Ask nearly any non-hetero man who came of age during the 1980s about Maxwell Caulfield, and you’ll likely see his eyes light up with adolescent desire. The English-born actor had few peers during the Reagan era as a heartthrob to gay men. Caulfield first made a name for himself in the late ’70s-early ’80s by appearing in a number of stage productions, such as gay playwright Joe Orton’s The Entertaining Mr. Sloane. His performance in this farce attracted a lot of attention, including the eye of renowned movie producer Allan Carr, who soon cast the sexy young performer as Michael Carrington in Grease 2, the hotly-anticipated follow-up to the 1978 mega-musical. While the 1982 film underperformed at the time, it’s developed a devoted following in the years since and Caulfield went on to deliver a searing turn in the 1985 crime drama The Boys Next Door, which has also become a cult film since its release, and titillated TV viewers as dashing Miles in the primetime drama The Colbys opposite screen legends Barbara Stanwyck and Charlton Heston. Besides appearing in numerous other films and television programs, including Beverly Hills 90210 and the U.K. drama Emmerdale, Caulfield has amassed an incredible theatrical resume, including acclaimed performances in Chicago and the gay-themed My Night With Reg. The now 55-year-old entertainer, who has been married to actress Juliet Mills since 1980, will next appear in his first character role as uptight Felix Unger in Neil Simon’s classic comedy The Odd Couple at the Laguna Playhouse in Southern California March 4-29. Caulfield chatted with Queerty about his hedonistic days in New York before the AIDS epidemic, what happened after Grease 2, working with Stanwyck and what he’s learned about himself playing Felix.
Queerty: You’re starring in a revival of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. What’s the appeal of this show for you?
Maxwell Caulfield: I’m getting to step into the shoes of one of my idols, Art Carney with this one. Jack Lemmon immortalized it on film, but Art Carney played it opposite Walter Matthau on Broadway in 1965. I’ve resisted the urge to watch the film again because Lemmon’s performance is just so indelible I’d be hearing it with every line reading. I’d end up doing a facsimile of Jack Lemmon.
I’ve had to investigate my own neurosis. I mean this character is a legendary neurotic. In many ways the part presaged self-analysis and all these terms that are now in the current parlance. There’s no question that Felix has major issues. He’s passive aggressive and a major drama queen. I’m not saying he’s gay, and I’m not playing him as gay because he’s not written as gay. He certainly knows how to milk a situation and make it all about him. I can’t imagine why they thought of me for this role. I thought Am I really right for Felix? Then I began to realize his behavior is what’s so funny about him. His self-absorption and all of his various ailments and hypochondria and obsession with cleanliness. I’ll hold up my hands to all of the above.
In your real life are you more like Felix or Oscar?
The state of my desk would indicate Oscar. As far as Felix goes, without revealing too much there are aspects of my own personality that I’m still trying to modify. They say that once a man hits 50 your overall personality is pretty much set in stone. I just hope I’m allowed a little leeway because of that Peter Pan thing about being an actor. [Laughs]
Although you’re best known for your film and TV work, you’ve always found time to do live theater. What’s the reason for this?
The roles in the theater have provided my better opportunities. I can genuinely say that this is my first true character part. It may be the start of a new phase in my career in terms of not trading on looks. You just can’t sustain them. The reality is that we all age. Well, some people are ageless. I don’t know what the heck Tom Cruise is doing, taking monkey glands or something. Somehow that boy refuses to get past 38, it seems.
My first job in New York was in a gay farce called Hot Rock Hotel. I bragged my way into the production that was set in a gay resort in Florida and was about a mix up of Louis Vuitton bags. I came out at the end of the show as the new lifeguard. I brought the curtain down. That was the gag of the show. These two hoteliers had finally gotten their rambunctious guests off the property after a lot of mayhem and their compensation was a new lifeguard so yours truly came out in a pair of white Speedos. That was amusing.
You must have been very popular. What do you remember about those early days in New York?
My cast members took me to gay discos after the show and after hours and it was pretty eye-opening. There was no better time in the world than the late ’70s and early ’80s. Before the damned plague hit it was absolutely party central. On our days off we went to Fire Island and there were tea dances and it was a scene. No one forced themselves on you. Everyone was just in love with life. Some would disappear into the Pines or whatever it was called. Others just carried on dancing and drinking. [Laughs] It was a memorable time. I’m glad I got to come to New York before the Disneyfication of the city and before the pall was cast over it by that dreadful disease. I lost friends like everybody. It’s like anywhere nowadays when you look at it and think it’s changed, but thank God I knew it then. I was lucky enough to experience that.
Allan Carr saw you in Joe Orton’s The Entertaining Mr. Sloane and eventually cast you as Michael in Grease 2. Allan was one of Hollywood’s most legendary/notorious characters. What are your memories of him and landing the lead in the musical?
Allan was terrific to me until the film came out. I don’t even know if he was nasty to me but rumor had it he wasn’t my biggest fan after the film crashed and burned. Before that he was amazing. He loaned Juliet and I his house in Hawaii. He couldn’t do enough for us. You’ve got to deliver for people. He took a chance on me. There were a lot of guys who were way more qualified to play that part. There were genuine teen idols with great singing voices. It was Andy Gibb’s part to lose. He obviously looked like a million bucks and sang like a dream but then they realized he had no screen presence or couldn’t act. The role became open so I was in there competing with Leif Garrett and Rick Springfield and Shaun Cassidy. I still don’t quite know why I got it.
Don’t sell yourself short. I know a lot of people who are earnest in their love for Grease 2. You’re quite good in the movie and you’re widely considered to be one of the most handsome men to ever appear on screen.
Oh, my God. That’s outrageous. You’re too kind. Thank you very much.
Another role that endeared you to gay fans was as Miles in the Dynasty spinoff The Colbys. What do you remember about working with Barbara Stanwwyck?
The first day I worked on the set with her the whole Colby family was assembled in the living room and I was supposed to make this flamboyant entrance with my new bride who I’d married in Vegas and who turned out to be my half-brother’s wife who had amnesia. They put me in a white suit with a blue teal shirt, which was a beautiful combination. Just before I came on there were flowers all over the set. The Colbys had about a $25,000 a week fresh flower budget and they flew them in from the tropics. I said I’d like a red rose so I’d be in red, white and blue. Wouldn’t you know it, they didn’t have a single red rose on the set but they had every other flower under the sun. They offered me a red carnation. I told them to run out to a florist and get a red rose, but it held up production for about 15 minutes and Barbara Stanwyck never forgave me. Never. [Laughs] Finally I had a repatriation with her that was ordered by the producer who’d scouted me butt naked in a play opposite Jessica Tandy [1985’s Salonika]. I had a great scene with her outside the Ahmanson Theatre. It was just Miss Stanwyck and myself. I’m so glad I did get to work with her that time. She thought I was some young know-it-all, wildly unprofessional brat and she may have not been too far off the mark. I think she favored John James, who played Jeff Colby, but I think it’s because he evoked R.J. Wagner, who Barbara had an affair with years before.
I know that you’re a big fan of James Dean, to whom you were sometimes compared during the early years of your career. What is it about him that appeals to you?
James Dean gave me a sense of myself. I didn’t necessarily look like him or behave like him, but by God I wanted to.