Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

July 10–17, 1997

noises off

Off the List

By David Warner


Tom McBride.

"He was a demi-god of the gay world," says one admirer.

"He was a trophy," says a woman friend.

"He reminded me of Lil' Abner," another man offers. "A stud-muffin, but nice."

His name was Tom McBride, and he's the posthumous subject of Life and Death on the A-List, a documentary that has its local premiere July 17 in the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

But long before he became a much-lusted-after member of the New York gay beauty elite, he was a young actor doing Summer Shakespeare at Villanova in 1977 — a recent arrival from West Virginia cast as Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

I knew Tom that summer, if only fleetingly, as a fellow actor in the Villanova company. I don't remember much about his performance in Dream, but I do remember his physical presence — a wide-open grin, a shock of black hair, the body of a quarterback — and his disarmingly goofy sense of humor.

Even then, he'd acquired a larger-than-life reputation. I recently mentioned his name to an old friend of mine from that time, and he immediately started naming various McBride conquests: all handsome, well-known men visiting or living in Philadelphia, including an actor in a touring Broadway show.

But New York was his destiny. "That was always the thing about Philly for him," says Jay Corcoran, director of Life and Death on the A-List. "He was always New York-oriented. 'I want to go with the big boys,' he'd say."

Tom hit NYC in the early '80s, and soon started showing up in national ads, the most famous of which was the one for Wisk detergent in which he flirts shyly with a pre-fame Dana Delany in an elevator. He snagged a role as a wheelchair-bound athlete in Friday the 13th Part 2, and got his first big stage break co-starring with Christopher Reeve in Fifth of July. And he was the Winston man, a housepainter in white overalls taking a cigarette break on billboards all over Manhattan.

"[Gay men] would look at the billboard and say, 'He's one of us!'" says Corcoran.

Somewhere along the line, though, he attained mythic status. At least that's how it seemed from reading early reviews of Love and Death on the A-List, which began appearing on the festival circuit last year. Tom McBride, the nice-guy hunk actor, had become the It Boy of Gay New York, and the film had somehow transformed his life and death (he died of an AIDS-related brain disorder in 1995 at the age of 41) into a symbol of something bigger — "the gay urban archetype," says Corcoran, "caught up in fuck fuck fuck body body body look at me look at me."

Corcoran, an actor, met Tom at an audition in 1991. He didn't like him at first, but they became friends and even slept together occasionally ("Everyone had sex with Tom"). When Tom revealed in mid-1994 that he'd been diagnosed with terminal PML (Progressive Multifocal Leucoencephalopathy), Corcoran decided to start videotaping him, partly because he remembered how much he regretted not having a record of the last days of another friend of his.

"He'd lie in bed and come out with things I'd never heard from him... he became a sage. I wanted to see this change in Tom."

But he didn't get what he set out to get. Shooting Tom's life at various moments over the course of two years — watching him with his friends, following him to an audition, finally staying with him and his family as he lay dying on a cot in his apartment — he never saw the kind of spiritual transformation he was expecting.

Though Tom himself realized that "fuck fuck fuck body body body" wasn't getting him what he ultimately wanted — somebody to love — he couldn't break out of the pattern.

"As younger gay men we waste a lot of time," Tom says in the film. "We're fascinated with what we can get with our looks." And yet even when he's almost on his deathbed, he's still fascinated. "You mean you're not thinking about the next sex you're going to get?" he asks his friends incredulously.

Tom was very canny about the superficiality of the world he inhabited. Describing qualifications for the so-called A-List, he says "accomplishment" is as important as physique (his friends included such accomplished gay men as playwright Edward Albee and photographer Duane Michals). But he goes on to say his own status was assured when people started to notice he had "a nice chest-hair pattern."

"I don't really think there is an A-List," says Corcoran. "It's like Blackwell's best-dressed list — an illusion. But it was very important to Tom."

Why the need for validation, in someone who seemed to have it all? Corcoran points to the punishing realities of an acting career: in the face of daily rejection, an actor needs something to make him feel worthy. "I gotta get something today... if I don't get the part I gotta get some dick."

Actors are "unlicked cubs," goes one line in the movie. Maybe it's a cliche ("I'm an actor because I didn't get enough love in my childhood!"), but scenes between Tom and his mother — a sweet but emotionally guarded woman — bear it out. She fails her son most blatantly in an off-screen episode in which she asks him not to swim in the pool of her Florida condo because she's afraid the neighbors will worry about him infecting the water.

Corcoran says there was something "disconnected" in Tom. Yet he had a great talent for making initial connections with people. "He was a great flirt."

His sense of humor remained intact even as his health was failing. In the film, he is astonishingly matter-of-fact and funny about how he manages pain (by singing show tunes) and about his fall from the A-List ("the seizures knocked me off"). This may again be an example of a deeply defended, disconnected personality — but it's also kind of brave.

(As was his mother. "She may not have been nurturing," says Corcoran of her actions when Tom was dying. "But she was there.")

Perhaps the simplest, most driving force for Tom was the fact, says Corcoran, that "he really loved the male body." This didn't manifest itself only in sex. It also led him into his avocation, photography. He developed a portfolio of erotic art photos of male nudes — graphic, sexy and beautifully shot.

Was Tom's obsession with male beauty a kind of pathology? That's certainly one message you could take away from Life and Death on the A-List, and it's a message that links the film with a number of new books by gay theorists (Michelangelo Signorile's Life Outside, Gabriel Rotello's Sexual Ecology) that suggest the gay community as a whole is hung up on beauty and sexual satisfaction — that the overwhelming obsession with "good" bodies is related to gay men's unresolved self-hatred.

Corcoran seems to agree — "We just really need to grow up as a community," he says of gay men. But he's got a larger point. He knows what it's like to be in McBride's position as a temporary idol. Corcoran's two biggest roles in NY theater to date have been in Jerker and Party, two gay-themed plays that required him to get naked on stage (and on posters all over the city). He was glad to be filming A-List during the day while he was doing Party at night because the film kept him grounded. But other cast members were seduced by the hubbub — the admirers hanging out after the show, asking the actors out for drinks. He saw them thinking, 'This is it, I'm somebody.'

"It's that celebrity thing, the whole tits and ass thing. You think it's about you, but it's really the fantasy that they endow you with."

"And it's not just gay. It happens so much in the straight world — the validation, the youth, the tight body — I mean look at soap operas. It's really amazing what we do to these people — these young people."

In one of the many moments of dark comedy in A-List, Tom is on his way to Florida, where he expects to die, when he says to the camera, "I'm finally the star of my own movie, and I had to die to get here!"

That movie will be shown in Philadelphia at the Gershman Y, where 20-some years ago, Tom McBride used to work out — dreaming, perhaps, about making the A-List.

Life and Death on the A-List, Thurs., July 17, 9:15 p.m., Gershman Y, Broad & Pine Sts.

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