“I want to eat these crepes so bad, David. And I can’t.”
Sam Pancake mutters the words as he stares down at his brunch: scrambled eggs, homestyle potatoes and crepes at a fashionable Los Feliz cafe. The actor, known for film roles in Dumplin’ and Legally Blond 2, as well as for a litany of television appearances, laments his heath dictates a gluten-free diet. “And my last name is Pancake,” he adds with exasperation.
In addition to his 30-year career in front of the camera, Pancake has earned newfound fame as a viral celebrity. During a taping of the podcast Lovett or Leave It, the out-gay actor shared a story about ageism he experienced from a younger gay man. In his self-described rant, Pancake called out the self-righteousness of a younger generation that enjoys an era of Pride celebrations, good health, marriage equality and visibility for LGBTQ people in the media. Now in his 50s, Pancake recalls a very different time of plague and discrimination against the community, and that our current age of queer prominence came at a high price.
A clip of Pancake’s denunciation of ageism went viral, bringing a whole new level of fame for the actor, and sparking a conversation about age elitism and discrimination among LGBTQ people. Impressed by the outpouring of praise and attention, Queerty managed to get some time with Pancake to talk about his viral celebrity, his experiences with ageism, and the dark specters of the past that must not be forgotten.
So I have a notion this issue of ageism has been on your mind for a while. Why do you feel like it hit a tipping point now?
Well just for some context, when you do Lovett or Leave it, they ask for you to give them three different topics. I’d heard people on it do political rants or comedy stuff like airplane etiquette. You know, “don’t take your shoes off on the plane” kind of thing. So my choice one was The Masked Singer. Another was Celiac’s disease. And one was gay ageism…or gaygism, if that’s a thing. The incident I talk about happened in January 2019. So when I went in, I was onstage. And it came up as gaygism. And here’s the thing that is really naive of me…
I didn’t know there would be cameras in the room. I do podcasts all the time. This one has a huge following. I listen to it all the time. And this is maybe my old fashioned little gay boy of the 70s mind, but I didn’t think everyone would want to hear at gay rant. Nor would they welcome it. I knew Jon Lovett’s gay; he’s dating Ronan Farrow. Certainly, they would be supportive.
One would think.
So ever since this guy said that to me, and I have told a few friends about it, they reiterated, think about all the people you knew that didn’t live to see this age. Or 27. Or 25. So I didn’t think it would be filmed, and I had no idea that it would be a clip. So I was less self-conscious because I thought if anything got out it would be audio. I’m glad I pulled my sh*t together and looked alright. Most podcasts you roll in looking like sh*t.
So I just had this thing that since I got sober I say to God, “I’m off, you’re on. I’m a vessel.” I say it before every show. And I started off talking about that before what I said in the clip, and you can hear that in the entire podcast. I started by saying when I was a young gay, I wasn’t looking to date guys in their 40s and 50s, I was looking to date guys my own age. I lost my virginity in 1985, and thank God I knew to use condoms. We didn’t always in West Virginia.
So for a good 15 years, from 19-20 to my 30s, because the cocktail came out around ‘94-95, there was this span of living in fear. The other reason I didn’t have any role models—older gay men who were out actors or comedians—was because they didn’t exist. They simply didn’t exist. There was Bill Brochtrup on NYPD Blue, who is still a peer of mine. I love Bill. But there was no one to look up to. About eight years ago I started doing mentoring. The young gay guys that come to me want advice about the business, or what I was like back in the day. So I started off talking about that in the podcast, which just led me to my rant, the part you see in the clip. And how awful to say something like that to one of your gay elders.
It’s a stupid thing to say to anyone. A stupid thought to have. And he wasn’t being bitchy and light. It was venomous and ugly. And he doubled down on it. We were dressed up for a fancy event where there were cameras. One day this will all come out and you’ll know who it was. I would never make an example of someone if I didn’t feel he was being senselessly cruel about it.
You’ve already said you’ve been out here working since 1990. That’s a 30-year career, which is more than some people ever have.
I’m not one to pat myself on the back, but when I do look back, I realize it wasn’t easy. Being an out-gay actor and going through the highs and lows of it all isn’t easy. It’s not like I’m famous.
I’m famous-ish, yes. But people like Neil Patrick Harris or Ellen—they didn’t come out until they were already very famous. And I’m so grateful for them. I love them. I know them. That’s amazing, and they are so great especially when they publicly advocate for things. But it’s a different story when you’re not super famous.
That makes perfect sense. Have you noticed changes in attitudes over that time? In other words, was this issue of age always prevalent? And is that a Hollywood attitude, or a queer one?
I think it always has been there. It’s the worship of youth and beauty and abs. One of the many people that were with me when [the triggering incident] happened had just turned 30. His friends were all like it’s gay death. There’s that weird thing—and I’ve had other people write about—the quips and things about being an older gay man. The good news is I present and behave like a child.
I had to, long ago, learn to not give a f*ck what people think or say about me. If I did, I’d jump off a bridge. But you hear those things. In practice, it hasn’t been that way for me. And I even said this to someone else: you need to keep growing as a person. So my growth was getting sober. Quitting smoking. Finding an amazing gay therapist who is 15 years younger than me. And he’s amazing. But if you try to be a better person—you know for me, I’ve worked more. Things are going great. My life is a lot better. I take care of myself.
