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A Film by Michael Kantor



Harvey Fierstein

One of America’s first few openly gay major celebrities, actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein (pronounced Fire-steen) didn’t need to “come out” after he became famous and was never “outed” against his will. In many ways a typical product of the post-Stonewall Off-Broadway and live performance art scene of New York in the 1970s, Fierstein combined a semiexperimental, in-your-face approach with the campy nostalgia, the heart-tugging showmanship, and the conventional formats of the tearjerker, the drag revue, and the sitcom. In the process, he proved to be a key figure in promoting the idea that contemporary gay and lesbian life, with no apologies and no climactic suicides, could be a viable subject matter for contemporary drama distributed through fairly widespread venues.

A very versatile performer, Fierstein brought his talent for focusing the outlandish with his debut as an asthmatic lesbian cleaning woman in one of Andy Warhol’s few theatrical ventures, “Pork,” in 1971. During the ’70s, a very up-and-down period for the actor, the one-act pieces that eventually formed “Torch Song Trilogy” were written, performed, and reworked until they became a highly polished triptych of contemporary gay culture. In retrospect, it seems incredible that “Torch Song” didn’t make it to Broadway until 1983, but his dual Tony wins for both Best Play and Best Actor brought a new kind of face into American living rooms during the awards broadcast. Fierstein scored again in the theater the following year by writing the amusing book of the sumptuous, popular Broadway musical adaptation, “La Cage aux Folles,” earning a third Tony in the process.

Harvey Fierstein

Born: June 6, 1954
Key Shows
  • "Hairspray"
  • "La Cage aux Folles"
  • "Legs Diamond"
  • "Torch Song Trilogy"
Related Artists
  • Matthew Broderick
  • Jerry Herman
  • Arthur Laurents
Acting roles in mainstream films began soon thereafter with a part in GARBO TALKS (1984), and Fierstein eventually co-produced and starred in a somewhat disappointing film adaptation of “Torch Song Trilogy” in 1988. He has subsequently kept very much in the public eye with several AIDS awareness specials, the moving narration to the Oscar-winning documentary THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK (1984), and hilarious performances on CHEERS as Rebecca’s former boyfriend and on THE SIMPSONS as Homer’s secretary. His voice-over for the latter spotlighted Fierstein’s unique voice, once described in NEW YORK NEWSDAY as “that Brillo-and-bourbon growl.” He played Dr. Lang for a time on the daytime soap LOVING (ABC) and has included several nongay characters in his repertoire of acting stints in TV movies and series work.

His dual Tony wins for both Best Play and Best Actor brought a new kind of face into American living rooms.

His small but highly amusing turn as Robin Williams’ brother in MRS. DOUBTFIRE (1993) seemed a suitable reflection not only of mainstream culture’s continued marginalization of gay characters and lifestyles but also its increased curiosity and, indeed, sometimes liberal acceptance of them, attitudes that typify Fierstein’s important if unsteady niche in popular culture and social politics. He also played a key role in the sci-fi epic INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996), about an alien invasion of the USA. For a while, Fierstein seemed to excel most at playing himself, or winking nods to his real-life persona, on TV guest appearances and the like, but continued to snare roles in everything from family fare such as ELMO SAVES CHRISTMAS (video, 1996) and as a voice actor in Disney’s aninmated adventure MULAN (1998) to barbarian fantasy like KULL THE CONQUEROR (1997). He was Alicia Witt’s gay guy pal in PLAYING MONA LISA (2000) and reunited with Robin Williams for director Danny DeVito’s manic DEATH TO SMOOCHY (2002), but Fierstein would both completely reinvent himself and shrewdly play off his established image in 2002 when he took on the part of “Hairspray”‘s housewife Edna Turnblad (originally played by Divine in the film version) in Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman’s Broadway musical adaptation of the John Waters cult film. Dressed completely in drag and not afraid to mine the part for the campiest gold he could, Fierstein became the toast of Broadway when the show became a smash hit, winning the trophy for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical at the 2003 Tony Awards.

The actor returned to film work in 2003 with a role in the DeVito-directed comedy DUPLEX opposite Drew Barrymore and Ben Stiller.

Source: Excerpted from Baseline. BaselineStudioSystems — A Hollywood Media Corp. Company.

Photo credits: Photofest and Paul Kolnik