When the inevitable COVID-19 nostalgia begins, right atop of the list of plague silver linings will be Leslie Jordan’s star turn, how he went into 2020 as 65-year-old veteran TV character actor and emerged as a bona fide Instagram star, amassing over 5 million followers who tuned in for his quarantine kvetching, singing, dancing, and occasional breakfast time porn watching. The year 2021 is shaping up to be a similarly auspicious with the release of his new memoir How Y’All Doing and the recent second season pickup of his Fox sitcom, Call Me Kat, in which he stars alongside Mayim Bialik as a sprightly barista in a Louisville, Kentucky, cat café.
Here, in this excerpt from a special Pride Month episode of Los Angeles’s podcast The Originals, Jordan reveals to host Andrew Goldman why he hates Star Trek but loves William Shatner, admits his lifelong battle with homophobia, and explains why Joan Collins wants him to just please shut up.
In your new book, How Y’All Doing, you recount how you went from being a middle-aged, somewhat anonymous working actor to an Instagram celebrity during COVID. I wonder, becoming famous at the age that you’re at, do you feel like you are more well-adjusted and ready for the adulation. Or is it possible that you could become a huge diva?
No, I don’t think that could happen. First of all, I’ve got a wonderful support system in my family, mama and the twins, my twin sisters, and they have this amazing life in Tennessee. I go home and I want to tell them about things that are going on in Hollywood, and they could care less. I couldn’t possibly become a diva. The minute I start acting like a diva they’d just go, “Shut up.”
Your dad was in the military and died in a plane crash when you were only 11. Your father certainly knew you were a little effeminate, but do you think he knew you were gay?
This was the ’60s so I mean, I think it was more along the lines of, “Is he going to be like Liberace? Is he going to end up like Paul Lynde?” What a terrible time to lose your dad. I was haunted with the feeling that perhaps I’d been somewhat of a disappointment, because I wasn’t good at sports. I mentioned that many years later to my mother and you would’ve thought I’d slapped her. She was absolutely flabbergasted. She said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t know what you based that upon. Your daddy adored you and supported you.” I [came out] to my mother when I was about 12 and she didn’t pull her Bible out, which I thought was what she would do normally, because we’re a pretty devout family, but she said, “I’m so afraid you’ll be subject to ridicule, and I don’t think I could bear that, and just, why don’t you just live your life quietly?” So here I am!
Truman Capote comes up for a couple of reasons in your new book. I mean, you talk about your height. You’re four-foot-eleven. You’re from the South. You’re a gay man. There’s a lot of similarities to Capote. What was your reaction when you first saw him on Johnny Carson?
I threw up. Isn’t that crazy? I saw him walk on stage on Johnny and I thought, “Adult men don’t act like that.” He had that scarf, and that little lisp. Because of the way I was raised, I thought there was something shameful about it. I’d never seen anybody act like that, but I was just fascinated. So, I went in the bathroom and threw up, but the next day I went to the Chattanooga Public Library and I checked out everything I could check out. Other Voices, Other Rooms. The Grass Harp. Everything Truman had ever written. And he led me to Tennessee Williams who was a master at the veiled references. You knew what Skipper and Brick were up to [in “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof”.] I did. I knew exactly what was going on here, and it gave me kind of a sense of belonging somehow, even though I was so isolated in Tennessee.
So when you would saw a Paul Lynde or a Wally Cox on TV, did you recognize something that you didn’t see around you at home?
Oh, absolutely. You see it, but you don’t know what that is. What is an effeminate man? What is that about? What does that entail? Is that what I’m to become? And I was just fascinated and repulsed by it. It’s so hard to explain, but it’s just internal homophobia and it’s what every gay man on the planet has dealt with—this internal thing that we were raised with. It took me getting sober 22 years ago, for me to have someone look at me, one of these sorts of spiritual advisors within my recovery program, he said, “You’re a fag hating fag.” I thought, “That’s a horrible thing to say.” But it was true. I’m a fag hating fag.
I have a southern accent, absolutely, but I’ve also got that gay accent. You know, I open my mouth and 50 yards of purple chiffon come flying out.
I’ve encountered this. I know a lot of gay men who are really turned off by effeminate men. I guess it could be a self-loathing kind of thing.
I remember when I first got to L.A. in ’82, you could go to speech centers to rid yourself of that accent. I have a southern accent, absolutely, but I’ve also got that gay accent. You know, I open my mouth and 50 yards of purple chiffon come flying out.
