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Victor Garber On Acting On Broadway As The AIDS Crisis Unfolded

Victor Garber
Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock

 "He lived in my apartment and died in my apartment."

In the early 80s, as the AIDS crisis was beginning to unfold in New York City, Victor Garber was starring on Broadway in the original cast of Noises Off when his best friend, a fellow actor, learned that he was living with HIV. "He lived in my apartment and died in my apartment," Garber says. "I was on the stage and hearing these gales of laughter and then coming home at night and then doing sign-up sheets for people to come look after him when I wasn't there to help." 

The theatre community in New York provided a home for Garber during these years, a safety and care he still feels to this day. Despite breaking into Hollywood with the 1973 movie musical, Godspell, and going on to star in some of the most beloved movies of all time, including Titanic, Legally Blonde, Milk, and The First Wives Club, Garber has continued to return to the stage, originating roles in shows like Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Lend Me a Tenor, and Art

On this week's episode of the LGBTQ&A podcast, Victor Garber talks about being a "Sondheim fanatic" who got to go befriend and work with the legendary composer, why he doesn't want to act in any more musicals, and making his debut on The Simpsons this week. 

Airing November 21st on Fox, Garber will voice the role of Michael De Graaf, a billionaire fashion mogul, the first onscreen love interest of Mr. Smithers. 

You can read an excerpt below and listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts.

Jeffrey Masters: When people hear your name or see your face, the response I usually hear is, "He's in everything." Do you feel that way about your own career?
Victor Garber: No. I hear that all the time and I think, "Well, I'm not in everything." There's a lot I'm not in and I would like to do more. I've never done anything in film that comes close to what I've been able to do onstage, in terms of the opportunities to act onstage.

Here's the thing, I'm in my 70s now and there are so many things that I feel that I haven't had the opportunity to do that I want to do. It's not a big deal. It's just something that crosses my mind. I feel like I'm one of the most fortunate people I know. I'm grateful for everything I've done in movies, but I've never had a true, true leading role other than Godspell.

JM: I think an exception is the Liberace TV movie, Liberace: Behind The Music.  
VG: Yes. Yes. You're right. That was something that gave me... absolutely.

JM: That was 1988. It’s one of the few times you’ve been able to play gay. You’ve said that negatively impacted your career.
VG: Well, it's more of a supposition than a fact. I think a very top agent in New York, who I had lunch with, in those early years, said, "You really can't be a successful leading man if you're gay." I thought, "Oh." I thought about that and I thought, "I'm not going to pretend that I'm not gay." I never really talked about it anyway. I was never one of those people. I didn't think it mattered and I didn't think it was important.

I can't say this for certain but I think I was not on certain lists for that reason.

JM: You didn't publicly talk about being gay until 2013, but it sounds like your sexuality was not a secret to anyone who knew you.
VG: Nobody. I never really officially came out. I had an interview and I talked about Rainer and me. I don't think we had married yet. That was the first time in my life I actually had something to talk about. I'm not being coy, but I was aware of it, conscious of it, but I never denied it, except in my early, early years, I was very circumspect and careful. And then I didn't care.

JM: After the Liberace movie, did you have fewer acting opportunities after that?
VG: Yeah. I didn't make anything in television for a number of years. I can't say why, but I suspect that had something to do with it. The movie was successful and I was successful in playing that role. I was happy to play that role and I did it with every fiber of my being and loved doing it.

JM: A lot has changed in the industry for queer actors, but things aren’t perfect. Would you advise a queer actor who’s trying to break into Hollywood today to do what you did and not discuss their sexuality?
VG: No, I would advise a gay actor starting out to be true to himself or herself and move forward and deal with it in the moment that you're in. You try to create some personality or some image of yourself, I think you're fucked. Really. I think that's the antithesis of what acting is all about anyway. So, no, I would say, be true to yourself.

I watched somebody I knew very well, who was gay, not be gay, and watched his life just... because all of that comes through in a way. When you're hiding and when you're not being truthful you can't really be a good actor in my experience.

JM: You were working consistently on Broadway during the early years of the AIDS crisis.
VG: I never thought I would be able to get through it. It was the worst experience. The pandemic now is a close second but different in a way, in a big way. I remember thinking life will never be the same and it never was. But it took years to come out from the cloud and the horror of that time.

JM: Did it feel like your career was separate from that part of your life, dealing with friends who were living with HIV, or did it all bleed into each other?
VG: The first person I knew really well who got AIDS was my best friend who was my understudy on the road of They're Playing Our Song. We ended up moving in together in New York. He had been married and divorced for a number of years and was gay. He contracted AIDS and he lived in my apartment and died in my apartment. I was doing Noises Off, I think, at the time, which was the most egregious comedy I've ever been in.

