Looking in the mirror and feeling a tad pale, pasty…
The actor Marcus d’Amico has died, aged 54. Millions of us watched him on television with giddy desire. I interviewed him at the peak of his fame. Many years later, we dated and became friends. He was a kind, smart and very talented man.
On discovering Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series in the late ‘80s, this tentative queer inhaled those joyful books with obsessive enthusiasm. At the height of the AIDS crisis, in the heartless grip of Thatcher’s rule and at the mercy of random suburban violence, Maupin’s world was a technicolour dream.
In Barbary Lane, I’d found my people. It didn’t really matter that they were fictional characters in San Francisco, living in ‘70s bohemia. In those weed-smoking queers who liked a party, I saw myself and my friends. It was a revelation.
Everyone who read Maupin’s books fell in love with Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver. The television audience, who watched the 1993 series, fell in love with Marcus D’Amico. He brought the character to life in a way that was so defining, D’Amico’s performance deleted any previous notions a reader might have imagined. D’Amico WAS Mouse.
In ‘93, a happy, healthy, gorgeous gay character on television was like water for the thirsty. Gay men were desperate for representation that wasn’t skeletal, doomed and dying. We were in awe of Maupin, high on E, haunted by grief and wishing Marcus D’Amico was our boyfriend.
Jacqui Gibbons was editor of QX in ’94. Imagine that! The voice of gay London was a lesbian. Our office was Tony Claffey’s flat in Shaldon Mansions on Charing Cross Road. We were a gobby, motley crew, producing a chaotic, spot-colour, weekly fanzine. I’d only been there a year, but it had already changed my life, outlook and destiny.
Living the dream
When Marcus D’Amico was announced as a cast member for Noel Coward’s Design for Living, this hopeful writer set his sights on securing an interview by whatever means necessary.
There were many factors which stood in the way. QX was a subversive, unknown queer mag. Design for Living boasted a cast of rising stars; Rachel Weisz, Rupert Graves and D’Amico. Every glossy from Variety to Vogue wanted a piece of them.
Then there was the tricky topic of sexuality. D’Amico had firmly remained in the closet and refused to discuss his relationship status. After dodging rumours and media intrusions for a year, it seemed unlikely that D’Amico would invite invasions to his privacy via a cult gay mag aimed at ravers and fetish fans. How did we get past his PR?
Secrets and nuance
Perhaps it was the promise to put D’Amico on the cover. It’s quite possible that my stats on the QX readership were entirely fictional. Those details are a blur. Either way, D’Amico agreed and this queen screamed the office down in a fit of victorious, fanatical hysteria.
It was a midweek, late afternoon, when I rocked up to The Gielgud. I was sweating and gulping at the air like a fish on the quayside. Directed to his dressing room, I edged down narrow corridors peppered with play bills and signed framed photos. It was thrilling business for a recent drama graduate, about to interview a schoolboy crush and Hollywood star.
I knocked on a well-worn, but clearly labelled door. D’Amico opened that backstage portal, wearing nothing but a white terry towelling robe and a Los Angeles smile. He was a heart stopping vision. His near nudity was provocatively intimate, but also, perfectly natural, as he was about to ‘go into’ make-up.
His gym-honed chest was smooth and flawless. The dressing room was small and cluttered with flowers and cards. It felt like a scene from a Coward play. He was confident, charming and beautiful. I flapped about and dropped my tape recorder, wincing with flushed cheeks.
By the time it was over, and I was back on the streets of Soho, it seemed unreal. Marcus D’Amico was the first high profile interview of my career. In 1994, he was the biggest star to grace the cover of QX since it had started publication. It was a moment.
Front page news
An early ‘90s HIV/AIDS charity called the Red Admiral project was sponsored by QX. Their motif was a butterfly. When we put D’Amico on the cover, he was accompanied by a small rendition of the Red Admiral emblem, fluttering round his pretty head.
The black and white image made him look like a cheery, but handsome entomologist. In reality, he was a gay man, hiding his sexuality, promoting a play concerned with sexual ambiguity, on the cover of a queer magazine, next to the logo of an AIDS project. It was complex, to say the least.
1994 was an era of angst and turmoil. Combination therapy had yet to arrive. The age of consent for gay men was 21. That same year, Outrage! disrupted the ordination ceremony for the Bishop of Durham, Michael Turnbull, due to his conviction for a gay sex offence. 10 other bishops were ‘outed’ by Peter Tatchell’s queer activism. People were dying in their thousands while relatives posthumously denied their sexuality and cause of death. It wasn’t fun, which is probably why many of us chose to pop pills and rave the pain away.
A decade later, yours truly had left QX and embraced life as a full time DJ. One evening, while spinning vinyl in the window of Bar Code, I spotted Marcus D’Amico sipping thoughtfully on a pint, as people danced, screamed and pushed past him.
My eyes widened. The memory of our first meeting made my heart race. We got talking. Nobody recognised Marcus, as they knocked him out of the way to say hello to me or shout a request. He was insecure, slightly unhappy, but very entertaining and generous. It soon became clear he was keen on coming home with me.
Obviously, he no longer looked like the twinky ‘Mouse’ of Tales of the City. He was a strapping, hairy bear, careworn by life and struggling in his career. After that first night, he stayed at mine for days. We discussed theatre, literature, fame and failure.
Curse of the closet
He was largely doing radio plays at the time and we met often, when he was in London. The topic of Armistead Maupin was never less than fraught. It was a dangerous scab to pick at. His frustration at an industry which had toasted his talent, then forgotten his existence was horribly palpable.
Today, we’re more likely to defend a person’s right to ‘come out’ when they choose, and in whatever manner they wish. It’s nobody’s business, right? Maupin has always denied any friction with D’Amico over his sexuality. However, it seems unlikely that a champion of LGBT rights, and celebrated gay author would be entirely comfortable with a hot, closeted actor playing an iconic, liberated gay character of his creation.
I know what Marcus told me. And I know that whatever went down, in the long run, left Marcus emotionally damaged and lacking in confidence. I know. I briefly met him at the top of his game. Then dated him years later, when stardom was a painful memory. They were two different people.
The Marcus I knew was a gentle giant, polite and humble, but sometimes overwhelmed by sadness. I loved every moment we spent together. While he was always Michael Tolliver to me, he was also a talented actor and a brilliant friend. We remained closes after the relationship faded and he was a regular at my Studio 24 night at The Hospital Club.
In one of our last exchanges, via email, he said:
‘I have always thought of you as the handsome, dangerous writer who came to my dressing room.
Then I discovered you as DJ and gentleman.
If only there had been even a few like you in the acting world I would have felt so much more at home there.
Love to you and light.
Marcus D’Amico xxxxx’