I watched your autobiographical 2000 film, Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel, about your life in Atlanta after coming out. I think if people only knew you from Instagram, they would get a sanitized sense of your life. You were doing a lot of drugs, engaged in quite a bit of petty crime. You’ve said were “legendary” in Atlanta. What do you mean by that?
When I got high, there were no holds barred. I mean, I’ve been in jailed. My mother used to tell me, “You’re going to end up dead in a ditch. I’ve never seen anybody with such a fascination with the underbelly of life.” Just strippers, con artists—I just ran with the roughest crowd. It kind of started in school where there were people that I just loved that wore those black motorcycle jackets. Once again, back to Truman Capote, he used to say that he sat on a bar stool to get material. No, you didn’t sit on that bar stool to get material! You sat on that bar stool to get drunk! And I ran with those people to get the drugs. It was Quaaludes, which we would take that with these biphetamine-220s, which was these diet pills that the truckers took. We’d mix it all together. It’s just a wonder I’m alive.
I don’t think if I’ve ever known anybody who has dated a guy with a teardrop tattoo, but you dated a guy who not only had a teardrop tattoo but a swastika tattoo too.
Yes. And I loved him. He was so misguided, bless his heart, and I just loved him. Here we’d go to Hollywood parties, and we’d put a Band Aid on the swastika. I mean, was he a white supremacist? I don’t know. He was only 20-something years old.
And a teardrop tattoo means he murdered someone in prison, right?
He didn’t even know that. I said, “The teardrop means you murdered somebody!” I even took him home to meet mother. They were just appalled. I knew his family. He’d had a rough go. I think, the problem was I was always bringing strays home. Stray dogs, stray cats, stray boys.
You’re also the only person I’ve ever interviewed who’s been shot with a crossbow in a lover’s quarrel.
That same boy with the teardrop tattoo shot me! And I bought it for him! We were up in Big Bear Lake, and he said, “Can I get a gun?” I said, “No, you can’t get a gun. We’ll get in a fight and you’ll shoot me.” We were big drinkers back then. And he said, “Well, can I get a crossbow?” I said, “I don’t even know what that is.” And he showed it to me and I said, “Oh my god, that’s lethal looking.” He said, “I’m just going to shoot at cans and things.” And I bought it for him, and then we got in a fight and I found myself staring down the crossbow. But the arrow just winged me. It didn’t stick in.
In 2006 you won an Emmy for playing Debra Messing’s character’s nemesis Beverly Leslie on Will & Grace. Is it true that you were not actually the first choice for that role?
They wrote it for Joan Collins. Well, I got in trouble for explaining it so much. I put it in my [one man] show, and her husband Percy wrote me a letter and said, “This is diminishing Joan’s chances for employment,” and I said, “She’s 87!” But anyway, the character was going to steal Rosario the maid away from Karen Walker, and they wanted a Dynasty cat fight and the two of them to wrestle around and pull each other’s wigs off. Apparently, Ms. Collins just said, “No, I’m not going to have my wig pulled off.” And they said, “Well, that’s the joke.” So, they re-wrote it, and that’s how it started.
It’s so interesting. How does a casting person go, “OK, we’re not going to get Joan Collins. Let’s get Leslie Jordan in here.”
Well, they didn’t want Leslie Jordan. They didn’t know me apparently, because I went in to the audition and…it’s a crazy story. My mother had just called me and this woman in my church had had a baby out of wedlock, and it looked like a pig, and mother was telling me this funny story, and I walked in the door of this audition and I said, “You know, listen, I’m so sorry I’m late, but this woman in my church had a baby and it looked like a pig, and my mama and I was just talking.” And one of them said, “You’re it.”
You got your first guest starring role in 1986 on The Fall Guy and since then, you did a ton of guest roles on shows like Night Court, Murphy Brown, Newhart, and Ally McBeal. You’ve written that at a certain point you decided you were neither going to try to play straight or lose your Southern accent. You played a Ferengi on Star Trek Voyager. Can a Ferengi have a Southern accent?
No. And that was the big problem. When I delivered my line everybody laughed, and they had to get a woman to do the voiceover with me after, and she was kind of mean to me. She said, “Mr. Jordan, feather doesn’t have four syllables.” I said, “I’ll never,” and then they called and they said, “listen, they want you back.” And they said, “Leslie, Whoopi Goldberg is going to be on it.” I said, “I don’t care if Jesus Christ is going to be on it. I don’t want to do it again.”