Sure. Now, let me run this theory by you. I think, when it comes to the age question, it’s complicated. Some of it is…
Yes, for sure. But something I’ve noticed as I’ve come of age with men around my age or slightly older is is that they’ll suddenly say “Oh, my secret high school boyfriend I mentioned? He was 39, and he was actually my teacher.” Or a youth pastor. Or an uncle. Or neighbor.
And you think it’s cool at the time, but it’s not. It’s not healthy, it’s not right, but you don’t realize that as a kid. So, in other words, some of that youth-obsessed attitude comes from the fact that pedophiles and pederasts have targeted and preyed upon queer men for so long. This idea that you need to stay young to be attractive is drilled into our brains.
And for so many of us that couldn’t be out when we were young, or couldn’t talk about it with our families out of fear, you get used to keeping it a secret. And the reason it happens now, at a certain age, is because gay men now live long enough to see 35 or 40 and realize there is no way they could ever date a 15-year-old. They realize how wrong that is, that it’s not a relationship. So I think some of the youth obsession comes from.
I agree with that. I think you’re right.
You mention that you have always been out, and that actors could never be out when you first started in the business.
Yeah. I was never in. I just kept chugging along.
I have this conversation with so many actors, directors, casting directors—the way being out can have an effect on a career. So for you, being out at that time at the height of the plague, and all the crazy Moral Majority Republican stupidity, what was your experience?
My God. I haven’t thought about that in so long. The thing is, I started out doing commercials and some sitcom guest spots. I did a spot on a Fox show, and I was a nerdy, kind of Urkel type. One of the producers, in a kind way, pulled me aside and said “Can you make him less light?” And it’s something I heard from so many directors and casting directors. I was like oh sh*t, I need to butch up this nerd character.
So I would butch up for auditions and go in like I’m the beer bro. Or I would get called in for exaggerated stereotypes, sort of like Bronson Pinchot in Beverly Hills Cop. And I made the decision that I wouldn’t exaggerate it. And sometimes a straight guy would go in and be [prissy]. I have a million stories. But there were a lot of gay guys who would get called in for the lead, like Tuc Watkins, or Robert Gant. It was harder for them in a way because they were leading men. For character guys like me, it didn’t matter as much.
The big thing for me was going in for commercials. I could never book a beer spot. I could never play a beer bro. It’s hard to think about the over-arching. I had so much to think about every day, I numbed out. I worked for a casting director, who I still love. And this was from 1990-93. His partner contracted HIV and died in the bedroom next to the office where I worked. We worked from the casting director’s house. And Tim lay there and wasted away in front of us. When he finally passed away, we had a memorial. I had the feeling of thank God I’m healthy.
And that was the over-all feeling. The collective consciousness of fear, and the terror I had put into me. I was lucky that I fell in with an amazing group of people that were like my Brady Bunch. And I’m still friends with all those people—Jane Lynch, Kate Flannery, Ana Gasteyer, Jackie Beat. So I always had faith tomorrow would be better.
Were you ever warned to go back in the closet?
Constantly. Again, I’m not the hot shirtless hunk that is going to be the next Tom Cruise. I was the “funny guy.” And I’m so aware—and I have to say this now—how much I enjoyed white privilege for that long. The gay thing was secondary. The odds were stacked in my favor, so how much can I bitch?
There’s a lot in there. We’ll have to talk about that another time. But in terms of auditioning and working with casting directors, what was your experience as an out actor?
I had one casting director, I remember, said to me “You’re gay Tom Hanks. You’ll be like Nathan [Lane]. You’ll always play gay.” And I told her I played young dads in commercials. And she said “But only for 30 seconds.”
The worst experience with a casting director I had was actually with a gay casting director. A gay man, one specifically. All gay actors are likely to know who he is. I’m not going to say his name, but he has a reputation of being horrible to gay men…who are not beautiful.
It’s so awful in the office you can’t believe it. That might be my next rant. To quote the great Drew Droege, “There’s a lot of gay on gay violence.” I mean, how about we have each other’s backs?
So we need to talk a bit about the AIDS years because increasingly people don’t remember them. Obviously, men of a certain age do, but even for someone my age, I only remember it as being on the news. I wasn’t part of the community yet. To your point about gay mentorship—even guys my age never had gay mentors, because there were so few gay men when we came of age. They were dead. And it’s taken a long time to understand what that means.
When I look at my circle of friends now, I realize had we lived in the 80s or even the 90s as adults, most of them would probably be dead. All of this is to ask, because we need to, as a community, remember and talk about it—what was it like in that time?
Kristen Johnson [the actress of 3rd Rock from the Sun] has this great line: “Ambition is a painkiller.” So I did not drive from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to Los Angeles to not make it. So my ambition and ego are very big. So I was in denial a lot. When my uncle died of AIDS in 1990, my grandparents wouldn’t say it. They said he died of a stroke—which was true, but it was a stroke from AIDS complications.
