As told to Joe Hagan.
I flew to Hawaii recently to shoot a film, fresh on the heels of being labeled a homophobic bigot by Andrew Sullivan, Anderson Cooper, and others in the Gay Department of Justice. I wanted to speak with a gay-rights group that I had researched and admired, so I called its local Honolulu branch.
The office number turned out to be some guy’s cell phone. I left him a message—I said, “I’m from out of town, I’m visiting Hawaii on business, I’d like to get some information on your group.” After two or three more calls, he answered the phone. I said, “Yeah, I’m the guy that called about your organization.” And he said, somewhat impatiently, “Okay, well, what did you want?” I said, “Well, let me put it to you this way, Nick. Your name is Nick? Nick, let me begin by asking you a question. Who would you say, by your estimation, is the most homophobic member of the entertainment industry currently in the media?” And he paused for a long count of four and said, “Um … Alec Baldwin?”
And I said, “Ding, ding, ding, ding! Bingo, Nick, bingo! That’s who you’re talking to.”
He said, “C’mon!”
I said, “Nick, I want to come in and talk.”
I met with Nick and others from two LGBT organizations. We talked for a while about the torment of the LGBT life many of them have lived while growing up in traditional Hawaiian families. Macho fathers. Religious mothers. We talked a lot about words and their power, especially in the lives of young people.
One young man, an F-to-M tranny, said, “Are you here to get dry-cleaned, like Brett Ratner?” Meaning I could do some mea culpa, write them a six-figure check, go to a dinner, sob at the table, give a heartfelt speech, beg for forgiveness. I thought to myself: Beg for forgiveness for something I didn’t do?
I said, “No. I don’t want to get dry-cleaned. I don’t want to be decontaminated by you, Karen Silkwood–wise, scrubbed down. I want to learn about what is hurtful speech in your community. I want to participate in some programs about that. Or underwrite one. And then, like you, I just want to be left alone.”
I’ve read where a number of people have felt that 2013 was a shitty year. For me, it was actually a great year, because my wife and I had a baby. But, yeah, everything else was pretty awful. And I find myself bitter, defensive, and more misanthropic than I care to admit. And I’m trying to understand what happened, how an altercation on the street, in which I was accused—wrongly—of using a gay slur, could have cascaded like this. There’s been a shift in my life. And it’s caused me to step back and say, This is happening for a reason.
I’ve had a relatively charmed life. I loved to be out in the city. New York was my town. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “You’re a great New Yorker. You’ve given your time and money to so many New York charities. You’re a great supporter of the arts. I like some of your movies—and some of your movies suck, actually.” (It’s New York, so people give you their unvarnished opinion.) But people in general had been very kind to me for years.
And then, last November, everything changed.
Am I a homophobe? Look, I work in show business. I am awash in gay people, as colleagues and as friends. I’m doing Rock of Ages one day, making out with Russell Brand. Soon after that, I’m advocating with Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Cynthia Nixon for marriage equality. I’m officiating at a gay friend’s wedding. I’m not a homophobic person at all. But this is how the world now sees me.
I haven’t changed, but public life has.
It used to be you’d go into a restaurant and the owner would say, “Do you mind if I take a picture of you and put it on my wall?” Sweet and simple. Now, everyone has a camera in their pocket. Add to that predatory photographers and predatory videographers who want to taunt you and catch you doing embarrassing things. (Some proof of which I have provided.) You’re out there in a world where if you do make a mistake, it echoes in a digital canyon forever.
And this isn’t the days of Rona Barrett and Ron Galella, who were viewed as outcasts or peripheral at best. Paparazzi today are part of a network that includes the Huffington Post and, much to my dismay, even NBC News, in their reliance on tabloid reporting.
Photographers today get right up in your face, my wife’s, my baby’s. They are baiting you. You can tell they want to get into it with you. Some bump into me or block the entrance to my apartment, frustrating my neighbors (some of whom may regret that I live in their building).
I’m self-aware enough to know that I am to blame for some of this. I definitely should not have reacted the way I did in some of these situations. I don’t have these issues with waiters, traffic cops, store clerks. I know there’s an impression that I’m someone who seeks to have violent confrontations with people. I don’t. Do I regret screaming at some guy who practically clipped my kid in the head with the lens of a camera? Yeah, I probably do, because it’s only caused me problems.
But—I’m sorry, I can’t let go of this—do people really, really believe that, when I shouted at that guy, I called him a “faggot” on-camera? Do you honestly believe I would give someone like TMZ’s Harvey Levin, of all people, another club to beat me with?
What happened is, a TMZ videographer ambushed me as I was putting my family in a car, and I chased him down the block and said, “Cocksucking motherfucker” or whatever (when I have some volatile interaction with these people, I don’t pull out a pen and take notes on what I said). I knew that guy. This was a guy who is on a bike usually, and when we get in a car, he follows us. Very aggressive. The same guy who followed my wife on a bicycle, and when she slipped and fell trying to dodge him and hurt her leg, he laughed at her and said, “See what I made you do?” At my wife. How would that make you feel?
