Leslie Jordan clearly takes amusement in telling the story of his 1982 arrival in Hollywood from Tennessee, following his college graduation. "I carried just one suitcase and had $1,200 sewn into my underpants," he explains. "I got off the Greyhound bus at the corner of Vine Street and Fountain. Here I was, ready to pursue my huge dreams at the age of 29—no spring chicken." With prior acting experience limited to college theatre, he managed to obtain a union card and began landing commercial jobs within a few weeks. In his view he lucked out because the famous "Where's the Beef" commercial with Clara Peller had just emerged, blazing trails for a hot new trend in commercial casting: the favoring of character actors instead of young model types.
Jordan's tale of instant success in Hollywood is far from the only anecdote in his repertoire. He's a charismatic yarn-spinner, only one of many reasons for the buzz of anticipation that has surrounded his new autobiographical solo show, Like a Dog on Linoleum. This enormously prolific actor has continually worked in stage, films, and television for two decades, including recurring gigs on such shows as Murphy Brown, Boston Public, and Will & Grace. He is beloved by local audiences for his indelible seriocomic characterizations in the works of celebrated playwright/ screenwriter Del Shores (Sordid Lives). Jordan nabbed every featured-actor award that exists in L.A. for his riveting portrayal of wisecracking gay barfly Peanut in Shores' 2001 hit play Southern Baptist Sissies. Combining razor-sharp comic timing with a natural, captivatingly warm quality, Jordan is short in stature (4-foot-11) but long on appeal.
Shoring up for success: Jordan and the ever-popular Shores have enjoyed a long-standing, simpatico working relationship. Shores' high-profile stage productions have led to fabulous television offers for Jordan. The two men work on their separate film and television projects but remain close friends and periodically reunite professionally to collaborate on Shores' new plays. When Jordan first read the script of Southern Baptist Sissies, he was shocked to discover how closely Shores had modeled the character of Peanut on Jordan himself—especially his longtime battles with alcoholism. Doing this role posed a big emotional challenge for Jordan, but it led to great things, including his initial casting on the hit sitcom Will & Grace. He was subsequently invited back several times as the flamboyantly sardonic Beverley Leslie. "I'm sort of like this aging show pony that they trot out here and there," quips the eternally droll Jordan. He happily shares the news that his performance in Linoleum likewise just led to a great television gig, an upcoming role on The George Lopez Show.
Road to Linoleum: Interesting experiences led up to Linoleum, as Jordan refined his vehicle over the years. "In 1993, I premiered my solo piece Hysterical Blindness and Other Southern Tragedies That Have Plagued My Life So Far at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre," he explains. "It then went to New York and ran for several months Off-Broadway. I sat down with Carolyn Barry, my director at the time, and told her 13 stories that I often recounted at dinner parties. We sort of tried to find a through-line for the stories. I didn't really trust myself that I could entertain people for an hour and a half, so we ended up adding a full choir behind me. As I would tell the story, they became the characters. By the time it got to New York, it was a big dog-and-pony show. My friend Joe Patrick Ward added 11 original songs. What started out supposedly as a one-man show ended up as this huge extravaganza. Everybody that knew me said, 'Leslie, your stories are so much funnier, why don't you just tell them?'"
Jordan decided to follow this advice, which led to other opportunities: "I have a dear friend named Joe Spotts who is producing my show here," he says. "When he was handling Tammy Faye Baker's one-woman show, which toured all around the country, he said, 'Why don't you open for Tammy—do about 15 minutes worth?' So I did that in a couple of places, and then I was invited to San Francisco to appear at a big AIDS event. This led to an invitation from comics Lea Delaria and Maggie Cassella to appear at a gay and lesbian comedy festival in Toronto." Jordan thought they wanted him to do his typical 15 minutes, but he was shocked to discover that they were advertising a complete "evening with Leslie Jordan." Jordan added a Q&A to help pad the show, and he created big placards, which provided a name for each story, such as "Hustlers, thieves, and other lovers." "They were stories of my adventures being gay in Hollywood," he says.
Lost and found: Following the Toronto appearance, he was performing in a play reading in New York when Tony-winning producer Darren Bagert approached him and asked if he had a vehicle he was interested in performing in. Bagert was soon producing Jordan's solo show in the Hamptons, earning a favorable audience response. Next was an engagement in Provincetown, where the film version of Sordid Lives had become a cult hit, leading to even stronger audience reactions because they were familiar with Jordan's outrageous cross-dressing Brother Boy character from the film. "In this gay mecca, the house was packed every single night," Jordan adds. "What I was doing in the show seemed to be working well—some material from Hysterical Blindness and some from Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel [which Jordan wrote and starred in onstage and on film], but it was mainly about my recovery stories. I am now seven years sober. The show sort of relates my journey." When Jordan came back to Hollywood, he approached longtime friend and colleague, director David Galligan, and they joined forces to hone the show further, leading to its current incarnation.
Jordan says he is ecstatic about the reception thus far for what originally was just a long standup routine. "On my opening night, there was a 10-minute standing ovation," he exclaims. "I am always nervous for Del to see my work, because he is always completely honest, which is great, but sometimes hard to take. Imagine my thrill when he told me he would not change a single breath in the show." Jordan adds that when he switched from journalism studies to a theatre major, it "hit him like a drug." He was hooked for life on performing. "I've been here 22 years and never once waited tables," he says proudly. "When I think back on the lean times, when I first stepped off that bus, all I wanted was to be able to earn a living as an actor, and I have accomplished that. So this current success—wonderful as it is—is actually just gravy."
"Like a Dog on Linoleum," presented by Joe Spotts, continues at the Elephant Asylum Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, through Nov. 7. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. $25-30. (323) 960-1083.