By Michael Fairman
Originally published on Advocate.com May 19 2009 12:00 AM ET
In one of the best-guarded top-secret soap opera returns and story lines in history, gay actor Thom Bierdz returned in a stunner of a cliffhanger this past Friday on The Young and the Restless as a character referred to as "Langley" -- but is he actually the real Phillip Chancellor III back from the dead?
A little history lesson -- get ready to take notes: In 1989, Phillip was drinking heavily again and was killed in a drunk-driving accident. Then in 2007 it was revealed that Phillip III was not Jill Foster Abbott's biological son. It had appeared that Jill's archrival, Katherine Chancellor, switched the babies after birth, and we came to realize that Jill's real son was raised in Australia as Cane Ashby. Enter Cane, who has become the town hero and apple of Jill and Katherine's eye. However, at the end of last Friday's episode we see a flashback in which Cane is talking on the phone to none other than Bierdz, and it looks like there may be a conspiracy theory going down in Genoa City!
Bierdz has gone from triumph to tragedy and back again. He has a very successful career as a prolific painter and writer. Shortly after Bierdz left Y&R in 1989 to pursue a film career, his younger brother, Troy, who has paranoid schizophrenia, beat their mother to death with a baseball bat. A decade later, his older brother, Craig, committed suicide. His family's tragic past -- and Bierdz's journey to forgiveness -- was chronicled in his best-selling memoir, Forgiving Troy.
Now Thom is coming full circle and is back on Y&R 20 years later. The rumors have been running rampant. Will he be playing a gay version of Phillip or someone else? His triumphant return and eagerly awaited story line have given him the opportunity to come back to daytime as an out gay man -- in fact, Bierdz is the only out gay man on daytime television.
While Y&R will not comment on the story line that is bringing Bierdz back to daytime's top-rated soap, blogs have reported that former Guiding Light star John Driscoll will be taking on the role of Phillip Chancellor IV, son of Phillip and Nina. Another footnote -- the character Rafe (played by Yani Gellman) has just confirmed he is gay. So where does Bierdz fit in? Y&R is being hush-hush, but it's safe to say fans are in for the ride of their soap opera lives.
On subjects ranging from his early days serving drinks in a gay bar in Milwaukee -- frequented by Jeffrey Dahmer, no less -- to wondering if his former costar Lauralee Bell (Cricket, now known as Christine) knew he was gay when they worked together, Bierdz is not only outspoken in this Advocate.com exclusive -- he's an inspiration.
Advocate.com:The stunning revelation on this past Friday's cliffhanger took everybody by surprise! It was kept tightly covered. I had heard you had just come to the studio a month ago and just taped the one scene.Thom Bierdz: Yeah, that's right. We had decided to do this several months ago, and it was so under wraps. I was told not to tell anybody.
Did you not tell anybody? I told some friends and some gallery owners that sell my paintings, but I did not tell anybody in the industry, and I did not tell anyone so that it could leak to magazines. A couple of weeks ago I was snuck into the studio, and we filmed several episodes and I snuck out.
I read a quote a while back that you would consider coming back to Y&R if they incorporated your artwork and being a gay man into the story. I did say that a couple of years ago. I really don't know the twists and turns this character is going to take. I'm hoping with a progressive head writer and co-executive producer like Y&R 's Maria Arena Bell that all kinds of opportunities are explored here. I think it's all really encouraging and exciting.
So we are all left wondering if you are this character named Langley or really our beloved Phillip Chancellor. But all will be revealed soon? Absolutely. I am Langley at the moment, but I could be Phillip Chancellor III.
How was it coming back to the show? It was really cool coming back to the show, since it's almost been exactly 20 years since I was on as a principal player. That is shocking and amusing to me; the fact that time goes by so quick. So to come back now as an out gay man and to know that I don't have to hide anything about myself is a great feeling. But in my 20s I felt I had to have this charade and felt like I had to say I was straight. Now I don't feel that. I feel that I am appreciated for my sexuality. I think it's a very exciting time, all over the place and especially in my life.
When you were on the show in the late '80s, was it difficult being a younger leading man in soaps, when you were gay? My agent had told me not to come out. I spoke to my manager about it and he did not think it was a smart idea. Also, in the later '80s when I was on Y&R. this is when AIDS was becoming prevalent, and a lot of people thought if you were gay that meant you had AIDS. It was a scary time to come out, and I think since then we realized gay does not mean AIDS. We have had so many more homosexuals on TV and in our lives through reality TV and with shows like Ellen that people are not stereotyping homosexuality as much as they used to. It's a whole new era, and it has shocked me how open young people are today.
