Harvey Fierstein on “I Was Better Last Night”

Maybe you wouldn’t expect Harvey Fierstein, complete with a gigantic dog named Charlie, to be living in a small Connecticut town. After all, this native New Yorker is a Broadway legend. But it was here in the library of Ridgefield, Connecticut, his adopted hometown, that correspondent Rita Braver met with Fierstein to chat about his new memoir, “I Was Better Last Night” (Knopf).

I was better last night – is that something that people always say in the theater when somebody comes to see them?’ asked Braver.


“Oh, yes. Definitely,” he replied. “Always say, ‘Oh, well, you should’ve seen it last night, I was a little off tonight. Did you hear that note?'”

And, Fierstein says, he grew up feeling a little off. Born in 1954 to a Jewish family in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, he said he often wanted to dress up like a girl, and finally tried putting on his mother’s makeup one Halloween: “And I painted myself up so beautifully. And then I realized, I can’t possibly go down to my friends to go trick-or-treating like this, and I just took my hands and I smeared it down my face.”

“You turned yourself into a zombie?” asked Braver.

“I was still in drag, but I was in socially acceptable drag, because I was a monster.”

“You say in the book that you first said the words out loud ‘I know I’m gay’ when you were in high school?”

“Once I figured it out, it was like, I had to tell everybody. And nobody was very surprised!” he laughed.

Firestein studied visual arts in both high school and college, but realized he had a talent for performing.  He was only 17 when he won a role in an Andy Warhol play, “Pork.” “I was cast as an asthmatic lesbian maid to the star’s mother, named Ameila,” he said.

Portrait Of Harvey Fierstein
Harvey Fierstein, photographed backstage at La Mama in New York City in 1977.  John Kisch Archive/Getty Images

And soon, he was making a name in experimental theater, with a series of drag roles: “It’s the greatest mask there is. All actors hide behind characters, but when you’re hiding behind gender also, it forces you to be somebody you’re not.”

Braver asked, “Most of your work was performing. But then, one of your friends and mentors told you that you were smart and funny and that you should start writing plays yourself. What was your response?”

“I said, ‘I’m dyslexic. I can’t write a play. I can’t spell.’ And he said, ‘There are people who get $2 an hour to fix your spelling. You go ahead and write.’ And that freed me in a way that nothing else has.”

“Torch Song Trilogy,” which also became a film, was the story of Arnold Beckhoff (roughly based on Fierstein), a drag queen who is trying to find love. 

Harvey Fierstein as drag artist Arnold Beckoff in the 1988 film version of “Torch Song Trilogy.” New Line Cinema

Fierstein said he originally thought the play’s gay themes would not work on Broadway: “I figured it’ll close, I’ll make some money, life will go on.”

But in 1983 “Torch Song Trilogy” won Tony Awards for best play and best actor, Fierstein becoming the first openly-gay lead to win for playing a gay character.

The very next year, he won another Tony Award for writing the book for the musical “La Cage Aux Folles.”  But he didn’t take on a role in the show, about a couple of gay nightclub owners, until a 2011 revival, which he says he couldn’t say no to: “Regret is the one thing you don’t want in your life. Failure? We can all deal with. Regret? It’s not as easy. So, I took it on.” 

Hollywood discovered Harvey Fierstein, too, casting him, among other roles, as the gay brother who helps transform Robin Williams into “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

But Fierstein had developed a serious drinking problem. “You were a secret drinker?” asked Braver.

“A secret drinker, which is the worst kind, ‘cause nobody sees you. And at the end of my drinking I was drinking a half a gallon of 100 proof Southern Comfort a day. That’s a lot of alcohol.”

Correspondent Rita Braver with actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein, joined by Charlie.  CBS News

After a suicide attempt in 1996, he got sober. His comeback role in 2002 was another Tony-winning performance as Edna Turnblad, a shut-in Mom who gets transformed in “Hairspray.”

Fierstein fondly recalls that the whole Company started calling him “Mama,” and then: “A couple months later, I opened in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’  So here I am with a beard – my own beard – I’ve got five daughters now, and everyone’s calling me Papa. And I couldn’t have loved that more. They’re both incredible parts of my life.”

Final Broadway Performance of Harvey Fierstein and Kathy Brier in "Hairspray"
Harvey Fierstein on Broadway, as Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” (left), and Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Robin Platzer and Bruce Glikas, FilmMagic via Getty Images

And what a life! He wrote the books for two more hit musicals, “Kinky Boots” and “Newsies,” and is now revising the book for the revival of “Funny Girl.”  But this Broadway big shot feels happiest here in Ridgefield, greeting pals like the owner of his favorite restaurant, Southwest Café. And, Fierstein said, he prefers doing it all alone, without a long-term partner. “I’m bad at it, I’m bad at it,” he said. “I don’t know what’s built into me. I wanna do what I wanna do. You’ve been married how long?”

Braver said, “It’ll be 50 years this spring.”

“Yeah, yeah. So, you don’t remember what it’s like to be happy!”

READ AN EXCERPT: “I Was Better Last Night” by Harvey Fierstein
In his new memoir the Tony-winning actor and playwright recalls his film roles in “Mrs. Doubtfire” opposite Robin Williams, and “Death to Smoochy” with Edward Norton and Jon Stewart.  

For more info:

Story produced by Amy Wall. Editor: Mike Levine. 

Source : Cbs News