Being Typecast in L.A.:
Playing AIDS Victims in
Music Videos in the 1990s
For a few years during my era in Los Angeles in the 1990s, I attempted to be an actor. This had been my ultimate dream since my childhood days in Sacramento performing in silly school plays and elaborate make-believe scenarios. That is, until the cold hard reality of truth hit me in the face. Literally. My preponderance of acne as a teen prohibited my foray into performing and kept me insecure and hidden away from the bright lights of stage and screen. Yet I still decided upon attending a college in Southern California, just in case my big break ever came.
As life played out in its own inimitable way, I held off on my dreams of acting for as long as I could, playing the role of exceptional student (B.A. and J.D. from Pepperdine University) and dutiful husband by the age of 25. Big mistake. That road was too rocky for me. All I did was follow a path my parents preferred me to walk and, feeling stifled in all aspects of my life, I instigated a divorce, came out of the closet, and decided to forego the practice of law. Instead, I secured a low-paying but exciting job in the music industry at the world-famous William Morris Agency in Beverly Hills. Slowly evolving into the person that I desired to be, as opposed to someone I was supposed to be, changed everything for me. Suddenly I secured a talent agent and was performing regularly by treading the boards throughout the City of Angels as a member of the Copperview Theatre Company.
Dreams come true, right? And yet here is where it gets tricky.
While I happily attended several auditions per month, no one knew quite what to do with me and, consequently, I was never right for anything. Looking back, I think casting agents were confused because I gave off too many different signals, trying to figure out who I was at the time. As a result, I never fell into any specific “type.” For example, I was obviously gay but not overtly flamboyant, I shaved my head prisoner-bald yet maintained a sweet demeanor, and I probably appeared to be a drug addict with my alarmingly thin body and eyes ringed with permanent dark circles even though I kept an impeccable and professional appearance. Let’s just say I wasn’t an easy fit in any category and, let’s be honest here, where could a casting agent place me? I was either too edgy or too nondescript, too ugly or too cute, too skinny or too swishy. Who knows. All I recall is that I never really booked much of anything except for two somewhat high-profile gigs, both of which resulted in me playing a victim of AIDS. Apparently, the only parts I could secure were for men afflicted with the deadly Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, a very serious stigma at that time. I’m sure you can only imagine how I felt about that: Okay, so casting directors see me as a sickly-looking gay man dying of an incurable disease. Huh. That’s probably not a good thing.
Even though I was not infected with HIV, I still felt typecast. How could I not? At the time though, I truly didn’t care all that much. Honestly, I just wanted to work. And besides, being part of a music video always held a fascination for me. Do you remember the day that MTV launched on August 1, 1980? I do. The news was all over the boob tube even though cable TV was not available in the small suburb where I grew up. Or if it was, it was only available to the filthy rich. I read voraciously on the topic and was informed that “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles was the first video ever played on MTV, followed by my favorite song and video of all time, Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” from her second album Crimes of Passion. It took me a while before I finally saw this video for myself, probably on a network show like Friday Night Videos or some other outlet where one could watch without subscribing to cable. Needless to say, I have been obsessed with music ever since I can remember and once MTV became a staple in the life of most Americans, I craved the glamorous experience of being featured in a music video. Who didn’t? That was the pinnacle of success, not to mention coolness and bragging rights.
Luckily for me, I finally had the honor of being cast in two music videos for some big-name bands during my struggling L.A. period, something I can still boast about to this day. Even though I was made up to look like a person suffering from AIDS.
Both times. Yep, that’s twice.
Talk about typecasting.
The first music video I appeared in had a very strong presence in the video world, especially on MTV. One of the most photogenic lead singers of the 1990s had to be Johnny Rzeznik from the Goo Goo Dolls. Am I right, ladies? Although the band didn’t reach iconic star status until their commercially successful single “Iris” from the City of Angels soundtrack in 1998, I had the privilege of appearing in a video a few years earlier for a track entitled “Naked” from their fifth studio album, A Boy Named Goo (1995, Warner Bros.) which featured the hit single “Name.”
The song “Naked” was the fourth single released from this album and, to my crowning glory for one week in 1995, the video was an exclusive “Clip of the Week” on MTV. Meaning that every morning for a week, while I sipped my coffee before work, the clip would be shown. I certainly had my fill of this one, and yet I never got full. Or full of it. I swear!
