To say that Mark Patton's journey has been fraught with ups and downs is to define the cliché.
A fresh-faced young actor from Kansas City, Patton arrived in Manhattan in the early '80s and quickly landed the role of Joe Qualley in Robert Altman's off-Broadway sensation, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Patton co-starred with Cher, Sandy Dennis, a then-unknown Kathy Bates and a batch of other well-known actresses. The play became a must-see for the New York glitterati and soon Patton was nightclubbing with David Bowie, Andy Warhol and the like. When it came time to make the film in 1982, Patton was immediately signed to repeat his role as the fey teen boy who transitions to female, becoming the coolly controlled woman played by the late Karen Black in one of her most intriguing roles.
After moving to Hollywood, Patton won the coveted lead in 1985 as Jesse, the mixed-up teenager opposite Robert Englund's maniacal Freddy Krueger in the first sequel to the Nightmare on Elm Street horror franchise. This coup and the financial success of the movie were bittersweet, as Patton found being open about his gay sexuality was a taboo in Tinseltown. A few years later, torn between accepting a leading role in a television series as a gay character but told he'd have to remain in the closet, Patton decided to leave acting behind. That bitter blow was followed by a positive HIV diagnosis and years of health challenges.
More than 25 years later Pattonnow 49, healthy and relaxedhas reinvented himself as a successful Puerto Vallarta-based interior designer who lives with husband Hector. He has come to embrace his time in the spotlight starring in A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge and, thanks to the movie's infamous gay subtext, his status as the world's first male "scream queen."
The film will be shown Saturday, Oct. 12, as part of the annual 24-hour horror marathon The Massacre at the Patio Theater, 6008 W. Irving Park Rd. Patton will be on hand to sign autographs, pose for photos with fans and regale the audience with tales from his fascinating time in Hollywood. Patton chatted with Windy City Times from his home in Mexico.
Windy City Times: You had this great success with "Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean"a year on Broadway and then the filming which led to a life-long friendship with Cher and the others in the castan incredible experience.
Mark Patton: It really was. In fact, I am writing a book about that fantastic period which should be coming out early next year. I'd been thinking about it for quite a while, but losing both Marta Heflin and Karen Black recently really lit a fire under me.
WCT: I look forward to that. And Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean eventually led to Nightmare 2which was a really coveted part, right?
Mark Patton: It was huge, absolutely. Michael Murphy, one of the producers of the film, said to me, "You're never hired as the star of a movie by accident." Even if you've only done one of those big Hollywood movies, it's an amazing experience to be selected in that way. It was wonderful.
WCT: I'm going to guess that while you were filming the movie you were maybe not closeted but a little circumspect. This was the mid-'80s in Hollywood, after all.
Mark Patton: Well, actually, the way that it worked was this: When I was in New York I just lived my life, which is what one did in New York. Then I went to Hollywood and it was a completely and utterly different story. Personally, I was always out. I don't think I've ever been in the closet in my life and my boyfriend at the time who was on Dallashe's passed away nowand we would do things like go to Merv Griffin's house for dinner or to big A-list gay parties. Everybody was out but the actors.
Generally, people sort of protected you. But socially, I was not allowed to live in West Hollywood and I could never go into a gay bar because the agencies would post people at the door to sabotage people's careers. There were only about 20 actors at the timeincluding Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, who both auditioned for Nightmare 2who would be considered for these roles and agents would do anything to get an advantage. It was pretty brutal.
During the middle of Nightmare on Elm Street I began to realize there was something fishy going on with the script and it was really terrifying. I thought, "I'm in a box here and I don't know how to get out of it." This was my first leading role in a big movie and the question was, "Could I play a normal guy?" I had the chops to play people having nervous breakdowns but could I be the boy next door and be straight?
WCT: I can see where you'd read that script and not get the gay subtext but when you were filmingin that S&M kinda bar and that shower scenedid you immediately get that?
Mark Patton: We filmed the bar scene at the Detour [an infamous West Coast leather bar]! I was way past it at that pointI knew what was going on at that point. But literally the straight guys on the setthe director, the DP, the producersthey were dumb as a box of rocks about this. It would not have entered their minds. Bob Shaye, the owner of New Line, plays the bartender in the gay bar!
WCT: I believe you've said that the person who inserted the gay subtext was the screenwriter.
Mark Patton: David Chaskin, yes. This has been the big questionwhy did he do it? He always said that he didn't write it as a gay movie and he denied it forever. When really pushed up against the wall he would say, "Well, the actor in the leadnot even using my namewas so gay that he made the film gay" and I don't know whether David is gay or straight but I will tell you this: I think a closeted gay person in a position of power in show business is one of the most treacherous people that a gay actor can ever encounter.
WCT: Did Robert Englund know about this?
Mark Patton: Not a clue. It just wasn't on the radar of those guys. I mean, please, the coach, before they strap him up to the wall, he's getting shot at by ballshe's playing with his balls and they're shooting at him like they're ejaculating out of penises. [Laughs] If you watch me in the bedroom scene when I'm naked in the bed and the room starts to meltthe candles look like big dicks and they're dripping white wax on my body like they're coming on me. If you really take it all the way, like a couple of doctoral students havelook at Freddy Krueger in contexthe's always vicious to women.
WCT: Talk about closeted.
Mark Patton: Rightbut he's lovely to me. He's always very tender with me. The only people who are killed in that film are boys. Any boy who gets close to me, he kills them. So, it's been interesting for me to watch the revisionism on the tours I've done. Robert [Englund] will now say he knew all along and that it was part of the subtext for both of us. I love Robert but that's total bullshit! [Laughs]
WCT: It's hilarious to see this now but at the time…
Mark Patton: It was terrifying. I started getting fan mail that said, "Faggot, faggot" and "Jesse's a homo" and all that kind of stuff. It was a terrible time. My lover was dying and everybody had AIDS and I quit the business. I should have gone back to New York but instead I said, I'm done and I took off in another direction.
WCT: As an out gay man, what I love about your journey, Mark, is to see someone come full-circle and not only embrace your past but to be at peace about it and have a sense of humor, to boot. You know how rare it is to have an out gay man in a horror-film franchise.
Mark Patton: Thank youthere was always a little voice in my ear whispering, "Show business isn't through with you" and it seems that that voice was right. They call me the Greta Garbo of horror because I disappeared for so long. Now they call me the Joan Crawford of horror because I'm so good to my fans.
WCT: [Laughs] "I AM one of your fans!!!"
Mark Patton: I do, I love my fansespecially my GLBT fans and I can't wait to meet them in Chicago.
See www.mark-patton.com and facebook.com/terrorintheaisles .