Above: Actor Anthony Perkins circa 1960.
You run into the most fascinating people on the streets of New York City. I recently bumped into an old pal, artist-performer Chris Tanner, and he introduced me to Keith McDermott, who was a replacement for Peter Firth as the tortured boy in the horse-blinding drama Equus in the 1970s. In that play, McDermott costarred with Richard Burton (as the psychiatrist) and then Anthony "Tony" Perkins, but it turns out he also lived with writer Edmund White; dated movie heartthrob Tab Hunter; and had been a lover of Larry Kert, who originated the role of Tony in West Side Story.
McDermott—who has also acted in films like Without a Trace—currently tours with avant garde writer-director Robert Wilson. I got him on the phone for more insight.
Hello, Keith. You came to New York in 1971. Were you intending to work in theater?
As Edmund White says about everybody who comes to New York, I came here for sex and career.
In that order?
[Laughs] Perhaps. But I was pretty ambitious. I started working right away. My first job was doing Shakespeare in Stratford, Connecticut.
I know from a great unpublished article you wrote that a theater dresser once threatened to expose you as a former hustler. How long did you do that?
Probably just months, when I was around 21, 22. I met Larry Kert when I was still in college and we had a summer affair. Sometime, when I needed cash, he said, “You should go to Bob Jones and see if you can hustle.” Bob Jones was a madam. He was the one the clients—major celebs, but that’s another piece—called to “rent” a boy. Working through Bob was safer because he always told us boys what to expect. If you picked up someone at the hustler bar Rounds or on the street, they were an unknown and possibly dangerous commodity. Anyway, I was a terrible hustler because I don’t think I did it for the money; I thought of it as shaking off my middle class background. Plus, I really liked sex. A good hustler just thinks about the money.
What was your relationship with Larry Kert?
He stopped me on the street when I was a junior and visiting New York for the summer. I told him, “I’m studying to be an actor.” He said, “I’m in a musical. Want to come see it tonight?” And I thought, Musical? Yuck! Because I didn’t think that was serious theater. Well, I went, and it was Company and I was blown away. Larry appeared shirtless in the show and was so sexy. I was pretty sure something was going to happen afterwards. I imagined going back to his apartment and slow dancing and a mixed drink, but he hadn’t unpacked and it was a mess, and he was basically living off a table with a bong on it and a lot of old Chinese food cartons. He stuck the end of the bong in my mouth and we got very stoned. He told me carpet men were coming the next day and, “I can’t sleep with anybody.” He was a promiscuous guy and I was 20 and he was 40 at the time. We had quick sex and he asked me to leave. I was so furious because I was very inexperienced. I thought when you had sex with someone, you were [practically] married. I waited a few days, then went to the theater to tell him off. But I didn’t. He came out with a big smile and said, “Want to go to Joe Allen’s?” And then we did have an affair. I was deeply in love with him and love him still. He was one of my best friends until he died.
Carol Lawrence (L) and Larry Kert (R) in West Side Story in 1957.
Also, Edmund White was in love with you?
Edmund lived across the street from Larry’s apartment on Horatio Street and I was taking care of Larry’s apartment. Edmund developed a huge crush on me. I needed an apartment. He suggested we share one. I said I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. When we moved into the apartment, he turned the klieg lights of his attention upon me. We lived together five years. I was living with him when I got Equus. I think it was particularly torture for him, but unrequited love can be pretty stimulating and I’m in six of his books and I see him practically every week. I’ve had the greatest boyfriends. My other great boyfriend for nine years was [artist-writer] Joe Brainard. Ed wrote a piece on him called “Saint Joe." Now I’ve been with a Sephardic Jewish painter for 30 years. We’re not married because I’m old fashioned and it doesn’t behoove us financially.
“Old fashioned” used to mean you did get married—but for gays, it’s different.
I grew up at a time when you rejected heterosexual values.
Having a breakdown onstage in Equus every night must have taken a lot out of you.
It’s actually pretty wonderful to have that kind of catharsis. It’s not quite like going to the gym, but one of my strong points as an actor was I was pretty gymnastic, and it’s a very physical role. And I’m small and you have to jump on a guy’s back who’s wearing hooves.
