August 26, 1952– Michael Jeter:
“You have absolutely no idea what a nightmare it was to be on a set, trying to figure out how I was going to find out what time it is, how I was going to get my meds, and at the same time not have it be obvious to someone.”
According to the World Health Organization, 39 million people have died of HIV out of the 76 million who have been infected (roughly 52 percent). Moreover, of the 40 million people living with HIV today, just over 940,000 died in 2017, a drop of 40 percent from 2013. All told, AIDS/HIV-related deaths have been reduced by more than 51 percent since the peak in 2004.
Oh, the dreadful losses because of that horrible plague, especially in the arts, especially in The Theatre.
Michael Jeter is much loved at my house, not the least for providing us with the best moment at the Tony Awards of all time. He was a Tony and Emmy Award winning actor who played nebbishy characters with Chaplinesque flair.
Jeter landed his first film role in one of my Top Favorite Films, Milos Forman‘s version of Hair (1979). He had small parts in film and television and was a frequent performer Off-Broadway during the early 1980s, where he appeared in Caryl Churchill‘s Cloud 9, directed by gay polymath Tommy Tune.
In 1989, Jeter appeared in the Broadway musical adaptation of the film Grand Hotel, also directed by Tune. The film Grand Hotel (1932) is a pre-Code drama from MGM. The screenplay by William A. Drake is adapted from the novel Menschen Im Hotel (1929) by gay writer Vicki Baum. To date, it is the only film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture without being nominated in any other category. With cast that includes Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, and Jean Hersholt, it is hard to believe no actors were nominated; set director Cedric Gibbons and costume designer Adrian were even ignored by the Academy.
The film was remade as Weekend At The Waldorf (1945), and it’s also rather good. It has Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, and Van Johnson. Weekend At The Waldorf and Grand Hotel (novel and film) served as the basis for the stage musical that featured Jeter in the role played by Lionel Barrymore: Otto Kringelein, the dying bookkeeper who goes on one last night on the town. In the musical he released a lifetime of pent-up emotion in a frantic Charleston We’ll Take A Glass Together, one of the best musical theatre numbers.
Theatre critic Frank Rich wrote:
“Mr. Jeter lets loose like a human top gyrating out of control, literally breaking out of his past into a new existence.”
Grand Hotel, the musical, has a score by Robert Wright and George Forrest, with additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. It received 12 Tony nominations, winning five, including Best Direction and Choreography for Tune. It ran for more than 1000 performances. The release of original cast recording was delayed two years. By the time the recording was made, David Carroll, who played the Baron, was seriously ill from HIV, he died from a pulmonary embolism in the recording studio as he was about to record his vocal tracks session with the full cast. Brent Barrett, who had appeared as the Baron both on Broadway and in the national tour, sang the role for the cast album. Barrett, who is openly gay, has played almost every great Broadway musical leading man.
Jeter won a Tony Award for his role in Grand Hotel, and he was soon a frequent face in film and television projects, although he was rarely the star. You would recognize him, he is one of those: “Oh my god, I love that guy” types.
Didn’t you just totally fall in love with him in The Fisher King (1991), where he plays a homeless man who does a spirited Ethel Merman impression? I don’t know why the film is not better remembered. I think it has one of Robin Williams‘ best performances, playing mentally ill homelessness lost in fantasies of knights and ladies. Jeff Bridges is Howard Stern-ish, insulated, rude talk show host, and out actor David Hyde Pierce pretty much finds his niche playing the slightly fey character in this, his film debut. Like other Terry Gilliam films, The Fisher King unwinds like a dream. You should find it.
I digress. Jeter was nominated three times for an Emmy Award for his role in the CBS series Evening Shade (1990-94), playing a wimpy, high-strung high school math teacher who finds himself assigned the assistant football coach under Burt Reynolds (who didn’t want to be under Burt Reynolds?). He won the Emmy in 1992 and was nominated two more times, for roles on Picket Fences (1992-1996) and Chicago Hope (1994-2000).
Jeter’s film credits include excellent work: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998), Jakob The Liar (1999), and The Green Mile (1999). For more than a decade, Jeter also had a recurring role on Sesame Street as Mr. Noodle. I have a friend that says I remind her of Jeter and she now addresses me as Mr. Noodle.
Jeter lived in Los Angles and New York City with his longtime partner, performance artist Sean Blue. Jeter took his final bow in 2003 at just 50 years old, gone from that goddamn HIV. He was cremated and his ashes are scattered over the Pacific Ocean. He is missed. Jeter would have been, should have been, 67 years old today.
“I’d hit a dry spell in my career in the mid-1980s. I come from a family of healthcare professionals, but I was too old for med school, so I thought about enrolling in the McAllister School of Embalming. Just think, for $5000 I could have been an undertaker. Limousines! Lights! Costumes! Emotions! People are always emoting at funerals. I thought, ‘Why not?'”