He was blond and handsome and when he walked onto the set of the television series he was doing, women in the studio audience would scream.
The work was grueling, but the pay -- $2,000 a week -- was good and the reviews complimentary. It was not a bad year in a business that regularly dishes out bad times to hundreds of young actors like him.
Then something began to happen that worried him -- each week he was getting fewer lines. It was clear he was gradually being written out of the show. "It was embarrassing. I was being blocked behind people and being given two lines a week," he remembers.
"Of course, this played upon my paranoia. I immediately began to think I was being written out because they were on to me."
What they may have known about him was that he is homosexual. And in Hollywood -- renowned as the domain of the liberal and the untraditional, the land where a social outsider can become a star -- being gay is still too untraditional. Few gay actors who make a living playing leading men and traditional fathers are willing to chart new waters of revelation.
When the actor asked why his role in the series was shrinking, he was told that the writers simply had to develop other characters. He's not sure if that was true or not.
"The point is," he says, "I feel enough pressure on that level that my first suspicion is always: 'Oh, my God, they know!' "
The double life actor Rock Hudson lived in the 1950s is still the norm in the '80s, though being gay is not so grim a secret as it once was. "He came up at a time when any kind of knowledge of that sexual preference would have been anathema to a career like his -- total anathema," says a longtime actor who is homosexual. The hokey trappings of that life -- the studio-arranged marriage, for example -- may have gone out of style, but such lives still exist here.
"You know what the mood of most of America is," says Joel Thurm, vice president of casting and talent at NBC. "They'll accept a gay man if he comes across like Paul Lynde, but they won't accept him if he's a romantic figure."
Says a gay publicist, "If you are a leading man or leading lady who is the fantasy object for millions of people and you don't sleep with the opposite sex, the belief is that your career is shattered. It's base-line homophobia. It has nothing to do with the movie business and everything to do with the way society is set up."
It is a homophobia worsened by the uncertainty over how one can contract AIDS. Suddenly gay actors are even more worried that people will not hire them if they are found out.
By all accounts, there are indeed many gay men and lesbians who are prominent actors, directors, writers and studio executives. But what everyone here -- straight or gay -- is selling is image.
And most of Hollywood obliges. "I think most of us have wonderful lady friends to escort to certain functions," says a gay television producer. "They understand the pressures of this business. We still have fun." Some high-profile homosexuals in the industry shun gay bars and discos, preferring to socialize in private homes.
Says the actor who was being written out of the series, "I acknowledge that I may be reading a lot into it, because I've always been a little nuts about this business. I've always been a little skittish about what people are thinking.
"I'm in that same fear syndrome as everyone else," adds the actor, who began the Alliance for Gay and Lesbian Artists. Every year, the Alliance presents awards at a ceremony featuring well-known, predominantly straight performers. Though most members -- those who are not actors -- are open about their sexual preference, the founder feels he must remain anonymous. "It angers me," he says. "I'd like to stand up, say a few words. My gut feeling is that if I did, I would not work tomorrow."
Many gays balance the public image against a private life, hoping to keep both thriving yet separate. The Hollywood community may know the truth, but most of the general public -- commonly called "flyover land," all that space between New York and Los Angeles -- does not know. If the public was surprised by Rock Hudson's disclosure, Hollywood was not. "He was so well loved that people protected him," says one gay actor.
And he protected himself. Hudson worked for at least a year after being diagnosed with acquired immune deficiency syndrome without telling anyone. In fact, Hudson only announced his illness days after Army Archerd, the entertainment industry columnist for Daily Variety, circumspectly reported the fact in his column. Hudson has been widely hailed for his courage in making that disclosure, but many feel he had no choice after Archerd printed the item.
Gone are the studio monarchies that commanded and protected their stable of rising stars -- arranging a marriage for one, bailing another out of trouble. "The studios could protect you," says one Hollywood insider. "They had enough clout with Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper and the papers to say, 'Lay off.' "
Today there are few rules for the double life, only suggestions and warnings and a certain amount of paranoia, some self-inflicted.
"It's not fair to say if you're gay you don't work," says the Alliance founder. "Rock Hudson disproves that. It's that you can't be out, you can't be open. And you can't feel good about yourself. No actor can do his best work if he's looking over his shoulder. You can't do your best work if . . . you're worried that your instincts will betray you. I know a gay actor, a very well-known actor, and I love his work technically, but I never believe his lovemaking. There's no soul, because he doesn't trust himself."
Based on interviews with homosexual actors, producers and writers -- virtually all of whom requested anonymity to protect their careers -- there is no single way to live if you're gay. But all of the gays interviewed for this article live, to some degree, an open life among friends and family, agents and colleagues.
