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HIV-Positivist : Michael Kearns has made a stage career of his activism, and a successful life in Hollywood--saying the heck with homophobia

July 03, 1994|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar

For more than 20 years, Michael Kearns has divided his time between the highly visible world of mainstream TV and film and the less-seen arena of gay theater. It hasn't been a cakewalk.

But what Kearns is best known for is the fact that he has insisted on working without camouflaging who he is--an outspoken, openly gay and, later, openly HIV-positive actor.

He has, after all, been "out" for two decades in an entertainment industry infamous for its homophobia. And while he's found himself turned away often for reasons that he feels may be connected to his sexuality, he's also gotten a lot of work, perhaps as much as anything by virtue of what he calls his "unwillingness to take 'no' for an answer." For example, he's managed to find directors and others to cast him in such shows as "The Waltons"--as John Boy's older brother--as well as for guest appearances in "Murder, She Wrote" and "Cheers." He also had a part in the TV movie "And the Band Played On."

Yet for all the Hollywood barriers Kearns has helped to dent, he is most often hailed as one of the outspoken pioneers of the emerging genre known as AIDS theater. Especially in the past decade, as it's become clear that there--and not on the sitcoms--is where Kearns' true life's work lies.

"It's a contradiction, but to me it makes perfect sense," says Kearns of his Jekyll-and-Hyde creative life. "There's the assumption that L.A. is this nirvana for gay people, but Los Angeles is more homophobic at its core than Des Moines, because it's a factory town ruled by television and motion pictures."

As a writer, actor, director and teacher--and co-founder, with playwright James Carroll Pickett, of Artists Confronting AIDS (ACA)--Kearns has been making AIDS-related theater in L.A. for more than a decade.

He has been dubbed both "the only openly gay actor in Hollywood" and, later, the "only openly gay, openly HIV-positive actor in Hollywood," and he hasn't shied away from either label. He has appeared on network television news and talk shows, speaking out against entertainment industry homophobia and on AIDS issues.

Yet as visible as Kearns has been as an advocate for gay concerns, he has also reached many people through his performances in theaters across the country. His multi-character monologues featuring men and women whose lives have been touched by AIDS have played to gay and straight audiences alike, in both big cities and small. And the many other projects Kearns has produced, directed, written or conceived have given the theater-going public important new perspectives on the complexity of the AIDS epidemic.

Kearns will perform his newest solo, "Heart Copy," Wednesday at Highways. The following night, also at Highways, he will open "Robert's Memorial," an interactive environmental theater piece in the style of "Tony & Tina's Wedding" and "Grandma Sylvia's Funeral," where the audience is situated in the midst of the event. His play "Mijo" reopens at the Whitefire Theatre in two weeks, and Kearns is also producing several other upcoming ACA shows.

This nonstop productivity, in part, has made Kearns a role model for many gay actors. But the fact that he has managed to be successful in both the entertainment industry and the theater without compromising his identity as an HIV-positive gay man has been even more of an inspiration.

Indeed, his unwillingness to compromise has earned Kearns respect from some lofty quarters. "As a performance artist, Michael Kearns has my admiration," says Sir Ian McKellen, the acclaimed, openly gay British classical stage and film actor, who was in New York recently to perform his "A Knight Out." "And as an openly gay man working in Hollywood, he has earned a place in the history books."

Kearns, 44, was raised in St. Louis and came of age at the cultural moment--25 years ago last week--when the gay civil rights movement first came busting out of the Stonewall bar in New York's Greenwich Village.

In the summer of 1968, the then-teen-age Kearns had gone to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but he ended up doing most of his "studying" at the Stonewall bar. One year later that downtown hangout became the site of the riots now cited as the first defiant act of the modern gay movement.

Kearns went on to get training at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Then he followed his ambition--and a lover--to Los Angeles. Armed with leading-man cheekbones and the vicarious aspirations of Midwestern relatives, Kearns came to Hollywood with the hope of becoming a movie star, but found himself instead cast in Tom Eyen's "The Dirtiest Show in Town," a flamboyant revue featuring nudity that was about sexual freedom and other 1970s hot issues, such as war and pollution.

"During that show it dawned on me that I was much more comfortable on the live stage, playing gay characters," says Kearns. "That didn't stop my pursuit of the other, but the invigorating work was in small theater playing gay roles."

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