To get out of dating a marriage-minded female, Seinfeld‘s George Costanza once affected what he considered the ultimate turnoff. ”I’m a gay man,” George assured the woman. ”I’m very, very gay. I’m steeped in gayness.”
But that declaration was nothing compared with the act that Jason Alexander, the man indelibly known as TV’s favorite nebbish, has to pull off in Love! Valour! Compassion!, the $2.1 million adaptation of Terrence McNally’s Tony-winning 1995 Broadway hit about eight gay men spending summer holiday weekends together. As the HIV-positive Buzz, a self-described show-tunes queen who falls in love with another HIV-positive man (John Glover), Alexander prances about in one key scene like George’s porn-star alter ego, Buck Naked, wearing nothing more than an apron, red heels, and a Panama hat while displaying what he calls his ”hairy little butt” for filmic posterity. Not to mention his appearance in the corps de ballet in the film’s all-male Swan Lake finale.
”I’m the only straight actor that I know of who has played this role,” says Alexander. ”And it’s the most flamboyantly gay role in the piece.” That meant pulling off a tricky tightrope walk: Alexander had to avoid minstrel-show camp while still illuminating a character who tends to swathe himself in bitchy ironies. ”It was clear to me when I read the script that Buzz’s sense of humor comes out of a very strong defense — against his own fears, against the opinions of other people,” says Alexander. ”But that little thin veil above the pain was so thin for me that I just thought, Wow, I’m gonna be pathetic in this.”
Alexander certainly didn’t do it for the money; each of the Love! Valour! actors made a measly scale wage. Instead, the 37-year-old father of two young lads (and husband of 17 years) worked through his summer hiatus to honor an old showbiz imperative. The Broadway production’s original Buzz, Nathan Lane (The Birdcage), couldn’t go on, but the show had to.
”As has been true my whole life, and I’m sure the converse is true for Nathan,” says Alexander, ”we’re on the short list of people to replace each other when one of us isn’t available. Before Seinfeld, I would see Nathan at auditions all the time. There was nothing I was up for that he wasn’t up for.”
A late summer-early fall 1995 shoot for Love! Valour! was derailed when Lane announced he was unavailable. Speculation was rife that the stage star didn’t want to step directly from his drag role in Birdcage into yet another pair of high heels on screen. Lane won’t reopen the subject; director Joe Mantello, who helmed the stage version and the movie, asserts it was ”just a scheduling thing.” Whatever the reasons, the abrupt defection of its sole marquee-level star made Love! Valour! look like a dead duck — or at least a swan in Mayday mode.
With the shoot postponed until summer 1996, McNally thought to enlist Alexander, who had starred in the playwright’s 1984 musical, The Rink. Mantello resisted casting him at first but then saw him in a TV adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie and said, yep, he’s Buzz. ”If he were gay,” says Mantello, ”Jason could definitely be a huge musical-comedy queen. All of the information that Buzz has, Jason has. He’s like an encyclopedia of every flop musical that’s ever been on Broadway.” (Besides, Alexander was an infinitely more appealing prospect than such studio suggestions as Cheech Marin and Tom Arnold.)