Bob Fosse productions as well as "Zorba" and "Zoot Suit" on Broadway before heading West six years ago. Since then, he's played cops and robbers on "America's Most Wanted" and "Cop Rock," landed small roles in "Bugsy" and "Barton Fink," and shot a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial. Still, the transition from dancer to actor hasn't been easy. Without free-lance bartending, he admits, ends wouldn't meet.

Things perked up, however, after the ad appeared. Tony Sepulveda, director of casting for Warner Bros. Television, called Mathis in to read for a five-page, $2,000-plus part on ABC's "Family Matters." Though the actor didn't get that role, Central Casting's Danny Nero offered him two days as an extra on ABC's "Home Improvement"--sight unseen.

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Dealt a rare embarrassment of riches, Mathis was forced to pass on that part when casting director Mary Jo Slater called him in to audition for a more lucrative role. He'll be appearing as a city jailer in the Warner Bros. courtroom drama "Murder in the First," which is shooting now.

It can be dicey casting an HIV-positive actor in a long-running series, Slater admits. But when it comes to casting guest spots, she says, she adopts the new U.S. military credo: "Don't ask, don't tell."

"Giving Mathis the job wasn't charity," she insists. "I never told the director he had a problem and he was selected solely on the basis of the audition tape. This industry, I'd like to think, is more enlightened than most since almost everyone has been touched by the disease. Looking through my address book, it's horrible. All these names crossed out."

The $500 from "Murder in the First" brought Mathis a little closer to his goal. But, frustrated and discouraged that time was running short, he placed another ad in Variety on Dec. 10. When an audition for a role as a security guard in the series "Mad About You" didn't pan out, Mathis was even despondent. His spirits were lifted, however, when a $600 part as a detective on the ABC series "Lois & Clark" presented itself.

"The ad gave me the opportunity to meet with a new actor and him the opportunity to get his foot in the door," says Ellie Kanner, a casting director at Warner Bros. Television, who, like her colleagues, had been faxed a copy by vice president of casting John Levey. "If he was capable, there was no need for a callback, I told him. The 'Lois & Clark' job was his--unless he lost it."

Hollywood, Kanner believes, has made some strides since the days when the late actor Brad Davis ("Midnight Express") chose to live a lie rather than admit that he had AIDS. Gay actors play straight roles with the full knowledge of the film community, she maintains. Revealing that one is HIV-positive need not mark the end of his or her career.

Still, as Mathis found out, the industry has a distance to travel. Five agents at Joseph, Heldfond & Rix, the agency that represents him, warned that the ad might damage him in the long run. Since it came out, he's noticed, some people approach him with pity or seem squeamish shaking his hand.

Twenty-four hundred dollars short of his goal, Mathis is still exploring possibilities. Drawing on film analogies, he puts the struggle in perspective.

"I'm inspired by 'Bugsy,' " he says. "The characters played by Annette Bening and Warren Beatty were relentless in pursuit of their goals. Like Rocky, they kept coming back in the ring.

"Though some HIV-positive people collect their life insurance early or head to Hawaii to relax, I choose to think that AIDS isn't an inevitability," he concludes. "Food tastes better these days. Life is more precious. I feel stronger without the worry and hiding and am determined to live fully. As the song in 'La Cage aux Folles' puts it, 'I Am What I Am.' "

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