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By: Patti LaBelle

Interview with Armistead Maupin


It has been a long road for Armistead Maupin to bring the sequel to his best selling novel "Tales of the City" to the small screen.

After PBS dropped plans to film the follow-up, "More Tales of the City," following an outcry from the religious right after the public broadcasting network aired the first "Tales" movie in 1994, it looked as if a sequel would never be made.

But last year, ShowTime coughed up $8 million to produce the six-hour mini- series, which premieres in two parts on June 7 and 8, and will run on the cable network throughout June and July.

"Itís been a long road to get to here, but Iím very excited," says the 53-year old author, who is single and lives in San Francisco. "We didnít have any difficulty with the making of the film. The production entity wanted to be as faithful to the book as possible. There was no censoring in any way. Iím very proud of what we have to offer people. I canít predict what the response will be. But Iím very happy with the film weíve produced."

Most of the original cast has returned for the sequel, including Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney, Bill Campbell and Barbara Garrick. Only three of the original actorsóChloe Webb, Paul Gross and Marcus DíAmicoóopted not to return.

Also joining the cast for the second round are Parker Posey (seen in the original film), Swoosie Kurtz, Edward Asner, Sheila McCarthy and Paul Bartel, as well as openly gay actors Scott Thompson ("Kids in the Hall) and Dan Butler ("Fraiser").

"There was a special pleasure with reuniting with the cast members who did come back and finding us on that set again," he says. "Itís like revisiting an old family estate and finding itís still intact."

"Tales of the City" is the story of a very gay San Francisco in the 1970s, during the heyday of gay cruising, bathhouse pick-ups, deep kissing, bawdy humor and sleeping around. The sequel picks up just days after the first one ends and takes place on the Pacific Coast of Mexico and in Nevada, in addition to San Francisco.

This is a much more adventurous story. Thereís a fair amount of casual frontal nudity in the new film. Thereís also an extended masturbation scene for one thing. In one major scene, the main characters of John and Michael are seen naked in bed, while a news broadcast featuring famed anti-gay proponent Anita Bryant airs in the background. In the broadcast, Bryant is railing on about the sins of homosexuality. In the original book version, the Bryantís campaign to repeal a gay rights law in Miami is introduced by way of Michaelís mother. But Maupin wanted a more cinematic way to portray the historic event, and used the original 1977 television footage of Bryant for the film.

"The idea of having John and Michael in the midst of love making when Anita Bryant announces her campaign for a network TV movie was too good to pass up," Maupin says of the controversial scene. "I imagine there will be a fair number of bible thumpers who will not be happy with me again."

Also, unlike the first film, "More Tales" features a developing lesbian love story between two of the main characters. "Itís a very lovely story line. Here we clearly have two women who start as friends and end up falling in love with each other, which seems to happen more frequently in lesbian life than in gay male life."

Maupin says his goal with the second movie was to challenge the viewers even more than the first time. For the author, that means lots of sex and blunt language.

"Until society gets used to that imagery, homosexuality will remain demonized," he says. "It sounds like all Iím out to do is shock and scandalize. But thereís a moral message at the center of it all, which has to do with tolerance and acceptance and a lot of corny things that I believe in." While Maupin is quick to point out that during the filming of the first movie in 1993, PBS did not put any restrictions on the script or try to censor Maupinís work, he praises the freedom that cable offers for work such as his. "PBS was great in allowing us to film the first installment the way we wanted to. They never told us we couldnít do this or do that. It wasnít until after the first one aired that the trouble began," Maupin says. "Itís also many years after the first one and times have changed. We wanted to bring a new dimension to the project and push the envelope even that much more."

The author says the most challenging part of adapting his books to the small screen was not giving in earlier in his career to bringing his books to the silver screen.

"It took a great deal on my part not to sell out to Hollywood at a time when it would have completely bastardized the story," he says. "Writing it for television is tremendously satisfying. It lends direction and power to the kind of storytelling that I like to do."

Raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, Maupin grew up in an era when being gay was not acceptable or openly discussed, and felt very isolated and alone as a gay teenager. "I grew up in North Carolina at a time when it seemed to be one of the worst places to be young and gay," he recalls, adding that he didnít lose his virginity until he was 25. "I had very few role models. Liberace was one of few examples of homosexuality in American culture and that was a pretty terrifying prospect."

He says one of the reasons getting "Tales" filmed for TV is so important is because of the impact it could have on gay youths, whose only escape is watching television.

"I grew up listening to ghost stories with friends around the camp fire. So it was thrilling when, as an adult, I could help eliminate through writing the great pain of my childhood, which was the solitude I felt as a young queer. It thrills me to death that this miniseries is out there floating around making life easier for pre-teens and teenagers who already know they are gay," Maupin says.

"Almost every gay person I know has to come to terms with their life in their late-20s and thatís a difficult time to be dealing with adolescent issues. Our lives are postponed by a culture that wonít acknowledge we exist when we are that young," he adds. "I knew I was queer when I was 12 or 13. Most kids know where their fundamental attraction lies when they are that age and then they hate themselves for something that is fundamental to who they are." In 1971, at age 27, he moved to San Francisco and "met straight people who were more comfortable with homosexuality than I was. It made me realize that it was okay to be gay," he recalls.

An unknown writer at the time, Maupin landed a job at the San Francisco Examiner where he began to write a fictional column about gay life. It was 1976 and no one was explaining gay life.

Two years later, an editor at Harper Collins sent a note to the writer asking him to adapt his columns into a book. The result was "Tales of the City." It instantly became a best-seller and is considered one of the quintesential gay books of the last two decades, along with "Dancer of the Dance," "Faggots" and "The Best Little Boy In The World." A total of six books have been published in the "Tales" series.

Outside the "Tales" saga, Maupin has only written one novel, 1996ís "Maybe the Moon," which he is currently adapting for the big screen. His next tome will be published this Christmas, and like "Maybe" will feature various characters that originated in the "Tales" saga. Still untitled, the new book is a psychological suspense story centering on a gay writer.

And if "More Tales" is a success, ShowTime is likely to film the remaining four stories of the series.

"Thatís my ultimate dream. The head of ShowTime has indicated that he plans to continue if he gets the response from viewers, which is why itís important that people write letters to ShowTime and order the channel for that month," Maupin says. "Of course, I have enjoyed the thought that PBS will sorely regret not pursing this miniseries when the rating for this soars through the roof."

By: Jeffery Newman

Fantabulous!