Ben Hur, Ru Paul and Me


by Gabriel Rotello

Huffington Post - April 9, 2008

When I was seven I had a huge crush on Charlton Heston, who died this week at 83. The chiseled jaw. The booming basso-profundo voice. The wiry physique. Just My Type.

Of course, at seven I had no idea he was going to turn out to be such a right-wing gun-toting homophobic nightmare, but I probably wouldn't have cared anyway. The seven-year-old gay libido has a tendency to overlook minor imperfections.

Decades later, producing a World of Wonder TV series about Hollywood history, I booked an on-camera interview with my icon. Sure, by now I knew he hated homos and packed a mean rod, so my head said "Ugh." But somewhere deep inside, my little heart said "Ugga ugga!"

There was just one problem.

In those days we often conducted TV interviews at the lovely home of World of Wonder's owners, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. Alas, for interviewing Mr Heston it was a potential minefield.

I don't think I'm outing anybody when I say that Fenton and Randy are homosexualists of the first water, and their Hollywood Hills abode, while tasteful in the extreme, was nonetheless strewn with mementos and talismans of their same-sex predilection. Nothing that would frighten the horses, but who wants to take a chance with Charlton Heston?

For example: An end table with a tasteful stack of Architectural Digests AND the "Brad Pitt Naked!" issue of Playgirl. Or a wall of impeccable modern art AND a stunning, black-and-white, behind-the scenes photo from 'Saving Ryan's Privates.' That type of sophisticated homo-touch.

And so for the impending visit of Mr. Heston the house needed to undergo a ritual that earlier generations of queers facing a holiday visit from Mom and Dad once called "tidying," and that later generations -- weighted down under Focaultian post-modernism -- call "dehomosexualization." In other words, ixnay the ornpay.

The morning of the interview a legion of perky PAs showed up early to accomplish this delicate task, removing anything that might cause one of the world's most anti-gay zealots to storm out in disgust. Like most youthful PAs, they did a tolerable but rather haphazard job. And being a busy producer, I had weightier things on my mind. So when I arrived I took a quick glance around, and not seeing any obvious penile bouquets or boom-boom pachyderms, assumed we were in the clear.

Anyway, what's the big deal? All I had to do was escort Mr. Heston through the living room, then down a staircase to the basement studio for the interview. How simple was that?

But as all who have toiled in television know, nothing is that simple. Mr Heston arrived on time, but as I led him into the living room I was informed that down in the basement some lens was refusing to focus, some doo-hickey was refusing to hick, and there would be a slight delay.

So there I was with Ben-Hur, settling on the couch, offering tea. I had no idea what to talk about. I considered mentioning that I once thought he was super-hot when I was seven, but that seemed somehow inappropriate. I considered outright sycophancy, pretending to be a card-carrying NRA member and telling him how much I enjoyed wasting little woodland creatures, but that seemed excessive. Which is when I discovered two things about my childhood crush.

One, he was a natural raconteur. He merely needed a slight prompt -- so, what about Gore Vidal? -- and off he would go, chatting happily about chariots and parting Red Seas and painting Sistine Chapels. Johnny Carson never had it so easy.

And two, he seemed so disoriented that he clearly didn't have a clue where he was, who I was, or what he was doing there. So what was I worried about? Piece of cake.

Finally, someone sent word that the cameraman was ready and I rose to escort the tottering titan down to the basement. It was then that I discovered what a careless PA had overlooked.

At the top of the stairs hung a huge, poster-sized photo of the queerest of all the queers, Miss RuPaul, in full drag, giving major attitude and practically screaming "I AM GAY, GAY, GAAAAAAY."

Mr. Homophobe would almost have to walk smack into it before turning to descend the stairs. So I did what any self-respecting, proud, out, homo TV producer would do: I planted myself right in front of it, blocking his view. That's right, people, I closeted RuPaul! And so situated on this moral precipice, I gestured cheerfully, "This way to the studio, Mr Heston."

He walked towards me, then pierced me with those beady, rhuemy eyes and stopped cold. He attempted to look over my shoulder at whatever outrage was hidden behind me. I shifted. He tried to look over the other shoulder. I blocked. He peered. I blinked.

Finally he said, "What's that?"


"That picture behind you."

"Oh, that?" I felt like Lucy, caught in the act by Ricky. I could almost hear the laugh track erupt in gales of '50s glee as I stepped aside to greet my doom.

He peered at Ru across a cultural gulf wider than the Red Sea. And then came the thunderous voice. "Who in God's name is that?"

"Oh...HER?" I sniveled, deciding to ad-lib. "She's, um, this fabulous new actress. I forget her name. I think she's on - I don't know - Friends?"

"Never watch it," he barked, unconvinced. And then suddenly a light seemed to switch on from the murky recesses of early-onset Alzheimer's and for the first time he actually looked around the room. "Is this - somebody's house?" he asked.

"Oh yes," I said, "Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. I think you know them."

"How would I know them?"

"Oh, well, I'm pretty sure they're members of the NRA. I know they hunt a lot. I think one of them might even be on your board."

That did it. The famously tight jaw relaxed. The famously down-turned smile deepened majestically. "Good," he nodded. "Very good." He sailed right past Ru - who I swore winked - and down the stairs to a very satisfactory interview.

Of course the network never knew to what depths of self-degradation I had descended for that interview, or how my status as a queer national was forever tarnished. At Christmas I believe I received a paperweight of some sort, if that.

But sometimes at night a little seven-year-old appears in my dreams. He doesn't say anything. He just smiles.