Actor Michael Kearns Talks Sex Scandals, Fatherhood, and the Happy Hustler
A new book by actor and activist Michael Kearns, The Truth is Bad Enough: What Became of the Happy Hustler? revisits one of American pop culture's more notorious sex scandals. In our current era of celebrity sex tapes that don't end a career, but enhance them, it may seem almost quaint to recall the mid-'70s furor over Grant Tracy Saxon, the purported author of a sizzling memoir cheekily titled The Happy Hustler.
The delicious twist to this scandal is that Warner Books hired Kearns — then an up-and-coming gay actor who had appeared on the wholesome, beloved series The Waltons — to portray Saxon in a media blitz that ended up lasting for several years. While the book and promo campaign was originally intended to ride the coattails of The Happy Hooker, Xaviera Hollander's scandalous and massively successful memoir, Kearns found himself at the center of a national furor that quickly took on a life of its own.
In fact, to this day, three decades later, Kearns is still recognized as the Happy Husler. He's workedteadily onscreen in all genres, from the erotica classic L.A. Tool & Die to mainstream TV shows including Cheers and Beverly Hills, 90120. He's also had an acclaimed career as a dramatist, director, and teacher in the Los Angeles theater community, but through it all, the legend of the Happy Hustler persists.
Kearns was one of the first out gay actors (he was out and on TV nearly 40 years ago!) and was the first actor to come out on national television as HIV positive (20 years ago on Entertainment Tonight, of all places). Yet throughout his career as an activist, the one thread that has remained constant is the Happy Hustler. A cover blurb from no less a luminary than Ian McKellen states the Kearns' new memoir The Truth is Bad Enough "puts most other show-biz autobiographies to shame." We talked with Kearns about this most unexpected legacy, as well as what he considers his greatest accomplishment: fatherhood.
The new memoir started off years ago with the title Blood Work. What prompted the change? Was there also a change in focus?
This is the same book. While the title change didn't really affect the book's content, I think it's really going to make it more appealing. It's cheeky, it's funny; it invites all those Happy Hustler fans to rush to Amazon. Although I don't shy away from it, the Happy Hustler is only one section of the book.
Your turn as the Happy Hustler comes up in most of the articles and stores that have been written about you over the years. Why do you think this identity stuck around so doggedly through the decades? Did it ever irritate or annoy you that people continued to believe in and perpetuate the hoax?
The Happy Hustler sold more than 250,000 copies in America and I think it was truly tied to the coming-out process of many men. I still get emails and now Facebook messages that talk about that experience. Whether the book was "real" or not wasn't the issue as much as my presence on all the television shows and media. I was one of the first people who was out on national television — this was 37 years ago.
Talk about making a first impression.
When I went into my serious artiste mode — which I'm still in, by the way — I often refused to talk about the Happy Hustler. I wanted to kill him off. But a friend, John W. McLaughlin, said to me, "That's part of why you're a serious artist." I realized that was true. It's like L.A. Tool & Die; it's me in the movie. Why not celebrate these facts, especially when I'm 62 years old? Marilyn Monroe said something like this: "I'd rather be a sex symbol than some of the other things they have symbols for."
You've written frankly about the challenges of fatherhood as a gay man, living with HIV, who tries to date and maintain a social life. And, of course, your life and career contains risqué, perhaps even scandalous, material. It's unusual in today's gay culture to find those two elements combined. What kind of blowback have you experienced?
Oh, Ben, your question is a tough one. Earlier today, I kid you not, I said to my daughter Katherine, "Whether or not you read the book from cover to cover is your decision. But I ask that you don't read parts one and two at this juncture. Please only read the third section."
She's 17 years old now.
"Oh, now you make me wanna read it," she says. "You do not want to read about heroin and butt-fucking and my hooking days," I told her. "I know all about that," she says, as if I've just described a trip to Train Town.
That has to be a relief, right?
What she'll do with my request is up for grabs, but this much is certain: she'll tell me whether she chooses to read it or not. And I don't believe she will. My life has been marked by many things but it can best be examined for its brutal, sometimes confrontational, often aggressive, and painstakingly unapologetic honesty. Without the specifics of my past, that person is who my daughter loves. That is who raised her. That is my story, my book, my truth. The title of the book is not unintentional, you know.
People are so easily offended these days, but after that, any other blowback would have to be a cakewalk, then, I would imagine.
One of the first people, other than editors and professionals, to read it said it was "cringeworthy." For a brief moment, I was hurt. That little fairy boy felt like I was not pleasing someone and the book would make people cringe. Fuck it. Cringe away. I'm a dinosaur and the truth needs to be told.
I wanted to talk to you about fatherhood, in particular, because so many gay men now are all about raising kids. We even have major corporations like J.C. Penney making gay dads the center of an ad campaign. And lots of those same gay men have their sexual adventures, of course.
You can be many things in this lifetime, play many roles. The book makes clear that my best role, without question, is being a father. It's all that matters to me at the end of each day. And there was this wild child that was me — a wild child who broke conventions and barriers and evolved into an activist without ever forsaking my sexual self. Sex drove my politics for a few decades. Now, being a father does. And my kid has more clarity about gay/straight, black/white, adopted/birth families than I can even grasp. She has made a 23-minute documentary called A Family Like Mine, that says more than the entire Act Three of my book. So I've done something right. I know you know I'm not being defensive about this.
There is a very personal, intimate thread running through so much of your work, and you've also published several other quasi-memoirs in recent years. Why are you drawn to that particular form?
Acting=Life could be considered a light memoir but is really more of an acting lesson. The Drama of AIDS is definitely a memoir in that it fits into the specifics of being about a period of time, not a lifetime. The Truth is Bad Enough is really an autobiography. I avoided this book for a long time and I'm glad I did because Section Three, about my daughter, is the most compelling. My role as a father is played out more fully and passionately than any other role I've played, including that of Grant Tracy Saxon.
My work—even the plays, some of them more than others—always contain a hint of memoir but the bulk of my writing is fiction. Writing memoir is not appealing to me on some level; the process is beyond painful. Even editing becomes a nightmare, reliving some fairly emotionally treacherous details. Yet, to be honest, I've begun work on another "fictitious memoir," whatever the fuck that means.