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Jun 01 2017
Pride Month: The Funny Business Of Alan Sues Comments (0)

AlanSuesAlan Sues — bell of the ball (Image via NBC)

For my first Gay Pride Month tribute post, I'm profiling Alan Sues (1926-2011), most famous for his hiding-in-plain-sight-campy characters on Rowan & Martin's Laugh In from 1968-1972.

No, he never came out professionally, but not everyone can be Harvey Milk, and some of us who fall short of those heights can still have a great Alan-Sues impact on the LGBTQ experience.

A new book — Alan Sues: A Funny Man by Michael Gregg Michaud (BearManor Media) — provides an in-depth and highly personal introduction to the life and work of Sues, written by a close friend who also wrote the definitive book on Sal Mineo. Alan Sues: A Funny Man beautifully captures the comic actor's kooky wit while documenting fascinating aspects of his life as a closeted gay man whose first same-sexual experiences happened 30 years before oral and anal sex were legal in California.

For a guy born in the '20s, Sues's public life was about as openly gay as you get without saying it. For starters, his first major job was in the original Broadway production of the gay-themed drama Tea and Sympathy (1953-1955). He never missed a performance during its run. Ironically, he was cast as a bully! His remembrances of working on the production, as related to Michaud, are hysterical, including his summary of co-star John Kerr as handsome but dull: “Years later, he became a lawyer, which explained a lot.” A dutifully gossipy gay, Sues also recalled wanted to ask Leif Erickson about his ex, Frances Farmer, but realized “that wasn't the way to go.”

SUes-Masks-Twilight-ZoneSues enters The Twilight Zone (Image via CBS)

After marrying a gorgeous girl with whom he had a stage act, Sues worked mostly in the theater. His big break on TV was in one of the most memorable and acclaimed episodes of The Twilight Zone. He played the boorish, bratty Wilfred Harper Jr. in the 1964 installment “The Masks.” Spoiler alert: Dying rich guy persuades his vulture-like heirs to don creepy masks, knowing that when removed, his relatives' faces will have been transformed into more accurate representations of their hideous souls.

Watch Sues chatting with his ex-wife 50 years after their divorce:

His career-defining job, though was on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Those Laugh-In performances almost always read as gay, and did so in a way that let enlightened viewers in on the joke that being a gay wasn't the joke. Though some might criticize Sues and other actors of his ilk as gay buffoons, he was careful not to participate in skits that would today be seen as rank gay-bashing, often refusing to say the lines or performing badly on purpose so the bits wouldn't be used.

A fantastic conversation about Sues between Michaud and Phil Hall on The Online Movie Show:

As reported by Michaud, Sues said, upon leaving the show:

Laugh-In gave me a new life. But as time passed, I took issue with the material they threw at me. And in a way, it hurt me professionally because I was typecast. I did 104 episodes. Casting agents saw me as Big Al and the only acting parts I was getting sent out for were flaming gay characters.

Nonetheless, his Uncle Al TV host character feels like a precursor to stuff Pee-wee Herman and later SNL actors were doing; it's strikingly modern and far edgier than the kind of humor found on most '60s TV: 

For another taste of Sues's persona, check him out on Celebrity Sweepstakes, a clear example of how his gayness was bluntly acknowledged in a Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly sort of way, even though he — like those other funnymen — was not out. Laugh-In had cooked him as the type of flaming character he would go on to play again and again:

After Laugh-In ended, Sues did make bank when he appeared in a series of goofy commercials for Peter Pan peanut butter as a dithering Peter himself. Never has the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up been lighter in the moccasins. In a nod to Sues's status as an obviously gay person, the little boy at the end of one spot noted, “He's weird.” His sister added, “But he makes a great peanut butter sandwich.” Isn't that what the fight for gay rights is all about, the right to be yourself while still making a great peanut butter sandwich?

Onward through the '90s, Sues worked sporadically in TV and on the stage. His last credit was in the comedic short Artificially Speaking in 2003, a project that found him blurting, “We all love fruit.”

Facing advanced age and declining health, Sues called it quits after a shaky appearance for a Laugh-In reunion on the 60th Annual Emmy Awards, when he felt physically challenged to the point that it affected his performance.

Though glass-closeted, Sues apparently made it almost to the end of his life thinking his act had rendered his true sexual orientation undetectable except to those in the know. His final public appearance, at an autograph show in 2009, put that belief to rest.

From Michaud's biography:

One gratifying result of Alan's appearance at the autograph show was the realization that his time on Laugh-In had been appreciated by so many fans. Many gay men stood in line to meet him that day. They told him he was one of the few gay men they saw on television when they were young, and his gay visibility, though myopic in style, made a difference to them. Alan was shocked, and genuinely overcome. One fellow told him he had looked forward to Monday nights just to watch Alan on the show, and it was the only way he got through his problems. Alan posed for photos with many of the guys, always looking a little coquettish, flirting and saying something to make each person laugh.

“And I thought nobody knew I was gay,” he said to me as he rolled his eyes. He was genuinely shocked.

Sues died at 85 on December 1, 2011, after suffering a heart attack while watching TV with his dog.

Let's end with a few words from the man himself! Here is octogenarian Sues recounting his frantic dash for the Fire Island ferry one summer, which is about as gay as it gets: