In his new memoir, "I Was Better Last Night," Tony-winning actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein recounts his life, from coming out as gay as a teen, to his roles in such Broadway shows as "Torch Song Trilogy," "La Cage aux Folles," "Hairspray" and "Fiddler on the Roof."
Read an excerpt below, in which Fierstein writes of his film roles opposite Robin Williams, Edward Norton and Jon Stewart.
Don't miss Rita Braver's interview with Harvey Fierstein onMarch 13!
On Befriending Robin Williams & Making "Mrs. Doubtfire"
Working on "Mrs. Doubtfire" was a dream. Director Chris Columbus devised a brilliant system of capturing all that was Robin [Williams]. We did each shot over and over again as scripted until Chris was sure he had what he needed, and then Robin was set loose to improvise. This was especially fun when we worked on the scenes transforming him into Mrs. Doubtfire. But the shot I remember most was the one where Robin knocked on my door and asked me to make him into a woman. I did the line as written a few times until Chris told me he had what he needed. Now it was my turn to improvise. I cannot tell you how many times Robin knocked, said, "Can you make me a woman?" and I reacted. Dozens of takes, dozens of lines ... until Chris finally said, "Cut. We've got enough."
We were just about to step off set when I was struck with an inspiration. I screamed out, "Just one more." Chris was game. We went back and I delivered the line that has become a meme for all occasions: "Oh, honey, I'm so happy."
Losing Robin was impossible for all who loved him. Cliché be damned, he was like a brother to me. Always generous, supportive, inclusive whenever we could get together. I don't know why, but some people just walk right into your heart and make themselves at home. That's the way it always felt with Robin. As with any true friendship, it was our private time that I cherished most. We were once having dinner in San Francisco when I told him I needed to get back to LA in the morning. As it happened, a studio was sending its private jet to bring him to Hollywood for a meeting. He invited me to come along. We were the only ones in the plane's cabin besides a flight attendant. For reasons I don't recall, there was a guitar on the floor. Robin picked it up and began to improvise. Nonsensical as it sounds, for the next hour I took on the role of Spanish actress Charo and he assumed the role of a chihuahua as we fought over which one of us Xavier Cugat loved best. It was a musical. We were in cuchi-cuchi heaven.
Of all questions the press asks I am most often queried about Robin. He is so beloved. People only need to hear his name and they automatically smile. I confess, that was never my reaction to him. Even before considering the torment he must have been experiencing to end his life the way he did, whenever we were together my heart reached out longing to comfort him. My brain reasoned, What the hell do you think he needs from you? He's got a wife, beautiful children, a great career, more money than he can ever spend, terrific buddies, and a world of strangers who would kill to be his friend. The audacity to think he needs anything from you!
But that feeling was always there. A tiny voice from deep within called out in pain, and I was never sure he knew that I heard it.
On Ed Norton, Jon Stewart, and "Death to Smoochy"
I was positive that "Death to Smoochy" would be a huge hit, which proves how little I know. It was a satirical comedy with a cast led by Robin Williams and Edward Norton, both big draws at the time. The script was dark, dumb, fun, allotting plenty of opportunities for both leads to go wild. Also featured was Jon Stewart in a rare acting gig. I was most impressed with the movie's lighting design. Shooting in shadowy locations, the designer used saturated color in complementary hues to transform the world of children's television from rainbow happiness to the unnervingly conflicted. Being on set was visually exciting. But then, when I saw the movie, the colors had been diluted and dulled. Maybe it was all too much when they viewed the footage.
I remember filming in Times Square, right outside what was then the Toys "R" Us megastore. It was an all-night shoot, which costs plenty, so there's no cancelling even if you get hit with a blizzard. We got hit with a blizzard. We needed to shoot a scene in which I, a tough gangster type, threaten the life of Edward Norton, a wimp, in the back of my stretch limo. They put it off as long as they could, hoping the snowfall would let up so you could see something beyond the car windows, but it was not to be. The sun was about to rise and the snow showed no sign of stopping. Danny DeVito, the director, soldiered on and shot the scene, and then my closeups, but by the time he turned around for Edward's singles, everyone was exhausted. Danny took me aside and said, "Poor Edward's in the back of the car, practically dead. All I need is a close-up of a truly frightened look on his face and we can wrap for the night. I'm counting on you. Get in there and say something really scary so I can grab the shot and we can get the f*** out of here."
"I'll try," I said, racking my brain for something that would frighten an actor who'd played opposite Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Frances McDormand. Danny put me in place, almost on top of Edward, squeezing him into the corner of the car's back-seat. I brought my face inches from his, as close as I could without getting in the frame, and as soon as Danny called "Action," I began to darkly hiss into this mouth:
"You so pretty. I wish't I had a doll of you. I wish't I had a doll of you and I would f*** it." Edward's face turned white. Danny hollered "Cut!"
Edward sprang out from under me and bolted from the car, off into the blinding snowstorm. Not that we run in the same circles, but I don't think he's ever spoken to me again.
Danny does like the look of danger. In another scene, which I think was excised from the movie, he had me threaten Jon Stewart by standing on his privates. He laid poor Jon on the ground and had me tower over him, the heel of my shoe dangerously close to his genitalia. Of course, they placed rails for me to lean on so I wouldn't accidentally slip and destroy his future lineage; but it was still a scary prospect for Jon, and, just as soon as Danny called "Cut!" Mr. Stewart sprang out from under me, and although we don't run in the same circles, I don't believe he's ever spoken to me again.
Excerpted from "I Was Better Last Night: A Memoir" by Harvey Fierstein. Copyright © 2022 by Harvey Fierstein. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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