And Richard Burton was kind to you?
Very. He saved me from the wrath of John Dexter, the director. John was brilliant, but not a nice guy—a nasty English queen. But Burton told Dexter, “Nobody gets punished onstage while I’m here.” The day Burton left, I had the first rehearsal with Tony Perkins. All the protection was gone and Dexter lit into me. It was always sexual innuendo and using those things against you. He once told me, “You came onstage looking like you were just listening to your Judy Garland albums.” He did that to Tony Perkins, too.
Tony Perkins (R) circa 1970.
Did everyone know Perkins was gay?
Tony had been boyfriends with [dancer-director] Grover Dale. Tony and Grover went to the same shrink. Then they both got married to women. But onstage, before the play started, Tony would say to me, “Three o’clock. Second row. Hot.”
Yes. I asked him, “Why did you get married?” He said, “I wanted at least 75% happiness.” I thought he meant that in trying to go for 100%, he’d never achieved that, and he realized that by getting married, he’d be more settled and it would give him more peace and happiness.
But the closet doesn’t really give anyone peace. Did he ever make a pass at you?
Never. I don’t know that I was his type. He was a game player. He’d say things to me like, “Have you noticed, watching my performance, what I’m doing differently?” I’d watch over a period of time, then say, “I can’t see anything.” Unlike Burton, Tony did the same thing every night. He said, “I’m no longer raising my eyebrows anywhere in the play.” I’d say, “Amazing.” He once said, “I’ll get a word for you that can be critical, good or bad, about your performance, and you do the same for me.” His word for me was poise. He wanted me to do a word for him, and I said unbelievable.
Did you miss Burton?
There was such excitement while he was doing it. We were packed every night and there was a ton of people outside. When [Burton’s wife] Elizabeth Taylor came to see the show, they closed off the street. That was pretty thrilling for my first really big job. Elizabeth’s advice to him after seeing the play was, “Love the boy.” She felt his character should love mine. He was such a celebrity, he was always taken care of. There were always handlers around him. Alone, he was a regular guy and he did give me good advice about acting. At first, I was scared to let loose, and he said, “Just give it all you’ve got today.” Also, Burton praised me when he accepted his special Tony, but he blanked on my name, which is completely understandable. The next night, at the curtain call, he gave me the award, I think because he felt bad about the name gaffe.
And you have a story about actress Maureen Stapleton.
She saw the show and came backstage and said, “I fell asleep. Did the boy fuck the horse?”
You and Tony Perkins both dated Tab Hunter (pictured above).
I’m sure Tony dated him more seriously. I met Tab through Larry Kert. Then, when I was in Equus, Tab called me out of the blue and said he was coming to New York, and somehow he ended up staying at my house. Thinking back, he obviously had some professional thing to do in New York and was thinking of it as an economic way to stay there. He was nice. He was sexy. He was 50; I was 24.
Are you attracted to daddy types?
Yeah, I was. I wasn’t often interested in people my own age.
How did your association with Tab end?
It didn’t end. Tab would call me from time to time. I’d say, “How are you?” He’d say, “Just shoveling shit and loving it.” He had a horse ranch.
He and Larry Kert were sort of halfway out—living their lives, but not being openly gay.
They were openly gay with each other in a gay milieu, but that business was homophobic. Tab Hunter could have never been a leading man if the public was totally aware he was gay, nor Tony.
Did Larry want more of a career beyond Broadway?
Yes. But he was a showman. He was a chorus boy besides West Side Story. He didn’t care what anybody thought. He took me everywhere. He was a very acerbic, funny guy—he would say the harshest things, and I sort of have picked up his sense of humor—and he was out to his family. I would have expected him to go out raging, but he had this beatific smile on his face the last days before he died of AIDS. I went through so many deaths of friends. Larry, who I would have expected to go out kicking and screaming, it was almost a joy to be by his deathbed. He had this look of total peace and happiness. It was almost an infantile thing.
Janet Gaynor (L) and Keith McDermott (R) in Harold and Maude on Broadway.
What about your sexual orientation back then?
