When Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985, Michael Kearns, who then was Hollywood’s only openly gay actor, was the media’s go-to person for sound bites. Six years later, after Midnight Express star Brad Davis also succumbed to the virus, Kearns would again become the go-to guy, but for another reason — he was Tinseltown’s only openly gay and HIV-positive actor willing to talk. Davis’ death had jolted Kearns into speaking out not only about the pandemic, but against the entertainment industry’s self-congratulatory, red-ribbon response to it.
(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)
“Brad Davis had HIV and was treated like shit,” Kearns says today in his Los Feliz home. “He died in utter, hideous circumstances — hiding on a movie set, having the drugs sent by helicopter and spewing diatribes against Hollywood.”
The St. Louis born Kearns was discovered by Dreamgirls book writer Tom Eyen, and throughout the 1970s and ’80s appeared in both Eyen’s camp-theater extravaganzas and on series TV. Almost parallel with the emergence of AIDS, however, Kearns began a third career as a force in serious gay theater — first as the star of such James Carroll Pickett plays as Dream Man and Bathhouse Benediction, then as a soloist in his own works (Intimacies and Rock) and as a producer-director of AIDS-related ensemble pieces such as AIDS/US and Jerker. In 1984, with Pickett, he cofounded the Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event (STAGE), which became the country’s oldest continual AIDS benefit.
What makes Kearns — 2007’s recipient of the L.A. Weekly’s Queen of the Angels theater award — so charming an advocate is his ability to laugh and his refusal to preach.
“I have never given a performance that could be accused of being a lecture,” he says in an apartment appointed with the crucifixes he custom-makes, and which bear the images of rebels and gay icons. “My first and foremost job is to entertain, not to teach a lesson.”
Still, Kearns always wonders if his work has accomplished enough and is always searching for more ways to wake people up.
“The activist part of me raised a lot of money,” he says, “but that’s finite.”
Today Kearns is seemingly the go-to man for nearly everything. Among other projects, he teaches the Express Yourself workshops on Skid Row and volunteers at the Downtown Women’s Center and the Lamp Community; he conducts acting classes in Silver Lake, is a stage director and, above all, a single adoptive parent. He’s also working with the archival One Institute to make accessible the work of gay and lesbian writers and performers through YouTube and other Web sites.
“The One Institute has all the Charles Pierce tapes,” he says, “but a kid in Nebraska isn’t going to take a train or plane for five minutes of tape.”
Kearns laments the collective amnesia of that dark period when AIDS claimed the lives of Eyen, Pickett and so many other of his friends, and seemed to smother the life out of America’s theaters. Today, masked by steroids and Botox, the still-raging epidemic is out of sight of the public and so out of mind.
“Everyone wanted AIDS to end so we pretended it did,” Kearns sighs. “It became an acting exercise.”