Actors have it the hardest. Few want casting directors, directors and producers to know they are homosexual. But some directors and producers do know -- if only because they themselves are gay. There are several well-known actors who are widely believed to be gay, but if it has any effect on their careers it's not apparent. "I think everybody in the community knows who's gay and working in the industry," says Archerd.
There is, too, the ferocious rumor mill. "I think there are only about three famous actors who are not said to be gay," says NBC's Thurm, who mentions two leading men famous for their sex appeal: "I can give you a list of people [they] are supposed to have slept with."
Bob Le Mond, who has managed such sex symbols as John Travolta and the late Jon-Eric Hexum, says, "Very few of them are not talked about . . . When a person is the object of great sexual attraction, there is always a lot of speculation."
Hudson, Thurm says, "was always the subject of a certain amount of gossip -- and we continued to use him. Everyone did."
Says a publicist: "If Rock Hudson had a miracle cure and came back to work, I honestly don't know if it would hurt his career."
He came to Hollywood at 19, the actor who worried about being written out of a series.
"I was really whimsical and impulsive," he says with a grin.
"One year, on Valentine's Day, I dressed as Cupid. I was wearing a diaper and I had wings attached to my shoulders . . . And I ran into my agent's office and threw these flower petals on them and shot these arrows at them." He chuckles at the memory.
"I was later reprimanded and told never, never to do anything like that again -- because of the connotations of that kind of behavior. Anything extravagant like that was considered gay. I suppose if I'd been fat and funny like John Belushi I could have gotten away with it.And so basically I think I started a very slow process of taming impulses in myself. A lot of them I think I should never have tamed because a lot of them were creative."
He is 31 now, with a ruddy, tanned face and ocean-blue eyes. He is quietly funny, comic sometimes, when he recounts his tales of Hollywood, and he exudes laid-back charm. During the day, he and his roommate leave open the door to their small, airy stucco house, and neighbors wander in to chat. He has worked often, mostly in television. He plays boyfriends, and with his classic WASP appearance he's usually cast as rich. In his best year he made $100,000, but work has slowed as he goes through what he calls "an in-between age for a male actor."
Last year he made $30,000, and this year he also took on a part-time job.
In the years he's been here, his looks have matured from pretty to handsome, from typical to distinctive, and recently he's rebelled a bit against his type.
"I'm considered very boy-next-door," he says. "But I felt like I had no individuality in the way I looked. So I grew my hair long and pierced my ear. I thought, 'I'm going to look the way I want to look and if they can't handle it, forget it.' "
In the weeks since he got his ear pierced, agents and directors have handled it in various ways. "On one call-back, the casting director said, 'Don't wear the earring when you go back in. The client noticed it on the videotape and there were some very derogatory remarks made.' " (He didn't get the job.)
"In this town," he says, "so much as an earring means you're sexually deviant by their standards."
When he was at his most visible on television, he carried on a charade off camera. "My manager had a press agent who would print in papers around that I was seeing this woman or that one. It was really kind of embarrassing," he says now. The press agent didn't know he was gay, but the manager, who did, encouraged it. "They feel it's kind of symbiotic -- there's this actress who wants to be read about and you want to be read about, so they do this little publicity marriage where she agrees to be sort of your press girlfriend."
The actor was willing to comply. When he went to industry events, he often took a beautiful young woman and draped his arm around her during dinner. In reality, the woman was lesbian.
If a woman on a set where he was working was interested in him, he let it be known he had a girlfriend. "I lie," he says. Sometimes women who are interested figure it out before he can lie. "I have had that experience where I see them go 'click,' " he says ruefully. "This little thing in their eyes goes, 'Hmm, gay.' "
He says he's changed somewhat; he says his sexuality is more complicated.
"But it would be difficult to go on a talk show and explain this to Johnny Carson," he laughs. "I actually worry about this. What if I get a series and I go on and Joan Rivers asks me who am I seeing? What do I say? 'Well, Joan, I've been in therapy and I don't consider myself gay, but I don't consider myself straight.' I've thought that it would be nice if I get to a point in my life where I could sit and talk to someone in that situation."
"I am a rarity," says a 47-year-old actor. "I've been a working actor for 30 years."
His stage credits are distinguished -- off-Broadway, Broadway, a Tony Award-winning show. "I've guest-starred on every major television show in the last 10 years, some in continuing roles," he says. He was seen for several years in a major role in a daytime soap opera. "A great deal of my work is based on the fact that I have a face that gets lost in a crowd of four. It's not an unattractive face, but it's -- a face."