When you spoke with Maria Arena Bell about returning to the soap, did you speak to her about the things you wanted to do this time with your character? When the opportunity arose -- it's a time in my life where what I do I have to feel good about, and I do feel good about the direction this character can take.
Have you worked yet with the other Y&R heartthrob, Daniel Goddard, who plays Cane? We have been led to believe for the past few years that he is the real Phillip Chancellor III. It looks like from the top-secret material that these two are in cahoots! If I met him the day I was filming, I forgot. You know, I don't know. We have not done scenes together, but it was put together in editing. It may appear like I have worked with him.
Working with former love interest Tricia Cast (Nina) again must be something down the line you are excited about! I adore Tricia Cast, and she is so real and down-to-earth. It's like I told her when I was so down on my luck years ago ... when I was bartending, and I found myself doing so at the Soap Opera Digest Awards 10 years after I was a soap star. A lot of the soap opera stars were there and they avoided me because they did not know what to say. Tricia came behind the bar and hugged me from behind, and she was so happy to see me. The fact that I was a bartender was not the least bit embarrassing to her, as it was to me at that moment. And that's how real she is, and I so appreciate who she is as a person.
What you have gone through in your personal life is documented in your memoir, Forgiving Troy. It has been such a critical success, and it is such a gut-wrenching true-life story. At the center of it is your brother Troy beating your mother to death with a baseball bat, but it is so much more than that. Thank you, and I just wanted to be honest. It did come out in 2007, but we recently edited it and updated it with a new cover.
That must have been difficult to go through, to write the book and relive all of these memories and feelings of your past. It's so difficult to write a book, and what you think comes across doesn't. Then you have to have eight friends and editors look at it and say, "I didn't get that. Are you sure you meant that?" But to have to go through your family lineage and relive the worst part of it, things that resulted in murder, suicide, and paranoia, is horrible! These were dark times, and this was a book I had to write because it's a beautiful and unbelievably uplifting book, if you believe in life after death. And if you knew my brother and see how far my brother who killed my mother has come today, it's an amazing journey that he has been on. He is such a different person now â€¦ and I am too.
Do you visit with Troy? I see Troy every year, and he calls me twice a week. The newer edition of the book will have photos of our visits for the last 15 years. Troy has really changed physically. A lot. Some people say that I just look a little older.
Going back to what you went through being closeted in your early days on Y&R, what would you tell people who are still uncomfortable about coming out to their employer or uncomfortable in their workplace or are uncomfortable in their own skin or who need some help in accepting themselves? All I would do is share all the information that is out there. In terms of e-mails -- I get tons of e-mails from gay guys who are married and don't know how to tell their wives. I get e-mails from gay schoolteachers who are afraid to come out in small states â€¦ and I get the opposite e-mails from out gay teachers in small cities and states. I get e-mails from people who have come out and are shocked that they are getting such acceptance. Those people who didn't know, I think if they knew it was going to be accepted on the other side, I think they would be more likely to come out. I think people are really afraid of being rejected and disliked, and I don't think that is the case anymore.
You grew up in Kenosha, Wis., and I grew up in Milwaukee, so I know what that is like. Did you feel the need to get out of there? At 18, I left Kenosha. I was bartending in a gay bar at 20 and 21 in Milwaukee. It was a bar that Jeffrey Dahmer frequented, not that I served him, but I had an ex-lover that served him. So when I could, at 18, I moved to a bigger city. I went from a shy boy who hid himself and was forced into college because I graduated early, who was feeling very insignificant. I had the feeling that All these guys around me are bigger and more masculine. I just want to be them, but I also want to be with them, and I hate myself. I feel like a sinner. I feel judged that I was having these thoughts. Then I moved to Milwaukee and immediately got a job bartending in a gay bar. I thought, I am comfortable here and home, and it was OK for me to be who I am. There was no judgment, and I can relax.