I had agents warning me about this and that. I was going for a big career, but also never had it in me to be very closet-y. I was sort of on the cusp. I wasn’t of that generation of Tab and Tony, who had to be so closeted. I came when New York was so open and everything. I may have been a little cautious—and I occasionally had a female date—but I don’t think anybody was in the dark about me being gay. Columnist Arthur Bell ran into me after Burton had given me the Tony award and said, “What are you going to do with it?” I lifted it to one ear and said, “Get one for the other ear.” He ran it, saying, “Burton gave Keith McDermott his Tony. Keith told me he wants another one so he can wear them as earrings.” And I was appalled. We normally were more homo-cautious back then. If I did a gay role, my agent would say, “Okay, you can’t do another gay role for two years or five projects” or something like that. I think of [actor] Stephen Spinella. Oh my God, he has a whole career as playing gay people. I would have loved to have done that.
You came around right after The Boys in the Band, right?
I remember seeing it with another closeted friend and thinking, “Oh, my God, this is what our lives are gonna be like.” [Laughs]
After Equus, you went to L.A. and signed with a big agency. Were you happy with the result?
Oh, no. I’m an artistic guy. I didn’t know quite what I was doing there. I fell in love with Robert Wilson’s work. I’d fly back to audition for a play, like Harold and Maude (in 1980).
I actually saw that. It was bad. Not you—the script.
You realize how brilliant Ruth Gordon was in the movie because the script is so saccharine, and she just chews those words and spits them away. But [Oscar winner] Janet Gaynor came to the first rehearsal with all her lines memorized, and when we opened, she did them exactly the same as the first rehearsal. She couldn’t have been sweeter. She had a younger gay husband—remember, she had been married to [Hollywood costumer] Adrian. She and Mary Martin had adjoining ranches.
And how did you meet your longtime boyfriend, Eric Amouyal?
At a New York place called the Bar, where you could see all the arty downtown crowd. He’s Moroccan, or as I say, dark enough to scare the relatives in Ohio. He’s a painter, and I was never any good with living with somebody who wasn’t an artist. If I lived with somebody who had a real job, I don’t think I could do it. I don’t think I’d understand.
Tales of Hoffman
Jackie Hoffman in Themeless at Joe's Pub in NYC.
For storytelling with a more bitter slant, you won’t find anyone more hilarious than Jackie Hoffman, the Emmy nominee (Mamacita in Feud: Bette and Joan) and musical theater star (Xanadu, The Addams Family), who dryly spews tales of her show biz humiliation at the hands of agents, critics, and family members. At Joe’s Pub, her Themeless show—directed by Michael Schiralli, with musical direction by Bobby Peaco—is her best one yet, full of pricelessly funny and pointed wit. At the start, Hoffman announces that she’s a “cisgender, white, Jewish female who doesn’t have a podcast, but I still have a right to be here!” She talks about auditioning for the 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof by singing “My Yiddishe Mama” in Yiddish, “and the director and casting director glared at me with such hatred, it was like I was singing to Mel Gibson and Isis.”
She did get the part of Yente in the current revival in Yiddish, prompting her to exult, “Finally, there’s a version of Fiddler that I’m not too Jewish for!” Jackie’s show also details the horrors of political correctness, the rudeness of audience members (“Do you do this for a living or is it just a hobby?”), and the backfiring good intentions of Broadway stars who do live performances of “What The World Needs Now Is Love” in the wake of mass shootings, thinking that’ll solve everything.
Like a more bitter Elaine May, Jackie delves into some very dark territory, spoofing the condescension that taints our society—and which we all partake of—and also slipping in a lilting yet damning samba number about how Bill Cosby likes to sleep with women while they’re sleeping. And through all this, Jackie has the Emmy nomination and even a Lucille Lortel nomination, whatever that is, but a Tony nod somehow eludes her. “I could do a one-woman Angels in America on 9/11 in Arabic, dressed like Hamilton,” she fumes, “and still not get nominated!” True, but her amazing finale—“Rose’s Turn” in Yiddish, complete with a substitution of “oppressed Romani people” for the word “Gypsy”—should do the trick. Brava! She clearly does this for a living.