He's done commercials for everything from cereal to cars. "I can't think of anything that I didn't sell," he says.
All the more reason why he hides the fact he is gay.
"I make a living playing quintessential daddies," he says. "Procter & Gamble, I assure you, would stop hiring me if they knew that I was gay."
He is articulate and sophisticated, with warm eyes and an open manner.
And though he won't reveal himself publicly as homosexual ("I don't want to take the risk"), his friends know and he remembers. A "fag" joke on a set won't pass his ears unnoticed.
But he's careful not to reveal more than is necessary. "When I go to a commercial audition I wear a wedding band," he says. "I wasn't Catholic as a child for nothing," he chuckles. "When people say, 'You married?' I have a way of saying 'Not now' that implies there was a terrible divorce, which if I get into now I will fall to pieces."
Like many gays in this town, he makes decisions about whom he can take to industry events and galas. "I most often go alone . . . and occasionally I will take a woman but not just for the sake of taking a woman. It might be someone who needs to go there and doesn't have an escort." He frequently goes places with his sister.
"I do not subject myself or my friend to anything that would embarrass either of us. If I were nominated for an Academy Award, as much as I would like him to be at my side, I would not put him in a position where he might be uncomfortable. The world insists that I remember that I'm homosexual . . ."
As a result, he says, "I have to be very wary publicly. There's a tremendous amount of homophobia and some of the worst homophobics are gay people. I've had agents refuse to represent me because they knew I was gay. These are gay agents . . ."
His current agents and business manager know he is gay. They never caution him to keep his private life very private. "Anybody who knows me knows that I do, and they also know that they don't ever say to me, 'Don't do that.' " He laughs. "I'm a very strong personality."
Though he has never been politically active in the gay community, he has become passionately involved in the AIDS issue. In just the past few weeks, three good friends who were AIDS sufferers have died; in the last four years, he has lost more than two dozen friends, he says.
No agent or manager has suggested that his work on AIDS could damage his career. "I think if I were 26 and gorgeous and on the verge of a major romantic career, they'd be a little nervous about the kinds of things I've been doing," he says.
Interestingly, few gay actors play the part of homosexuals in television and movies. "I'll make you a wager right now that it will be many years -- and probably even more years, with all of this AIDS fear -- before you see a gay person portray a gay person," says the older actor. "They are always terribly careful to cast a straight person so that in all the publicity they can say, 'Here, wife and six kids.' "
And sometimes not even that's enough to satisfy the fears of heterosexual actors. Richard Levinson, the cowriter with William Link of the 1972 television movie "That Certain Summer," recalls the difficulty in casting the leading character, an upper-middle-class gay man, divorced and living with a lover, whose 12-year-old son comes to visit. "Several actors turned it down," says Levinson. "One turned it down because he didn't want to play a homosexual. I said, 'Would you play Hitler?' He said, 'Of course.' "
Hal Holbrook was finally cast in the leading role. "His agents were very nervous about his playing the role," Levinson says. "I said, 'It didn't hurt Peter Finch's career in "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" .' And they said, 'Who saw that movie? . . . We're talking about 30 million people.' "
All this puts a new twist on the "casting couch" syndrome. According to various producers and actors, but not casting directors, it still exists to some degree.
"I happened on this town at a time when I was 19 and bait for every powerful homosexual," says the young gay actor. He was once flown by private jet to Mexico by a producer who offered a role in a big movie. His agents sent him packing despite the actor's initial protests. "They said, 'You're a grown-up. If he tries anything, just get on the plane and come home.' "
When the actor arrived, his luggage was taken to the producer's room. "I confronted him and said I wanted my own room and he apologized," recalls the actor, "and had my luggage taken into the other room. And the rest of the week was this nightmare of cat and mouse, of baiting me with meetings and things like that and then throwing himself at me."
The actor says he reveled in the attention ("I suppose it made me think I had to work less hard than I had to") but spurned all the sexual advances. "My career is my own," he says. "Absolutely my own creation."
Says the 47-year-old actor, "I've had people in positions to give me work -- men and women. I say no, and they think, 'Who does he think he is?' and I become persona non grata." Twenty years ago, while doing a show in New York, he was shopping around for an agent. He called one on a recommendation and was told to meet the agent in his office in the evening. "I thought it was odd but I went and I tell you it was like a Feydeau farce. He literally chased me around the desk. I thought, 'I've seen this in movies.' "
Today, he says this about being gay in Hollywood:
"You're playing in their ball field and you're playing with their ball and the rules are theirs. So if you want to win the game you have to do it on that basis. Because nobody in the gay community has ever been strong enough to change the rules. I cannot think of one."