In this week's One on One, Budd Mishkin talks with stage and screen writer and actor Harvey Fierstein.
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Being with Harvey Fierstein in the Theater District at five in the afternoon is like being with the mayor.
"Why is it always girls?" says Fierstein.
Sure, we know his face from all of his work on stage and screen, but really, when you mention Harvey Fierstein, you think of the voice.
"First of all my father's voice sounded like this. It's damage of course from misusing it in my youth. But what the condition actually is is a double vocal chord,” says Fierstein.
Question is, when Fierstein’s hoarse, can you tell?
“If you knew me well you would know, but the general audience doesn't,” says Fierstein.
Fierstein has always made his voice heard — on stage and beyond.
He wrote the book and stars in his latest work, “A Catered Affair.”
After more than 25 years on Broadway, when he's on stage now, do audiences see the character or Fierstein?
"They come with a certain expectation and that is really good because they relax as soon as they see you and I've actually heard in the theater, Îoh there he is!’” says Fierstein. “They’ve been on journeys with you before and they will go on the journey with you. Now do they have an extra expectation what you are going to do? Some do, some don't. That's not something you really can address. You gotta play the character as best you can. You can't pander to that. When you do you become sort of caricature of yourself."
“A Catered Affair” is set in the Bronx in the Î50s. It’s based on a 1956 movie. Fierstein says he rewrote the bachelor uncle character as a gay character based on people he met from that era. But critics say it's a character from a later, gay rights era.
Fierstein has fought this battle before.
"When I wrote ÎTorch Song,’ [people said] ÎWhat gay people want to adopt? No gay person would want to adopt. This is absolutely ridiculous. What gay person would want to get married? No gay person would want to get married,’” said Fierstein. “So when you get that kind of backlash and reaction, though I know it's true, you can't fight back. You have to say you are doing this Îcause you are an artist."
Fierstein has long fought for actors who are gay to play gay characters.
But he's faced resistance, and as he learned in producing the movie of “Torch Song Trilogy,” sometimes from the gay community itself.
“There I was battling to hire them and could not really manage to get very many and even the ones I got, I couldn't say, Îand I got a gay person playing this role,’ because they were still in the closet,” says Fierstein. “That was really disappointing."
Fierstein likened the battle for gay rights to a war and said living with prejudice makes him see the world differently in ways people who are not gay cannot understand.
“It doesn't even occur to you when you read New York Times that they’re speaking a language I don't speak,” says Fierstein. “When I read the New York Times, I’m translating it into my head because they’re not talking about me, they’re talking about other people because the assumption in the New York Times is that everyone reading it — and we’re talking about today’s New York Times — is a white male heterosexual and the rest of us have to translate the New York Times into another language."
Fierstein says growing up in Brooklyn, he had a beautiful soprano voice. He was initially a painting student, but found his way into acting, auditioning as Juliet at La Mama for Andy Warhol's only play.
He got the part as an asthmatic lesbian maid. The dress he bought for his first role in drag indirectly connected him to the New York Jets.
"I guess there was some big party or something and they all had to be in drag and they made them these Can Can costumes and I actually bought Joe Namath's dress. I owned Joe Namath’s dress,” says Fierstein.
He started writing, creating three one-acts that would become “Torch Song Trilogy,” which became a downtown success.
But would a four-hour play about a gay man in the early Î80s play on Broadway?
“I came to see a show here and it was awful and I thought, I could do something that bad. I really could do something that bad and I'll put it on Broadway,” recalls Fierstein.
He jokes that he brought it to Broadway because he thought it would flop, and close, freeing him up to work on another of his shows, “La cage aux folles.” Some flop!
Fierstein won two Tonys for best play and best actor in a play, and “Torch Song” ran for more than 1,200 performances. It hit Broadway at the same time as the start of the AIDS crisis.
“My leading man would come into work with the strangest things, like look at this rash and we would all just laugh and call him this crazy hypochondriac,” says Fierstein. "Of that original company there is me and [actors] Fischer [Stevens] and Matthew [Broderick]."
As for his own survival, Fierstein chalks it up to good fortune and good timing.
“I was in a bar one night and it just struck me I was really bored. And I said to my friend Richard, I’m going to give up backroom sex for a while and it just happened to be 1981,” says Fierstein.
With the success of “Torch Song” and “La cage aux folles,” Fierstein became active in the fight for gay rights. But even two decades later, he says his sexuality and his public stances limit him as a writer.
“If I wrote a gay character as a serial killer, I would get hundreds of letters and all the critics would say I know many gay people that are not serial killers,” says Fierstein.
As an actor, too.
He says he turned down the lead in Steven King's “It.”
"I can't be me, Harvey Fierstein playing a clown that kills children — hunts and kills children, I can't do that,” says Fierstein. “I can on the other hand do 'Family Guy' and play a crack whore. That's OK. That's not gonna reflect badly on my people."
When he's not on stage, or fixing up his new home or dressing room, he's a poker player. And he claims his star status affects his game.
"I can only win for a while and then I had to start putting it back in,” says Fierstein. "Let's just say I’m better than you would think by the amount of money I walk away with."
It’s all part of a life of memorable performances, strong opinions, behind-the-scenes battles and a connection to a world that is Fierstein's true home.
“I am the most grateful person to be part of this community. I love it; I love it,” says Fierstein. “I never get tired of just stopping and thinking you're part of the Broadway community."
— Budd Mishkin