Harvey Fierstein: No longer an activist

The next year, he won for writing "La Cage Aux Folles," the wildly successful story of two gay men facing a crisis in their relationship. The reaction to the show seemed to surprise him. He told The New York Times in 1987, "It's still quite extraordinary to realize that all those people from Westchester are cheering wildly for two gay men on stage."

"That was a jump, that was a real leap," Fierstein said, "because we'd never seen a love song between two men."

His fourth Tony was for what was perhaps his best-known Broadway role and, once again, he played it in a dress: Edna Turnblad, the overstuffed and slightly overbearing female lead in "Hairspray."

"So what is it about you and drag?" asked Schlesinger.

"Fate," he laughed. "Fate. I was aware of being gay [at a] very early age. And I had no role models at all. I mean, and I'm not trying to cop out. There wasn't no role models in the '50s for a gay kid growing up -- not anymore, thank goodness, but back when I was growing up, asked all these questions and there was no good answers. So you had to make up ones of your own. For me, I guess on some level, there was the identity with the feminine."


Broadway star Harvey Fierstein (dressed as character Edna Turnblad from the musical "Hairspray") and singer Rod Stewart, at the 45th Annual Grammy Awards, at Madison Square Garden in New York City, February 23, 2003. Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

And it was drag that lifted his career beyond Broadway. His role in "Mrs. Doubtfire" made Harvey Fierstein a household name for millions of moviegoers.

Fierstein has done as much in show business as anyone could hope for, but his career almost ended in the years before "Hairspray." It was in the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic.

"Well, I lost almost everyone I loved," he said. "I mean, I lost lovers. I lost friends. I mean, just from the cast of 'Torch Song,' I think we lost four or five people. From the cast of 'La Cage,' a few people. I had the ashes of three or four friends buried in my backyard. And it was all-consuming, 'cause constantly you're either trying to raise money or you're trying to raise awareness. You were trying to teach safe sex or find out what actually is going on."

He wrote a series of three short plays he combined together in a work called "Safe Sex," talking about life and love in the age of AIDS -- and then stopped writing for the theatre.

Stopped acting, stopped pretty much everything, except drinking.