Lauralee Bell, who played Cricket, and you were the young "darling" couple of the show. Did Lauralee know of your sexual orientation back then, and did you have any discussions with her about it? You know, I really have to have a talk with Lauralee and find out what she did know then, because in my recollection, we had one discussion about it at a very awkward time. I don't know her take on it. I know that Lauralee is an extremely open-minded person today, but she was a teenage girl at the time, and I was 10 years older than she was. I would love to talk to Lauralee and sit down with her and talk to her more. She has certainly been supportive of me at art gallery shows, where I have my boyfriends.
Of course, there is this buzz that she might come back to the show now that you have returned! I have heard that, but I have not heard it from Maria Arena Bell. I would love that to happen!
When you were the young star of Y&R back in the '80s, did it impact your relationships with the men you dated or your boyfriends at the time? Were you able to have boyfriends? I am sure you were worried about it coming out to the viewing audience. Well, I was certainly concerned about it. I did have boyfriends through those years, and at one time I brought my boyfriend to the Young and the Restless Christmas party, around my third year there. I think people got who he was, but I did not make a big deal about it.
What can you tease us with? Because the audience is dying to know. What is going to happen next? I feel pretty confident that the character I am playing will bring about issues that have never been dealt with on The Young and the Restless. When you take a character that had been gone for 20 years, and even besides my character, there seems to be a lot of exciting stuff that is coming up.
Have you seen your on-screen grandmother Jeanne Cooper (Katherine Chancellor) yet? I saw Jeanne Cooper at her 80th birthday party in November, and we spoke on the phone several times since then. I love Jeanne! She is such a giver.
There is an artwork story line that just started on Y&R where Daniel's paintings were mysteriously all bought up by some stranger. Could this be part of your new story? I can't answer that, but I can tell you that I have some beautiful male nudes on my website, www.thombierdz.com . [ Laughs ] Also, in 2004, Scarlett Johansson hosted a gallery opening of mine where I had 250 pieces in conjunction with the Art of Elysium charity, which brings artistic people to hospitalized kids to bring them inspiration. I like being involved in that.
When do you have time to do all of this -- painting, writing a book, and acting? You have no idea, seriously. In my life, here is what I have done: I have written 40 songs, 12 scripts, and four novels. I wrote my memoirs. I spent four years making a film. I have got 500 paintings. I have so many treatments I get every day, and I lie in bed and go, OK, what am I going to do today? I don't get up until I am excited about creating something, and that's what I spend my life doing. Every day I create something. How lucky am I to make a living at that, right? Yeah, that's what I'm talking about!
Did you look back at your old work and footage on Y&R and go, "Oh, yeah! I was really good" or "Oh, boy. I sucked"? Oh, I didn't like my acting much back then. I was very self-conscious. I think I was better at the heavier scenes. That's where growing up with a heavy mind and sensitivity helped, because I could grab at the type of material much easier. This time around, I really want to be a powerhouse. I want to be, this time, a strong man, and that's not easy to do when you are acting opposite Jeanne Cooper! [ Laughs ]
How is working with your on-screen mom, Jess Walton (Jill)? She told me she is relishing playing "The Bitch" again! I love Jess Walton. And in watching her in it, I am glad she is too. She has such fire, and she is so sweet in real life, ya know.
What was your take on Proposition 8, when it passed? I am not sure how I feel about marriage, but that is beside the point. I think very soon gay people will have all the rights that gay people should have, and we have made a lot of progress. I think in the next couple of years, with the younger generation, we are not going to have to deal with the homophobia like we did before. I think the resistance is just dying off.
Do you feel now that you're out as a gay man in acting that you feel better about yourself than you did, let's say, five or 10 years ago? Last year, I was walking around my place, and even though I was doing really well in art sales, I was getting jealous of other actors that were doing significant rolesâ€¦ and they were out gay actors. Then a month later, someone called me out of the blue and had cast me in the lead of this gay love story. I was so excited to pursue this, and it fell through and it never happened! That whet my appetite again, and I thought, You know what? There is so much I have not given on the screen that I now feel today that I can really give.
In closing, since everyone sees you as the heartthrob and you are so good-looking, do you see yourself as that? Gay men struggle with this all the time. I think that's all subjective. I did not find myself attractive as a young person in my 20s and in my 30s, and I did have some cosmetic work done. I had my ears pinned back. I had liposuction, and I had some silicone put in my jaw because I wanted to look stronger. I wanted to look more like a man. I was just at the gym two hours ago and I was working out, and I still don't like the way I look. But what can you do about it? I don't know.