You’ve written wonderful things about so many people that you’ve appeared with and met—Beverly D’Angelo, Billy Bob Thornton, Mark Harmon, Dolly Parton. Anyone you didn’t especially enjoy working with?
There was only one and she’s no longer with us.
Great, let’s talk about her.
It was the Bob Newhart show, not the one with Suzanne Pleshette.
Oh, Newhart? The Vermont inn one?
Yes, and his wife was played by an actress named Mary Frann. Miss Mary Frann. Now, I was not privy to anything, but I was warned [about her]. But then, the set was so loose and relaxed, and we were having such a good time, but then door opened and she came in.
And so I went that afternoon to my agency, Cunningham, Escott, and Depine, who handled me for commercials. And Mr. Escott, T.J. Escott, unbeknownst to me, had been married to Mary Frann. I didn’t know that, and I walked in there and said, “What a bitch!” and everybody in the office was going “Shhhh!” And then from the office, T.J. said, “I agree with everything he’s saying!”
You had a recurring role on Boston Legal. What was working with William Shatner like?
I love Mr. Shatner. We share a love of saddlebred horses, the high-stepping show horses. He breeds them on a farm in Kentucky and Mr. Shatner and I would talk about that a lot. I adored him because he would say funny things. We adored James Spader but James wants to do the work. Like, we’d do 14 takes, and he would say, “I just feel like I have one more.” Mr. Shatner said the me, “Aye, aye, aye. He’s always going for the envelope. I’d rather go for the parking lot. Let’s get out of here.” I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t love Jimmy Spader. I really do and I enjoyed every minute working with him.
I don’t know what Lady Gaga was up to in the Roanoke season of American Horror Story, but in one scene it looked like she was sort of riding you. What happened?
That pretty much describes it. We had worked all day. She was supposed to jump out and blow fairy dust in my eyes. I was supposed to hit the ground and then try to crawl away. She’d poke me with a stick, and then she was supposed to kick me and then straddle me. Right before we were ready to go she said, “Can I talk to you just for a second?” She said, “I tend sometimes in my acting to sexualize things. I don’t want to do that with this character, but…” And I thought, “God, where’s this headed?” I didn’t know what she was going to do. They said, “Action,” and she rode me like she was in the rodeo, rubbing her hoo-ha on me and throwing her hair. It was thee o’clock in the morning, and I remember just lying there thinking, “How do I get myself into these situations?”
You arrived in L.A. in 1982, the year after AIDS officially declared an epidemic and volunteered with a program called Project Nightlight. What was the program?
I went and volunteered, as we all did. Around 1981, this wonderful Cassandra Christensen started Project Nightlight. The idea was that everybody is ready to get people to live. There has to be a time in which people can die with dignity. People that had AIDS, their families turned their backs, sometimes their lovers walked away. So we were given training on how to basically be there for someone at the end, and I did that for years, and people say, “How did you do that?” It had to be done and I could sit with anybody. I was still having a little struggle with drugs, so I was up all night anyway. They said, “He’s just a martyr.” Well, no, I’m strung out on crystal meth, but anyway, I would sit with people.
So you were there when many people died?
I was there at the very end. I think maybe I held 14 when they died. I get teary eyed even thinking about it. And it isn’t always like the movies where there’s someone just lying there going, “Just let go, just let go.” It can be pretty gruesome. There really is like a death rattle when a person takes that last gasp. I don’t know what your beliefs are, but I’m going to tell you something. When someone is near the end, they became bathed in some kind of Godly light. The telephone lines go up. Something happens, you know?
Do you think at this point in your life you’re completely cured of your homophobia?
Oh no! It can go like that, just walking down the street. I can go there in a minute, but I think, “Oh, I know what that is. That’s that fear of being a sissy or whatever. Let go of that one.” I’ve gotten to the point where I know to register, “Oh, I know what that is.” But I don’t particularly like to hear myself because I think I sound very effete. I don’t particularly like to watch myself and I’m always trying not to move my hands too much. But you know, the good news is that there’s nothing wrong with being somewhat effeminate. That’s just how I am.
It’s kind of your moneymaker, right?
Exactly. And I’ve tried before in different roles to butch it up. And they go, “Honey, it ain’t working.”
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