Oct 24, 2014

Johnathan Schaech: Playing to His Gay Fans

This is one of the iconic images of the 1990s, a bodybuilder with a Superman hairdo oiled up and flexing against an indeterminate background.

It burst onto the scene in 1994, and suddenly appeared on bedroom walls across West Hollywood.  We all thought that the model was gay, or at least aiming his biceps directly at a gay audience.

Wrong on the first count, maybe not on the second.

He was 25-year old Johnathan Schaech, a fitness model who had just broken into acting with a recurring role on the Melrose Place spin-off Melrose Place (1994-95).

During the mid and late 1990s, Schaech's biceps could be seen everywhere.  Everyone in San Francisco assumed that he was gay, even when he starred in the hetero-romance How to Make an American Quilt (1995) and The Doom Generation (1995), Greg Araki's tale of a three-way romance between alienated, homophobic teenagers.

Everyone in New York assumed that he was gay, even when he starred in Welcome to Woop Woop (1997), about a con artist in a colorful town in the Australian outback, and Finding Graceland (1998). A guy who thinks he's Elvis, a girl who thinks she's Marilyn Monroe, and Las Vegas.

Plus the usual tv movies about evil boyfriends who terrorize their exes and poor boys who find love with rich women.

Finally, in 2001, he married Christina Applegate, formerly of Married...with Children, and was interviewed in The Advocate, and we discovered that he was heterosexual.  But an ally who was fully aware of his gay fans, and even played to them.

Schaech continued to work in the 2000s, appearing in a couple of movies every year, but he never managed to quite find his niche.  He was too pretty to play Man-Mountains who take out small countries with their bare hands, too buffed to play New Sensitive Men who learn to cry and care.  His roles became increasingly small, hetero-erotic, and fully-clothed.

They Shoot Divas, Don't They?
Mummy an' the Armadillo
Living Hell
Sex and Lies in Sin City
Chromeskull: Laid to Rest 2
Hidden Moon

Plus two kind-of gay roles:
Splendor (1999), about two guys in love with the same girl who decide to share

If You Only Knew (2005), in which a heterosexual guy pretends to be gay so he can share an apartment with the girl he is crushing on.

More recently, Schaech has been starring in tv series like The Client List and Ray Donovan, and become a writer/director/producer.

See also: Harry Houdini and the Gay Ghost.

My Careers as an Actor, Tour Guide, Chemist, Stand-up Comedian, Translator, Minister....

I returned to West Hollywood after my semester in Nashville completely discouraged.  I had spent 6 1/2 years in three graduate programs, and what did I have to show for it?  A lot of useless knowledge, a M.A., and a a huge amount of debt. But what else could I do besides become a college professor?

I took the Strong-Campbell Interest Inventory.  I read What Color is Your Parachute?  And I tried:

1. Spring 1992: Actor.  I got good reviews in my college plays, and I had some connections in the industry, like Richard Dreyfuss.  How hard could it be to get a job in a sitcom?  So I signed up for an acting workshop.  My first improv scene was: "Jeff, you're returning from a long trip. Your wife meets you at the door, and you hug and kiss."  I ran.

2. Spring 1992: Stand-up Comedian.  I was good at telling jokes, so I signed up for a class with Judy Carter, who wrote the Comedy Bible.  She said: "Your shtick should be about your relationships.  Jeff, are you married?"  I shook my head.  "Divorced?  Widowed? Separated?  Living with a girl?  Going steady?"  Finally I told her "Gay," and she yelled: No!  You can't be a gay comedian!"  I ran.

3. Summer 1992: Translator.  I bought some dictionaries, worked on some sample documents, and contacted a lot of translation agencies. I expected to get assignments translating Rimbaud, Verlaine, Thomas Mann, and Garcia Lorca into English.  Turns out, surprisingly, the greatest writers in world literature were already translated.

4. Fall 1992: Juvenile Probation Officer.  All I had to do was meet with the delinquents once a week to make sure they were going to school, getting vocational training, keeping away from drugs, and so on.  Great, except I had to be in the closet all the time.  If the boss suspected that I was gay, I would be fired instantly: "We can't have a homo working around kids!"

I endured the homophobic comments from the kids, police officers, case workers, and everyone else for about nine months.

5. Summer 1993: Writer. I tried to write a fantasy novel, but I had a problem with the plots.  If you're not walking across the continent to vanquish the Dark Lord by throwing something into something, what else is there?