The premise for “Naked” was a dark one. A darling young woman who I thought resembled Claire Danes starred in the shoot. (I have later learned that the starlet is Rebecca Herbst from General Hospital.) To the sounds of jangly guitars and impassioned vocals, she cowers in a darkened, cavernous room and stares in shock at certain horrible situations surrounding her, headed up by the mysterious European actor Udo Kier acting as a ringleader of sorts. The poor waif witnesses a young couple screaming at each other; a father abusing a young girl; an obese woman stuffing her face while an extremely skinny one gazes longingly at some dangling duck carcasses; a Jesus lookalike hanging out from a wall above the fray, scrutinizing everything and everyone below him; and then there’s me, sitting alone and forlorn at a table, covered in AIDS-related facial markings similar to those arising from Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS). Several shots focus solely on my estranged character and, at the very end of the video, the camera spirals down from above Jesus’ head to find me standing there, beseeching Him for help. I love that I’m in one of the last shots of the video in a decidedly eerie and impactful moment. The whole endeavor comes off as pretty twisted, I must say, yet it’s also beautifully filmed by director Dave Meyers. See for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWBuvaMvdt4.
As an aside, Mr. Meyers has directed over 200 music videos including several for P!nk, Missy Elliot, Katy Perry, and Britney Spears, winning several major awards in the process. Um, yeah, he needs to direct me again.
By the way, since I was working at the William Morris Agency in the music department at the time, I hung out briefly with the band members when I said hello to their music agent, who I knew very well at the time. Kinda trippy. Needless to say, no one really wanted to speak to me or even be seen with me. My AIDS makeup looked all too realistic and I sensed actors, band members, and tech personnel backing away from me in disgust. Yes, I came across as ghastly but it was just makeup, people!
The second music video gig I booked was for a huge rock act finally coasting down the long, slow descent into obscurity. That band would be the indomitable Def Leppard. Once one of the hottest rock bands to be imported from Great Britain (you know their songs “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” “Photograph,” “Rock of Ages,” “Hysteria,” “Love Bites,” and “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak”), their star had begun to fall by the time I was cast to appear in their video for “Goodbye” off of their seventh studio album entitled Euphoria from 1999.
Here’s the premise: while shots of the middle-aged band members lip-synching and pretending to play instruments appear sprinkled throughout the song, the main action takes place on a New York City subway car (conveniently filmed on a Los Angeles soundstage, of course). The story revolves around a cute young woman, reminiscent of Keri Russell’s character “Felicity” complete with long curly mane, sitting on a crowded subway while making goo-goo eyes at a tall and handsome Puerto Rican basketball player. During the song lyrics, she checks out all of her fellow passengers on the train: a boy stricken with Down Syndrome snuggling with his loving mother; a Wall Street type reading a newspaper; a sobbing mess of a woman with black eyeliner running down her tear-stained face; a Chicano gang banger; and me, a poor gay guy covered in facial sores resembling the horrid effects of Kaposi’s sarcoma (yet again!) with an ad above my head that reads, “HIV Tested Now!” Subtle. I only appear in two shots filmed from the ground up as I sit across from the heroine, but you can totally tell that it’s moi. I come in early at the 0:45 mark so don’t blink or you’ll miss me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-M-6VinyMiY&list=RD-M-6VinyMiY
My star-making turn (ahem) is followed by clips of a Rastafarian, an old geezer, and a police officer, until our cute little girl finally spots the sexy stud outfitted in the typical basketball attire of tank top and long nylon shorts. Our gal gasps in sexual ecstasy and then hurriedly checks her teeth in a small compact (what sort of disgusting objects could have been lodged in her perfectly straight smile, I wonder?) before checking him out in the mirror as he lifts his shirt to wipe his brow. A six-pack ensues. The flirtation continues until the finale when he rolls his basketball down the aisle to her with a wink and a smile…as well as his phone number written across the ball underneath the name “Damien.” Pretty hot, I have to admit.
As usual on a video shoot, the extras were mostly annoying and, if I recall correctly, I kept strictly to myself although that may have to do with how hideous I looked with the KS sores painted upon my gaunt face. Back then, people were much more wary of AIDS than they are today, fifteen years later. Hell, even I was. Regardless of how poorly the song performed in 1999 though, I’m thrilled to have the bragging rights of being in a Def Leppard music video.
Aging rockers everywhere would agree.
Hey, ain’t it interesting to note that both of these videos focus on young, nubile girls staring horrifically at my face, the unequivocal result of an AIDS-related complication? Fascinating, to say the very least, and most certainly a sign of the times.
As for being typecast back in the day, I’m not bitter. Looking back, I didn’t have a specific “look” that could afford me loads of acting work; obviously, I was never an L.A. pretty boy. In fact, it would take me a move to New York City and another 10-15 years before I would become much more comfortable in my skin and confident in my appearance. That’s what growing up is all about. As a result of my newfound demeanor, I suddenly and unexpectedly began booking print jobs in New York City. Proudly sporting a salt-and-pepper beard with chunky glasses, a bald dome, and head-to-toe tattoos, I now look lived-in, honest, and relatable. Oh yeah, and maybe a bit like a cool aging hipster too. I guess, just maybe, I finally have a “look.”
This time, however, I don’t mind being typecast.