A few months back, I participated in an intimate reading of a friend’s play. He had written the play years ago, before the group of us became friends. When we gathered, he told us there was a great part for each of us. My character’s name was Russell. He was passionate, silly, camp, funny, ridiculous and wise, the kind of part any actor dreams of playing. And if I say so myself, I was pretty darn good. I know it was just a little reading at a dining room table with a group of people who loved me even before we ever got to the first page, but still, it was a fun night.
And driving home, I thought about my characterization, how it just kind of spewed out of me, I didn’t have to second guess how I would say a line or do an impression, I knew what to do instinctually. And let me confess, for me, anyway, that’s not always the case. I thought about Stephen Stucker, because I realized, that a lot of what I was doing came from him. I’d like to think it wasn’t a complete copy, that I took what I’d gleaned from a master and gave it my own take. At least that’s what I’d like to think.
Now, okay, maybe you didn’t know immediately who Stephen Stucker is. To be honest, I didn’t know his name until I went to IMDB a few years ago. Most simply, he is known as the gay guy from Airplane. I’ve posted a YouTube video of some of his character’s best moments. They are all priceless and when I watched it, it reminded me of all the times I watched that movie on HBO when I was a kid. I remember doing the bit “Oh, I can make a hat, a broach, a pterodactyl…” on a regular basis for anyone that would listen. I loved that guy. I certainly did not understand at 12 or 13 why he resonated with me, I just thought he was funny. And I wanted to be funny, too.
When I did a little google sleuthing about Stephen Stucker, I found that he was born on July 2, which is my birthday, too. Like me, he hailed from the midwest (born in Iowa, raised in Ohio) and he eventually made his way to Hollywood. His IMDB page only has 11 credits, but most are significant like Airplane, Airplane II, Trading Places, The Kentucky Fried Movie and Mork and Mindy. He died of AIDS related complications in 1986. He was 38 years old. Besides work as an actor and musician, he is important in GLBT history because he was one of the first actors to publicly disclose his HIV status. I’ve also posted an appearance he made on the Donahue, not long before his death. His comments are polarizing, his histrionics at times, disturbing. But he’s still, in the midst of his illness, clearly, full of life.
I wish I knew more about Stephen Stucker. I found an archived interview with him online where he spoke about how supportive and loving his entire family was as he battled AIDS. It moved me because I know that when you’re going through life’s challenges, it’s nice to have family holding you up. Maybe one of these days, a sibling or niece or nephew or close friend will come across this blog and share a story or two. I’d love that. To me, he is so much more than that gay guy from Airplane, but when you think about it, that’s really not such a bad thing to be known as either.