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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Deeper Dish with Sam Harris

I first became a fan of singer-actor Sam Harris in May 1997 when my partner and I saw him in the Broadway musical, The Life, which explored the underbelly of Times Square's 42nd Street in the 1980s. He played the character of Jojo, an opportunistic, conniving hustler who sang the engaging Cy Coleman opening number, "Use What You Got." We fell madly in love with the musical, which still remains one of our favorite New York experiences. In fact, we went back to see it a second time during the same trip - and that afternoon the one and only Carol Channing was the first person to give the show a standing ovation. Of course, everyone else in the audience quickly followed her lead. Sam was nominated for a Tony Award (Best Featured Actor in a Musical) for his wonderful performance - and he gained at least two new fans.

The talented Mr. Harris got his first big break in showbiz in 1983 when he appeared on the first season of TV's Star Search and won the grand prize. He was soon performing concerts around the world, and his first two CDs sold over a million copies each (he's so far released nine studio albums). Sam also co-created and wrote the TBS television sitcom, Down to Earth (1984-87), and in 2006, he starred as the flamboyant Perry Pearl on the CBS comedy series, The Class. His other stage credits include the 1994 Broadway revival of Grease (for which he was nominated for a Drama Desk Award), The Producers, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Cabaret as well as the self-penned shows, Hard Copy, Different Hats, Revival and SAM.

Sam continues to be busy today, having recently released his latest song, "My Reclamation", which he wrote as a protest against Proposition 8.  And he's also now a family man - having married his longtime partner, Danny Jacobsen, and adopted a son, Cooper Atticus, in 2008. So I am thrilled to have this groovy guy here on the Dish to discuss his life - and The Life - and answer a few pop culture questions.

Let's begin with your new song, "My Reclamation". How did you end up writing and recording it?
In 2009 I got a call from Reed Cowan, who is a newscaster/journalist from Miami. He told me he'd seen my very passionate vlog the day after Proposition 8 passed and that it had inspired him to create a film. A recovering Mormon, he wanted to expose the illegal dealings of the LDS in which they basically financed changing of legislation. I was flattered that someone had been inspired by my words, but knew that making a film was quite a process, so I congratulated him on taking action and wished him the very best of luck. Cut to months later when he informed me that his film, 8: The Mormon Proposition, was finished! And a few weeks later he called to tell me it got into Sundance! I was beyond ecstatic that he'd gotten so far. THEN the movie became a big fat hit at Sundance and he got distribution. He asked if I wanted to see it and sent me a screener. I loved the film. I was so moved by it. It is very very powerful.

Now it was my turn to be inspired. I wrote a lyric and took it to my very talented colleagues, Kevin Fisher and Todd Schroeder, and we wrote the melody together - and "My Reclamation" was born. We produced it and now we're offering it to the gods and wherever it's supposed to land. It's a perfect story of putting something out there and affecting others to take action. I am very proud of it. I am a married gay man with a child. It is, of course, very personal for me. This is not a "gay" issue. It's a civil rights issue. I am especially proud of the lyrics of this song.

What was your inspiration for your latest CD, Free?
Free has a number of songs on it that I'd written with Todd Schroeder and wanted to record. Most of the CD is original. And there were songs that I knew I should do, namely, "I Can't Make You Love Me," which I'd been doing for years in concert and was a song people had asked me to record my interpretation of.  At this time in my life, where I truly feel "free," I wanted to examine all the different meanings of that word.  Free from emotional baggage, relationships, social pressure. The CD is an amalgam of different definitions of the word.

Do you remember the very first song that you ever sang in public?
I don't remember this, but my parents have told me that my first performance was at two years old, singing "The Star Spangled Banner" at a high school football game. Not an easy song, mind you.

What is the most memorable and/or funniest moment you have had while performing onstage either in concert or in a show?
Memorable and funny are two very different things. Funny? The time I forgot to underdress a pair of shorts and came out on stage in a dance belt. Or the time the interpreter for the deaf came out in costume (when I was doing Joseph) with a giant foil headdress on and I almost lost it.

Memorable? The time a giant piece of pipe broke off of an electric fan and whished past my ear, nearly hitting me - and it would have most definitely killed or maimed me. Or the time when I was doing SAM just before I got sober - when every performance was a nightmare to get through - and I actually pretended to have a coughing fit because I had no idea where I was in the show or what was happening next.  I had to leave the stage to look at my script in my dressing room and pull myself together.

