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Leslie Jordan Is (Finally!) One of The Cool Kids

Leslie Jordan Is (Finally!) One of The Cool Kids

LESLIE JORDAN

The gay actor, after years of supporting roles, reflects on the triumph of becoming a series regular on Fox's The Cool Kids.

During a recent twilight in Roxbury Memorial Park -- an oasis on the edge of Beverly Hills, with a verdant green for croquet and lawn bowling -- Leslie Jordan calls out Bingo numbers to a crowd.

"B-5!" the 4-foot-11 actor shouts as he scans the audience, his head almost at eye level with the cage full of numbered balls. Players -- a smattering of network executives, reporters, and television writers -- sit attentively at picnic tables with rubber stampers and cards as well as mac 'n cheese, fries, and sandwiches obtained from nearby food trucks.

After his last "Bingo!" is called and the prizes are handed out, the actor, sandwich in hand, meets The Advocate at an outdoor step-and-repeat that portrays himself in a lineup with his costars from The Cool Kids -- David Alan Grier, Vicki Lawrence, and Martin Mull.

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In the key art, the actors, who portray troublemaking friends at a retirement center in the Fox sitcom created by Charlie Day (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Paul Fruchbom, have their hands against the wall, as if they were just caught by police in the middle of a crime. Lawrence's character, Margaret, in a show of rebellion, flashes the bird to the unseen authorities. However, Jordan's character, Sid, steals the spotlight sartorially, in a bright blue-patterned button-up, purple pants, and a pink sweater tied across his shoulders.

In real life, Jordan is even more brightly attired. He sports a magenta Psycho Bunny polo shirt paired with pink-, white-, green-, and blue-slashed pants that scream Palm Springs. When asked for his coming-out story, he laughs. "My mother says I fell out of the womb and landed in her high heels," he exclaims in his signature Southern accent.

Then, he becomes more serious. A vivid storyteller, the 63-year-old Tennessee native begins his queer coming-of-age account thus: "When I was little, I was like a magpie, which is a bird that's attracted to shiny things. They'll build their nests with Christmas tree tinsel."

Jordan went on to recount how, as a child, he would play with dolls and twirl batons -- activities that were hidden away from his "man's man" father, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, by his mother and grandmother. These female relatives "created this wonderful little secret garden" for him and his "shiny things."

That all changed at age 11 when a "freak accident" happened to his father.

"Not to get really maudlin, but his plane went down in '66," Jordan recalls. "He was in the Army Reserves, and he was flying from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Hattiesburg, Miss., to go to Camp Shelby in the plane."

The following year, at age 12, Jordan came out as gay to his mother, Peggy Ann. "I'll never forget this," Jordan recounts about her response. "My mother did not pull out her Bible. She looked at me. And her only point of reference, I think, for 'gay' would have been [Hollywood Squares'] Paul Lynde on the center square and Liberace -- who never even came out, but you know what I mean, flamboyant. And she got teary-eyed and she said, 'I'm afraid that you will be subject to ridicule. And if this is your choice' -- which, that's what they thought [at the time] -- 'then you need to live quietly.' And here I am.'"

"She's been very supportive," Jordan says, the sound of Bingo numbers still rattling in the evening air behind him -- though she has at times raised an eyebrow at some of his more flamboyant roles. He notes how her response had to be taken in the context of the region and the time period. "It wasn't so much what she thought. There's something in the South about what people think, what the neighbors think."

"Our parents did the best they could with the light they had to see with," Jordan reflects. "And I think over the years, she's gotten more and more enlightened."

In fact, just days prior to this event -- a premiere party for The Cool Kids, which earlier in the day involved lawn bowling and cocktails on a nearby party bus -- Jordan's mother had flown to Los Angeles for the taping of an episode to support her son. Jordan's character, Sid, is "perfectly comfortable being gay and with who he is and what he is," the actor praises. And his mother watched from the audience as Sid gave his own coming-out speech to his son from a previous marriage.

"She loved this television show," Jordan marvels. "Everything goes full circle."

Jordan himself is experiencing a watershed moment in his career. The actor -- best known for his TV roles as Beverly Leslie in Will & Grace and Lonnie Garr in Linda Bloodworth-Thomason's Hearts Afire -- has a slew of credits on IMDB, yet has somehow never been a series regular on a network television show. Until now. With Sid, Jordan is not only getting a steady job -- he is making history by representing an aging gay character on a major network.

