Famed gender illusionist Jim Bailey, known for his impressions of such icons as Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Peggy Lee, has died at age 77, his manager told The Hollywood Reporter.
Bailey, who called himself "a character actor who sings" or an "illustionist" rather than a female impersonator or drag queen, died Saturday of cardiac arrest from pneumonia complications at a Los Angeles-area hospital, the publication reports.
Whether or not he considered his art form drag, Bailey certainly did bring drag beyond gay clubs and into the mainstream, beginning in the 1970s. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Tonight Show, and other TV programs, and played gigs in top Las Vegas venues and theaters around the nation. He also performed for Princess Diana and four U.S. presidents. A classically trained vocalist, he did not lip-synch but did his own singing, to great effect. "If he were to appear at Madison Square Garden instead of Barbra, who could possibly tell the difference," The Boston Globe once wrote.
He first gained fame, however, by appearing in the guise of a female comedian, Phyllis Diller. Early in his career, the Philadelphia native performed in nightclubs as himself, but after meeting Diller when he moved to Los Angeles, he began mimicking her at parties, and friends suggested he incorporate the impression into his act. He then decided to take on a character who sings, and "Garland seemed like a natural," he said in an interview posted on his website. Garland worked with him and gave him pointers, he said, and praised his act after seeing it shortly before her death in 1969.
He portrayed Diller in a memorable 1972 TV guest spot on Lucille Ball's sitcom Here's Lucy. And his appearances as Garland on Sullivan's variety show in the early 1970s brought the Vegas showrooms calling, the Reporter notes. In 1973 at Vegas's Flamingo, Bailey and Liza Minnelli re-created performances by Minnelli and her mother.
Bailey also appeared in plays and in numerous other TV guest roles, including as a transgender character on Night Court in 1985, and a gay one on Ally McBeal in 2001. "I'm glad I could portray a real and positive gay character on the show," he told Boston's In Newsweekly of the latter. "The character lost his lover, but he had dignity, and his work was important to him."
Bailey never identified himself as gay, however.
In a 1997 Advocate interview, Bruce Vilanch asked Bailey how he'd like to be remembered. "Isn't that something they ask Miss Idaho on the pageant?" Bailey cracked. "OK -- I don't want to be remembered as one of those guys who wore a dress and pretended to be female. I want to be remembered for the uniqueness of the art form I created. Not just lip-synching, not just wearing dresses, but singing, acting, the makeup, the details -- the full monty."
Watch Bailey perform "Over the Rainbow" as Garland below.