Actor/comedian Leslie Jordan carries his not quite five-foot frame and familiar, airy Tennessean voice into the Renberg Theatre at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center this week. He considers his yuletide show, Deck Them Halls Y’all,his best-ever written show. “Why? Because it’s not about me,” he explains.
“Oh, my mother used to chide me about my writing. ‘Gay, gay, gay, gay, gay! Is that all you can write?’”
In the years following his Emmy-winning stint on NBC’s Will and Grace,Jordan’s made a living in theatre, mostly in his one-man show My Trip Down the Pink Carpet,inspired by his book by the same title.Longtime friend Lily Tomlin produced the show off Broadway and it toured through 45 cities.
Earlier, Jordan’s autobiographical one-man show Like a Dog on Linoleum performed to sold-out audiences at the Elephant Asylum Theater in Los Angeles, the Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs, the Bailiwick Theater in Chicago, the 14th Street Playhouse in Atlanta and the Lorraine Hansberry Theater in San Francisco. Both shows were directed by David Galligan as is Deck Them Halls Y’all.
“My booking agent in Palm Springs knows the gay communities in each city across the country,” Jordan says. “He called me this year and suggested a Christmas themed show.”
Jordan nearly dismissed the idea. “What have I got to say about Christmas? Tell the story of baby Jesus? I’ve told every story I know about myself. I’m all out of material!” He brooded for a while, then placed a call to his agent. “I told him I had a title: Deck Them Halls Y’all.He called me two days later and said he’d booked me in Atlanta. Atlanta!? I hadn’t written anything but the title!”
The pressure to write, Jordan says, was the best thing that could have happened. He had exhausted autobiographical tales so he turned to people whom he had met. “One of my three characters is a waitress I met years ago in Dallas at Market City Diner. She was in her 70s,” Jordan recalls. “She had danced her way through the burlesque circuit and told me she had stripped for Jack Ruby, the guy who shot [Lee Harvey] Oswald who’d killed [John] Kennedy.”
This waitress, he remembered, had her own theory about Kennedy’s assassination. “She told me that Jack Ruby was a homosexual. ‘All us girls knew it’ she said. Ruby owned all the strip bars in town and she remembered seeing Oswald hanging around in them. Jack Ruby would come in with real muscular guys. She thinks Oswald was one of Jack’s boys and that Ruby killed him just to keep Ruby’s sexual preferences quiet. Makes more sense than anything Oliver Stone has come up with,” he quips.
The first time Jordan performed the show, he says it “played like the house was on fire.” Why? “I don’t know,” he admits. “The characters are so out there, so crazy.”
Could it be Jordan’s diminutive size and highly pitched drawl? “It’s funny. People never recognize my face. But the minute I open my mouth, they know it’s me. I was so ashamed growing up of how I sounded. My mother bought a tape recorder for me when I was in the fourth grade. I was trying to memorize a poem and the first time I heard my voice I thought I sounded like a girl.”
To this day, he adds, if he’s angry with a stranger on the telephone, “They’ll inevitably call me ma’am. Even now I’ll hear myself recorded and it takes me right back to the shame I felt in childhood.”
He recounts an experience he had behind a Rite Aid store. After perspiring too much during performances and having trouble keeping his microphone pack where it should be, someone suggested he wrap it in condoms. Triple X condoms. Friction would help to keep it in place.
“So I went into the Rite Aid next to the Griddle restaurant at Sunset and Fairfax. A lot of celebrities go to the Griddle and TMZ crews will wait in the back lot to see who comes out. Now I’m not even on the D-list with Kathie Griffin so I wasn’t expecting TMZ to confront me as I came out of Rite Aid.”
The camera crew saw his box of Triple X condoms. “Oh, Mr. Jordan! Mr. Jordan! Triple X? Oh!” Jordan says he was caught so off guard that he tripped over his words; his voice rose even higher. “That night I was eating barbeque somewhere and I hear this high-pitched voice come over the TV and it was me and just like thatI was taken back to the fourth grade. ‘I’m such a homosexual,’ I thought, ‘such a sissy.’”
He was the first among his actor friends to leave Tennessee for Hollywood. “I came out in 1982 and found a little apartment near the old bus station by Vine and De Longpre. It was Valentine’s Day. I was the first one to arrive. I was waiting for Brian Lane Green who went on to do Big Riveron Broadway and one other guy. These guys were really good looking and people just laughed at me when I left for Hollywood. Who did I think I was?”
Eventually Jordan began landing television roles, culminating in a four-year stint as Beverley Leslie on Will and Grace,for which he won the 2006 Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.“You can’t believe how popular Will and Graceis in London. When I go there I’m treated like a star!” The plan is to take My Trip Down the Pink Carpet to London in early 2011. “I’ll be at the 800-seat Apollo Theatre, right between Priscilla Queen of the Desertand Michael Jackson’s Thrillerfor four weeks.”
He has had recurring roles on BostonLegal, Ugly Betty, Privilegedand Reba.Jordan won the Ovation Award, The Garland Award and The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for his portrayal of Preston Leroy, the aging, sodden barfly in Del Shores’ play Southern Baptist Sissies.
The trick, he says, is to turn a negative into a positive. “Everything I’ve been ashamed of I’ve turned around into success. The other trick in Hollywood is to not take anything personally.” He seems to add a few syllables to the word anything.“You can be absolutely right for a role,” he says, “but someone will say ‘We need a brunette’ and nothing else matters. It isn’t personal.”
He talks of co-starring in a possible television show with Texas comedian Ron White, part of the Blue Collar Comedy Tourwith Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy. “My friend Linda Bloodworth Thomason (Designing Women)is trying to put this together at USA Network. Ron and I are total opposites. We’d be friends going back to the fourth grade; he’s the one who’s always had to look out for me, protect me. You know, it could be just a phone call away.”
The next big break. Just a phone call away.
“I tell young actors who’ve had a show that one series does not a career make. You should be kissing everybody’s ass. I do! I’m so grateful to work. I kiss everybody’sass – even craft services!”
Deck Them Halls Y’allplays Dec. 16-20; Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 7 pm. Tickets: $35. Renberg Theatre inside LA Gay & Lesbian Center’s Village, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., Hollywood; 323.860.7300 or lagaycenter.org/boxoffice.