"It's my first steady job in 25 years," Jordan says. "Now, I'm doing really well, you know. But it's a hustle. I'm the biggest whore in Hollywood -- $100 a day and a square meal. I do voices of cartoons. I did 44 venues last year hosting gay events. ... But I now am in Los Angeles, Twentieth Century Fox, which is right out from West Hollywood, where I live, and I go to work every day. I mean it's pretty, pretty cool."

The spotlight is well-deserved. In response to his milestone, Jordan quotes his castmate Mull, "You know, you work a regular job and after all these years they hand you a gold watch. ... I think this is our gold watch."

Jordan credits the shattering of his own glass ceiling as a sign of the changing media landscape, which has created space for a greater diversity of characters.

"It just was a matter of timing," he says about network TV finally offering a starring role to an older, openly gay actor. "It's interesting that there's so much content now, so much. When I got here in '82, I had $1,200 sewn into my underpants. I had a degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where they said, 'Mr. Jordan, please learn to pronounce your degree.' 'Cause I said I have a degree in 'thee-a-ter,'" he adds, enunciating his Southern drawl. And back then, he did not seriously consider that there would be opportunities at Fox, which he associated with heteronormative fare like Married ... With Children.

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"We were kind of overlooked," says Jordan of queer and older actors. But The Cool Kids aims to not only bring that representation, but also to upend expectations about the Baby Boom generation. "People think this is a show about old people, but you have to understand my generation went to Woodstock. You know what I'm saying? We were druggies, and we had a lot of sex. And this show? We're keeping that flame alive."

The Cool Kids, by centering its show on senior citizens, stands out in a youth-focused entertainment industry. But it is the bonding between the characters, who are black, gay, female, conservative, and liberal, that Jordan really appreciates.

"The show is about growing old and friendship," says Jordan, who praises how Sid's sexual orientation is treated without any stigma. "The wonderful part is the way which I'm accepted by them, by the other two other straight guys" who are Sid's friends in The Cool Kids.

The show is also unafraid to show the sexuality of its characters. "We have so much sex on this job," Jordan teases. "We have a whole episode where I discover Grindr. It's like Postmates -- but instead of food, they send a man!"

Has Jordan ever been on Grindr? Just "one time," he admits with a mischievous grin. He recounts how, a night before doing a one-man show in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, during its White Party, he was tasked with selling 90 tickets to his event. "I'm thinking, How am I going to reach all these gay men in one night?" he recalls. The answer came to him when he accidentally left his fly unzipped during a performance -- and the observant woman who ran the club recommended he use that asset to his advantage. "I have a really pretty dick," Jordan reveals. "I have the Brad Pitt of peckers."

Inspired, Jordan devised a scheme. "I took a picture of my pecker ... and I posted it on Scruff [and other apps like Grindr], but then I showed my face. I sold 90 tickets," he boasts about his packed crowd. "I mean, they descended on me!"

"I'm always being told by my spiritual adviser that 'Leslie, your mind is like a bad neighborhood. Don't go up there alone!'" he says with a laugh.

This mischievous streak should come as no surprise to locals of the West Hollywood gayborhood, where Jordan resides. In 2015, he made headlines for confronting a group of men shouting antigay slurs in a Starbucks -- and throwing iced sweet tea in their faces. The encounter -- a run-in with the law that may very well have prepared him for the role of Sid -- established Jordan as a local hero. But it also left the actor with a few life lessons.

"I learned that we have to stir the pot, but we have to keep our tempers in check," he says, reflecting on the incident with, still, a degree of amazement. "Here were gym bunnies, and big bears, and all these gay men, and me, 4 foot, 11 inches, was the one who had to say, 'Shut the fuck up and get the fuck out of my house -- not in my house!'"

"The cops said, 'You know, Mr. Jordan, we could arrest you because you threw the first punch,'" he recalls of when the authorities arrived. His response to them? "Oh, my God -- this is the most butch thing I've ever done."

The Cool Kids premieres tonight at 8:30 p.m. on Fox. Watch the trailer below.

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