 So I wrote a Gay Guide to Religion, scientifically ranking every Christian denomination in the U.S. by its level of homophobia.  My agent hated it: it's a slap in the face of all the conservative Christians!  

6. Summer 1993: Architect.  Why not?  I loved old buildings.  It would require going back to school again, but it wasn't hard getting a job as an Architectural Assistant at Gruen Associates, the guys who invented shopping malls. Meanwhile I signed up for some architecture classes at UCLA.  Who knew that they would go bankrupt and lay me off after a year?

7. Summer 1994: Tour Guide.  Why not?  I went to Europe every year anyway, and I spoke five languages.  I decided to specialize in taking gay tourists on tours of Scandinavia, Estonia, and Russia.
Ok, I had never been to those places, but I figured it was a good niche.  Turns out I was wrong. 10 ads in gay magazines, no customers.

8. Fall 1994: Employment Counselor. Most resume services charged $5, but I figured I could charge people $200 each to give them a job test, write their resume and cover letters, and give them interview tips. Surprisingly, this plan didn't work.

9. Fall 1994: Minister.  Back in junior high, I thought that God had called me to become a missionary.  Maybe He wanted me to become a minister!  I called the Metropolitan Community Church, and signed up as a student clergy.  It wasn't as glamorous as I expected: they put me in charge of the church hotline, which unfortunately got a lot of questions that weren't related to religion: Where's the best cruising area in town?  If I say I'm gay, how much money will you give me?  How big is your..."  

10. Spring 1995: Computer Technician.  I figured I could pay my way through seminary by becoming an IT professional.  I had to take apart a computer and stare at the innards.  Enough said.

Seeking a change of venue, we moved to San Francisco in 1995.

11. Fall 1995: Chemist.  Maybe I should become a professor, but not in the humanities.  Maybe the sciences were the place to be.  So I signed up for three introductory science classes at San Francisco City College.  I failed calculus and physics, and only passed chemistry by studying six hours a day.

12. Spring 1996: Veterinary Assistant.  It didn't require as rigorous a scientific background, there was a veterinary hospital just two blocks away, and I love animals.  But not necessarily injured, limping, whining animals in pain.  Maybe I should go back to the humanities.

Then one day I was walking across the campus at Berkeley, and I glanced into a classroom and saw the name "John Locke" written on the blackboard.  I took it as a sign: go back to graduate school, get your Ph.D., become a college professor.  But not in the physical sciences or the humanities.  Go into the social sciences.

In the fall of 1997, I enrolled in a fourth graduate program, in sociology at Stony Brook University.  This time I graduated.

Harry Houdini and the Gay Ghost

Born in 1874 in Budapest, Harry Houdini was a magician, escape artist, and showman.  And one of the few men of his generation for whom we have beefcake photos.

One of his favorite tricks was the "overboard box escape": he was handcuffed and manacled, then nailed into a box, which was thrown into the ocean.

No doubt seeing his powerful, muscular body nearly nude in chains was half the fun.

Several contemporary movie hunks have replicated the famous pose, including Paul Michael Glaser (in The Great Houdini, 1979) and Johnathan Schaech (in Houdini, 1998).

But Houdini has a gay connection other than his beefcake appeal to both male and female audiences:

1. He married Bess Rahner, in 1894, and remained married to her until his death in 1926 (she died in 1943). They had no children, reputedly because she had a problem that kept her from ovulating.  Some people speculate that she was intersexed.

2. He starred in several silent films produced by his close friend and fellow magician Arnold DeBiere. They were not financial successes, and one of them caused him near-bankrupcy.  He blamed DeBiere,  leading to a loud public "breakup."

3. He developed another close friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and an avid spiritualist.  They, also, had very loud, very public "breakup," and the resulting bitterness led Houdini to spend the rest of his life as a spiritualist debunker.

4. He purchased -- or at least was a frequent guest in -- the Laurel Canyon mansion owned by R.J. Walker, a furniture magnate whose son killed his male lover by pushing him off a balcony.  The lover continued to haunt the mansion until it burned down in 1959.

5. He died of peritonitis while performing in Montreal.  He was entertaining some young male fans in his dressing room, when McGill University student J. Gordon Whitehead punched him repeatedly in the stomach.  Eyewitness accounts are contradictory; no one knows why.  Did Houdini invite the blows to prove his toughness?  Or was Whitehead responding in homophobic rage to some gesture or statement?