Last year began with making plans to do a play called Orphans, on Broadway. I was filled with hope. I had spent six and a half years on a television sitcom. I won every award you could win in television. I got paid well. And people loved 30 Rock. And I loved 30 Rock. I mean, sometimes you do a show that’s a hit show and you hate it. As my agent used to say, you don’t want to be walking down an alleyway with a flashlight in your hand for ten years, doing some police procedural. We had a ball. And everybody was funny. And I’ll never laugh that way again. And I miss that show terribly. I know we all had to move on because it’s Tina Fey’s show and Tina had worked herself to death. She’s a mom with two kids. Eventually, it had to end. But I’ll never have it that good again, professionally.
Getting back onstage seemed like a good idea. I loved Lyle Kessler’s play and was anxious to work with director Dan Sullivan. Then Shia LaBeouf showed up. I’d heard from other people that he was potentially very difficult to work with, but I always ignore that because people say the same thing about me. When he showed up, he seemed like a lot of young actors today—scattered, as he was coming from making six movies in a row or whatever.
There was friction between us from the beginning. LaBeouf seems to carry with him, to put it mildly, a jailhouse mentality wherever he goes. When he came to rehearsal, he was told it was important to memorize his lines. He took that to heart and learned all his lines in advance, even emailing me videos in which he read aloud his lines from the entire play. To prove he had put in the time. (What else do you do in jail?) I, however, do not learn my lines in advance. So he began to sulk because he felt we were slowing him down. You could tell right away he loves to argue. And one day he attacked me in front of everyone. He said, “You’re slowing me down, and you don’t know your lines. And if you don’t say your lines, I’m just going to keep saying my lines.”
We all sat, frozen. I snorted a bit, and, turning to him in front of the whole cast, I asked, “If I don’t say my words fast enough, you’re going to just say your next line?” I said. “You realize the lines are written in a certain order?” He just glared at me.
So I asked the company to break. And I took the stage manager, with Sullivan, to another room, and I said one of us is going to go. I said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll go.” I said don’t fire the kid, I’ll quit. They said no, no, no, no, and they fired him. And I think he was shocked. He had that card, that card you get when you make films that make a lot of money that gives you a certain kind of entitlement. I think he was surprised that it didn’t work in the theater.
But firing LaBeouf didn’t help things. Sullivan played both sides. In emails, he coddled Shia. To me, he spoke differently. I was working with an older, more enervated Sullivan, who didn’t have the energy for any of this. I don’t think Sullivan liked the play—I don’t think he liked me. Sullivan agreed to do something that, once he realized what it was, he had lost interest in it. We closed early. I’ll forever be indebted to Ben Foster for stepping in for Shia. He is one of the good guys.
My “career” as a talk-show host started with a perfectly simple ambition. In my WNYC podcast, “Here’s the Thing,” I wanted to conduct interviews based on appreciation of my guests and their work. Or, in the case of those like George Will, a respect for their careers, whether I agreed with them or not. To think that something as uncomplicated and innocent as that led to the MSNBC debacle is still surreal to me. My goal was always to take a talk show to the network. I never wanted to be on MSNBC. My contacts at the network said to me, “We don’t have a slot for you on the network right now.” And I told them that was fine. And they said, “Maybe you go on MSNBC for a year and we’ll hone and refine the show?” And I said okay.
I watched MSNBC, prior to working there, very sporadically. Once I had signed a contract with them, I wanted to see more of what they were about. It turned out to be the same shit all day long. The only difference was who was actually pulling off whatever act they had come up with. Morning Joe was boring. Scarborough is neither eloquent nor funny. And merely cranky doesn’t always work well in the morning. Mika B. is the Margaret Dumont of cable news. I liked Chris Jansing a lot. Very straightforward. I like Lawrence O’Donnell, but he’s too smart to be doing that show. Rachel Maddow is Rachel Maddow, the ultimate wonk/dweeb who got a show, polished it, made it her own. She’s talented. The problem with everybody on MSNBC is none of them are funny, although that doesn’t prevent them from trying to be.
My pitch to them was: I’m going to bring the WNYC podcast to MSNBC. And that show is going to be eclectic—guests who don’t often get the microphone. I want to keep it simple. I get somebody in a chair and I shoot the shit with them for an hour and a half and we cut it into a one-
hour show. Dick Cavett was my hero who allowed there to be pauses in the show. He put people on who were somewhat unconventional.
So I’m going to go on MSNBC, and people are speculating, “Oh, here he comes! Crazy liberal! And what’s he going to do? Is he going to try to give Bill Maher a run for his money? Is he going to try to give Jon Stewart a run for his money?” And I think, Are you out of your fucking mind? Those men are stars of established, highly successful shows. That’s never going to happen. My show was meant to be as harmless and inoffensive as could be. There was one theme to the 52 episodes of the WNYC podcast and only one way it worked—the show was about appreciation. I wasn’t out to get anybody or make anybody look bad, because I know what that’s like.