I knew about AIDS from when I was in high school and read about it. So I knew to use condoms. But I’d never seen gay porn when I first had sex. I didn’t know what happened. I just had a vague idea of what happened. So when I tried getting into penetration, it was like OW!
But I had friends who contracted HIV who were objectively hotter and offered more sex. Looking back on the plague years now, people were dropping left and right. I remember going in to work at Johnny Rockets, and I used to work with a guy 21, 22, who was very hot and out and proud. We used to call him Mona. I loved him. And one day he called in sick, and two weeks later he died. You can’t believe the power of seeing these men who would be strapping and healthy and dynamic and young, and they would die in a matter of weeks. They’d just wither away. Having that happen around you—I was in constant terror.
I had a boss who was 10 or 20 years older than me. He once showed me a picture of himself with a big group of friends and said “There are two of us left.”
It was so much worse for those guys. I didn’t feel like I had a right to feel that bad. I was healthy. I had to be strong for people that HIV. It was awful. And unlike the person that said these things to me on this incident, I do know a lot of guys in their 20s and 30s who do want to know, and who are educated and who are respectful. And I wanted to say this earlier…
Back in the day, I wasn’t in the trenches. I was a tiny part of it. I was an out person, going to marches, donating to benefits, sitting with friends when they were sick…
[He pauses a moment and turns his face to the wall as he begins to cry]
I sat with them when they were sick. It was really bad. I don’t think I ever let myself grieve to the degree I needed. And this isn’t just about friends with AIDS. People had really bad addictions and emotional problems. And that was because they’d been shunned and hated by their families. It was a different world. And…
[His tears intensify. I put my hand on his arm.]
What we lived through back then, what we dreamed of was a better world for our people. We have that now. And I would never wish anyone—including the guy who said this—would have to go through what we did. So like a parent-child relationship, you want a better life for your child. You can’t blame someone for not knowing what we went through, because we didn’t want him to. But just think about it. And to anyone who wants to be funny about it…it was that awful. So just be respectful. Watch your mouth. Know your history.
Two years ago, in January 2018, I had a friend die of complications from AIDS. He was so depressed, he didn’t do anything about it. It was just a long form of suicide. So in this day and age, I had to watch my oldest, closest friend in LA die of AIDS because he wouldn’t fight it and he waited too long to get treatment. So it does still happen. And I’ve had other friends who were HIV+ and after years of taking the meds, they just gave up and chose to end their lives by not getting treatment. That happens too.
You know, all this reminds me of a scene from the recent Tales of the City. There’s a dinner party where an older, white gay man uses the word “tr*nny” and a younger man chastises them. And they have this big argument about the younger man who has access to PrEP and safe spaces and marriage equality not respecting his elders, who worked hard so that he could enjoy these privileges. In a sense, that is a conversation we are having within the community.
To me, it’s never OK to be transphobic or racist.
So that answers that part of it.
And I’ve had this conversation around me so many times. You can’t ossify yourself and only care about yourself.
So how much slack do you cut your elders, who might not be as woke, or as informed, or as up to date? And the flip side of that, there is a tendency to be reactionary too. So when it comes to, for example, labeling someone “bisexual” instead of “fluid” or “pansexual,” is that really worthy of ridicule?
All I can say is, for me, we gotta stay flexible. We gotta change. I realize the glory of the new world. There’s so much bullsh*t going on right now, but the LGBTQ community continues to thrive despite the climate. And I love it. I’m not a policymaker. I’m not a politician. I’m not a pundit. I’m not one to stand up and say “this is the way it’s gotta be.” I have privilege. I’m a white, very gay dude. I’m not trans. In another time, maybe I would have felt non-binary. But I know I’m a dude. I like being a dude. I know who I am.
I think we all have to love each other, hold each other’s hands and stay close through this evolving world. I just listen. I listen to women, to people of color, to trans people.
So if there’s one thing you want the younger generations to know, particularly for those who might enjoy the privilege of wealth, of race, of gender—what do you want them to know?
Learn your history. Read And The Band Played On. Watch Angels in America. There’s a book, and I haven’t read it yet. A couple recommended it to me: it’s called Bridging the Gap. Kids in their 20s today, or even their teens, don’t know about that sh*t. They can’t go to their parents and say “Mommy, Daddy, tell me about the AIDS crisis!”
For that matter, how many straight parents really know or understand what it was like for queer people at that time?
Right. Watch Longtime Companion.
We have a list that I keep updated of the big movies and TV shows that document LGBTQ history, and specifically one just about the AIDS crisis.
Good, link to that.
So what’s next for you?
Well I’m on this TV show on ABC called A Million Little Things. I have a small recurring part. I was on Thursday and I’m on again in a few more weeks for the Season Finale. I’m waiting to hear on another season. I’m also recurring on Search Party, where Drew [Droge] and I play this horrible divorced gay couple. I’ll also be doing my one-man show again in LA soon. I also do a podcast called Sam Pancake For Dinner about 1970s supernatural and horror TV movies. It’s a comedy podcast, so even if you don’t know the movies, you can enjoy it.