NEW YORK — If the life story of Rock Hudson were to ever make it onto the big screen, Cheyenne Jackson would have to be a leading candidate to play the matinee idol.
Not only does the 6-foot-4, 220-pound actor resemble the man who defined "tall, dark and handsome" for decades, Jackson has parlayed a retro charm into a career that has now reached a new peak.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, November 13, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Cheyenne Jackson: An index item in Thursday's Calendar referring to an article about actor Cheyenne Jackson called him Cheyenne Williams.
He's hit the trifecta with a starring role in the Broadway hit revival of "Finian's Rainbow," the release of "The Power of Two," an acclaimed new CD with standards maestro Michael Feinstein, and a multi-episode story line on "30 Rock."
But the idea of a Hudson biopic appeals to him.
"I'd love to play Rock Hudson," says Jackson, waiting to be called to the "30 Rock" set at the Silver Cup Studios in Queens. "I find fascinating this idea of having to create a totally different persona than who you are. He obviously made the best choices he could at the time but I find his life heartbreaking."
Four decades later, Jackson, who unapologetically describes himself as "strong, gay, loud and sensitive," faces few of the constraints that forced the closeted Hudson to play out a public charade. But the actor is somewhat envious of the inscrutability that may be lost in the process.
"I know people like mystery and I try, I really do," Jackson says. "At the start of rehearsals, I'll look at someone sitting in the corner, dark, brooding and mysterious. And I'll say to myself, 'This time out, I'm going to be like him.' But by lunchtime, I'm 'La, la, la, la, la!' " and along with those falsetto notes, Jackson does a high kick that would do a Rockette proud.
Mystery, however, surrounds his most recent project: Jackson is under a ban of silence about the character he plays on "30 Rock," though the fact that he's dressed in flannel shirt and jeans, looking like the Brawny paper-towel hunk, provides a hint. He will only confirm that he plays a Times Square street performer (a robot) who is invited onto the fictional sketch comedy series.
A natural fit
It's not surprising that Jackson's landed among the folks of "TGS With Tracy Jordan." The subversive wit the show trades on has also been found in his two previous Broadway appearances: the Elvis doppelganger in 2005's "All Shook Up" and the dim-witted Venice artist/roller-disco entrepreneur in "Xanadu" in 2007.
Jane Krakowski, who plays Jenna Maroney on "30 Rock," brought him to the attention of the show's producers. She had costarred with Jackson in an Encores concert version of "Damn Yankees!" and a workshop production of "Xanadu."
In an e-mail, Tina Fey, the show's creator and star, wrote that she'd seen Jackson in those shows and was impressed ". . . with his timing and his warmth. Also, I like his big, old-fashioned face. He's been real fun to have around. He fits right in."
That "old-fashioned face" has been Jackson's ticket to Broadway stardom since his arrival seven years ago from Seattle.
Roles in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Aida" quickly led to his first starring role in "All Shook Up." And with a given name like Cheyenne -- it was plucked from his dad's favorite TV program -- the actor was a natural to play Woody Mahoney, the strong, honey-voiced hero in the recent revival of the 1947 whimsical fantasy "Finian's Rainbow."
Warren Carlyle, the director of "Finian," says "Cheyenne conveys a real masculine honesty. When he opens his arms and sings, you can feel that he is of the land and of the people."
Jackson is also of a family of born-again Christian evangelicals and grew up on 40 acres near a mill town on the Idaho-Washington border. "Very 'Little House on the Prairie,' " he has called it.
There was a growing disconnect between what was expected of him and how he felt inside. Jackson says that people were forever trying to recruit him to play football, "but the last thing I wanted to do was hurl myself at other people."
Instead, as "a natural hambone," he found an outlet in musicals and in the theatricality of his conservative church and its proselytizing missions to Mexico.
A crisis arose when he realized, at age 13, that the school jocks were onto something when they left a milk bottle cap with the word "homo" on his desk.
"I probably could have taken them on," Jackson says. "But I'm not a naturally aggressive person."
Instead, after graduating from high school, Jackson left behind what he saw as a pre-ordained life of "working in the sawmill, having five kids and getting drunk every night," moving first to Spokane and then Seattle "to start a life, to find others like me."
He worked as a bank teller, ad salesman, waiter and health club worker, and quickly found a life partner in Monte Lapka, a Seattle physicist. (The couple has been together for nine years.)
Coming out to his socially conservative family sparked much weeping and gnashing of teeth, but Jackson says they have "come a long way." His parents recently accompanied him on a gay cruise organized by Rosie O'Donnell. "I'm so proud of them," he says.
Making the leap