Do you have a favorite Down to Earth episode?
Hmmm. Back through the pages in my mind...probably the one where our main character, Ethel (who was dead but sent back as an angel to help a family) actually re-met her former boyfriend from the '20s, now an old man, and they rekindled their romance. I know - doesn't make sense if you don't know the show. I was 21 years old and had sold a series and was writing episodes. It was surreal.

Now let's discuss a few of your television and stage performances over the years. What's the first thing that pops into your mind about:

Star Search?
Incredible, life-changing, first time all the elements of my persona had come together. Also naive and vulnerable and a confusing time - but a remarkable experience.

My first Broadway show. Great company. I met and worked with people who have remained my good friends since.

The Life?
Loved originating something on Broadway with the great Cy Coleman. LOVED the cast. Got to sing real Broadway songs. And dance my tuchis off!

The Class?
Again, great cast. I always walk away from everything loving everybody. I always have a good time. Great, fun writing. A total surprise. I did the pilot as a guest star and before we went into production, I was made a series regular. It was so sad to see it go. My character was really being developed and I was loving it. Jimmy Burrows directed. Genius. Loved the creators, David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik, who have remained very close friends of mine. Jeffrey and I actually have another project together. He's amazing.

Which was better - performing at The White House or on Oprah?
Well, it was during the second Bush administration, so Oprah, hands down. Years before, meeting Clinton was a huge thrill - he attended a show I did so that was amazing. Singing at the White House - great. Singing for Bush - not so great. He has sort of an empty vapid look. And if you stand right next to him close - you can hear the ocean. Poor Laura was just empty. A smile with no substance. Like the wheel was turning but the hamster was dead. It was revealing. Oprah, however, is an incredible human being, on air and off. The second time I did her show, it was right after 9/11 so it was a very personal time for all of us. I dined at her home the night before the show and she invited me to fly on her plane with her back to LA after the show. We all came together to get through it. A very powerful experience for me.

If you could go back 30 years and give your younger self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
Listen to the experts. You don't have to do it alone. Be singular and individual but moldable. And - slow down. Take it in. Remember the moments.

In high school I was:

My favorite comfort food is:
Ice cream with chocolate chips and pistachios

The last good book I read was:
I haven't read a book other than child books in three years. Shocking, from an avid, freaky reader. But I can tell you where Cooper is on the development chart of everything. He is, by the way, extremely advanced...and beautiful...and smart...really really funny...I'm just saying.

When I was growing up, I never missed a television episode of:
The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Dark Shadows, The Carol Burnett Show, and I Love Lucy re-runs.

Today I never miss a television episode of:
Damages, Survivor (with friends), Modern Family, and I Love Lucy re-runs.

The very first record album that I purchased with my own money was:
Janis Ian's "At Seventeen", A Chorus Line - I have no idea. But it was probably lonely or outcast-ish.

If I was stranded on a desert island for a year, I would want to listen to:
The soundtrack score to To Kill a Mockingbird, Carole King's Tapestry, Dreamgirls, John Coltrane's Blue Train, and "How To Get Off A Desert Island With Just This Lousy CD."

Three of my favorite movies are:
Ponette, Ordinary People and To Kill a Mockingbird.

If I could go back in time and see any Broadway show, I would see:
Ethel Merman in Gypsy, Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, and Al Jolson in anything.

If I was asked to choose the Sexiest Man Alive (besides my partner), it would be:
Johnny Depp - he's mysterious, intriguing, smart, talented

If I could have anyone in the world - living or dead - be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
Jesus, Ghandi and Hitler - all drunk. Could be fascinating. If Lucille Ball could join us for backgammon, I think it would round it out.

What have you learned about yourself since becoming a father?
That there is no time in my life for bullshit. Or bullshitters. I have no available energy for anything but what brings me and my family joy and goodness. Yes, my profession has a lot of lying, sneaking bastards in it, but I see them more clearly than before - and move on. Fatherhood has given me a sense of priority - and patience, which is essential for a good father. I never knew my heart could be this big. My son and my husband are the center of my world, my friends and family are next, my work is third, though it brings me great joy, and the rest is passing, negotiable and mostly unnecessary.

What's next for Sam Harris?
More music, more TV, more concerts, more writing, and much more fatherhood. Life if full and fat and great. And I am exhausted, but happy.

Thank you, Sam, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish.  To learn more about the man and his music, check out Sam's website at and his YouTube channel. You can also download "My Reclamation" at, become a Facebook fan or follow Sam on Twitter. And, finally, you can welcome in Gay Pride Week with Sam when he appears at The Rrazz Room in San Francisco June 23 - 27 (click here to purchase tickets).

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