So I was on the stage and hearing these gales of laughter and then coming home at night and then doing sign-up sheets for people to come look after him when I wasn't there to help. So it was all of a piece. I don't remember dates or years but I do remember the feelings I had. I do remember that everybody in my world was a part of this crisis and everybody was doing the best they could to fight it and to find out how to cure it. We were all very involved, some more than others. But I was acting through that, yes.

JM: How aware were you of the activism that was occurring?
VG: I got more aware of it. I'm talking about in the early years before ACT UP. I felt unequal to the task. I didn't know how to be a part of that, whether I was just too frightened of it. I've never been, I guess, a radical. I have strong beliefs and I do what I can. I'm not proud of this. This is just my nature and who I am. I'm not an activist in that way. I was just doing my life and looking after people who were dying.

There are many times I wished I could have done more than I was doing and I do today even with the climate crisis and with poverty. I do a lot of PSAs. I do donate money to causes and I do what I can do, but then I have to balance that with my life or I get overwhelmed.

JM: Did the other cast members in Noises Off know what you were also dealing with? 
VG: Yes. It was very early and so it was still a lot unknown about it. But, yes. I guess, what saved me was being a part of that community. I felt so safe there and so safe with these people and I felt so cared about. For me, that's been the theatre my whole life. Art was one of the most exceptional experiences for me on stage that I've ever had because of my relationship with Alan Alda, and Fred Molina, and the director, Matthew Warchus.

It's kind of like my resting place is the theater. I feel at home in the theater.

JM: Is there a part of you that doesn't want to act in TV and film anymore and just do theatre?
VG: No, I was away from the theatre for years and only recently did Hello, Dolly!, which was a few years ago. I hadn't done anything for seven years in the theatre. I don't know if I'll ever do another play or musical because tick-tock, I'm getting older. 

JM: You were in the original cast of Sweeney Todd. It’s a weird premise for a show, in a good way. Did you always know it would work? Did you recognize its greatness right away? 
VG: I didn't know it would work but I recognized its... I am a Sondheim fanatic. I couldn't believe that I was cast in this role. I couldn't believe that I was a part of this production and I didn't know if it was going to work, but I knew that this was my dream. I was truly living my dream. For my money, there's never been equal in my lifetime. Sondheim is, for me, the greatest.

JM: You were one of the first people hear “Johanna”. What was it like to hear that song for the first time knowing that you were going to be the first person to sing it onstage?
VG: It was daunting. I was terrified. I had to go to Steve Sondheim's house. I got a callback. I sang some Italian art song, badly, but they heard that I could sing. For my callback and my final audition, I had to learn this song from the show, which I didn't know, had never heard it.

So I took my little cassette tape recorder to Stephen Sondheim's house, and I was let in and went upstairs to his office and his piano. We chatted a little, very short chat, and he recorded and sang "Johanna". I remember hearing the first chord and I couldn't believe that I was in the room with this genius who I revered and I was going to learn this song and hopefully get the part. So it was mind-boggling.

Steve talks about it. He tells the story a lot, which is very sweet, how it was one of the best auditions he's ever seen and he cried. But then he cries a lot. I love him with every fiber of my being and I just feel so grateful that I have been in his life and originated a couple of his musicals.

JM: Sondheim is working on a new show right now called Square One. Your co-star from Hello, Dolly!, Bernadette Peters just did the reading. Is there a part in there for you?
VG: I actually was asked to do the reading and I couldn't do it. I don't know what part it was. I was unable to do it, unfortunately, but here's the other thing, I don't really want to do a musical.

I don't sing anymore, and I don't like the way I sound when I sing, and the muscle is very atrophied. If I had to do something, I would do my best to approximate something. But I'm not looking to sing again.

JM: Is that sad to say that you don't like the sound of your voice anymore?
VG: Yeah, it is a bit. Yeah, but it's okay. I don't like a lot of what's happening as I get older. But you live with it. Hello, Dolly! was a struggle, but I pulled it off, I think. People were happy with what I did, but, for me, it was torture to sing every night. I would have to really work hard now to approximate anything.

JM: You’re debuting this week on The Simpsons as the first real boyfriend of the character, Mr. Smithers. What was it like to join such a storied show?
VG: I was stunned that I was called to be on The Simpsons because I don't know anybody really involved or didn't know anybody well. I was so happy to do it, but I didn't really know what it was going to be like and it turned out to be a great experience, I'm happy to say. It's kind of like an institution. It's an iconic show. I saw for the first time the animation and I couldn't believe how thrilling that was.

JM: The Simpsons is voice acting. You don't love the sound of your singing voice anymore, but do you feel the same way about your speaking voice? 
VG: No. No. I don't think about my speaking voice, except when I'm not able to control what I feel I need to control. But that's because I don't exercise enough with it. You need to keep your voice in shape. But, no. I don't listen to things I do. I don't really often watch the things I do because I'm tough on myself.

The Simpsons airs Sunday, November 21st on Fox.

Listen to the full podcast interview on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. 

LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, Billie Jean King, and Roxane Gay. New episodes come out every Tuesday.

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