MSNBC assigned a producer to me, Jonathan Larsen. Like Sullivan with Orphans, Larsen didn’t get me or the show and didn’t want to be there. When I told him I wanted to interview Debra Winger, Larsen looked like, We’re here on a set, with an expensive crew and studio time, and you want to talk to Debra Winger? There was nothing less interesting to him. Most of the guests I suggested—Ellen Barkin, Neal Barnard from PCRM, JFK-conspiracy icon Mark Lane—he couldn’t care less. As we went along, Larsen would simply stare at me after everything I’d suggest and say, “Well, let’s see what Phil says.” Larsen was sent there to babysit me.
Phil Griffin is the head of MSNBC, and when I saw that Griffin didn’t have a single piece of paper on his desk, meeting after meeting after meeting, that should have been my first indication there was going to be a problem. Phil is a veteran programmer who knows well the corridors and chambers of television programming—and couldn’t give a flying fuck about content. All he wanted to talk about was Giants tickets, Super Bowl tickets, restaurants, movies. The conversations about the set, about the physical production of the show, cameras, lighting—it seemed like he wanted to get those over with as quickly as possible. He didn’t care. He had four monitors on the wall. They were all on, muted. He never listened to them. He never watched them.
The meetings with Phil were brisk and convivial. Eventually, however, we got to the point where he asked, “So you really meant it when you said you wanted to do your podcast on the air, on TV?” And I told him, yes, that was my idea. That was when he explained to me that TV, with its visual component, was different. When viewers turn the channel, they want to see something. They want to see Robert Redford. They want to see Justin Timberlake. TV “captures” the audience with the visual.
He said that we needed to change it up. At first I thought, This is not working. It was a mistake and I need to get out of here. And I told Phil so. Then I stopped and I said to myself, They might be right. I would try it their way.
The first name they came up with was Rob Lowe. They said, Rob Lowe’s going to be in the building. Do you want to interview Rob? I said, “Not particularly.” Rob’s a famous star of films, TV. He’s Rob Lowe. He’s famous. But there’s no shortage of outlets for him. And they looked at me like, You really don’t get it. I think they thought, You should have just said yes, simply to play the game.
I should have simply said, “Sure, bring in Rob Lowe.”
Just prior to all of this, there was Jimmy Gandolfini’s funeral. I was despondent about his death. Jimmy was a “showbiz friend,” one with whom I had worked and greeted warmly whenever our paths crossed. His death hit me somewhat hard, considering his baby daughter and the fact that he was younger than me. I ended up attacking a reporter who wrote in the Daily Mail online that my wife was tweeting from Jimmy’s funeral. He was wrong—in fact, at a later time, she had retweeted items whose original time code matched the time of the funeral.
In my rage, however, I called him a “toxic little queen,” and, thus, Anderson Cooper, the self-appointed Jack Valenti of gay media culture, suggested I should be “vilified,” in his words. I didn’t feel bad about the incident. He lied about my wife. They say this is what comes with stardom—I don’t agree with you. A journalist isn’t supposed to write a lie about you. If he was in New York, I might have had the impulse to beat the shit out of the guy. At the time, I didn’t view “toxic little queen” as a homophobic statement. I didn’t realize how those words could give offense, and I’m sorry for that.
Then this other thing happens with TMZ and then it becomes a one-two punch. All this is based on the fact of them believing what I said on a video.
Harvey Levin exists in his own universe. He’s this kind of cretinous barnacle on the press. Levin told the world that that muffled sound on the video—Levin wanted everyone to know he knows what it is. You don’t know, and I don’t know, but Levin knows, and he tells the world that it’s “faggot.”
I get angry, and I’ve said all sorts of things in anger, but I’d never use that word. Levin has so little regard for the truth, which is odd, knowing he was once a legal correspondent for the CBS affiliate in L.A. He’s also the one who revealed the tape that my ex-wife’s lawyers provided of me yelling at my daughter seven years ago. Knowing that none of it would have transpired if I hadn’t left the message in the first place, I think he hurt my daughter more than anyone.
In the recent video, you see me completely riled up and going after this guy and you hear me saying “cocksucker” and then some bisyllabic word that sounds like “faggot”—but wasn’t. Still, it doesn’t matter. glaad comes after me and Anderson Cooper comes after me and Andrew Sullivan comes after me, all maintaining that I’m a hateful homophobe. All based on what Harvey Levin told them.
Immediately prior to this, I’d go see Phil and I’d say, “What are the ratings?” If I had 15 meetings with Phil Griffin, 5 of them were after the show, with me saying, “What do you make of these ratings?” He’d say, “Don’t worry. It takes time.” (We beat Cooper two of three Fridays at ten.) Although he appeared to have some buyer’s remorse, he told me to hang in there. After the TMZ event, he said, “Don’t worry. I have to suspend you. But this will blow over.” I have all the emails to prove it. And then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, MSNBC said, “You’re fired.”
Once they fired me, a former MSNBC employee I knew emailed me. He said, “You watch now, Phil is going to start leaking left and right to bury you.” When I left, “Page Six” was flooded with lies about me. Another told me, regarding the “toxic little queen” comment, that Rachel Maddow was the prime mover in my firing, as she was aghast that I had been hired and viewed me as equivalent to Mel Gibson. Another source told me, “You know who’s going to get you fired, don’t you? Rachel. Phil will do whatever Rachel tells him to do.” I think Rachel Maddow is quite good at what she does. I also think she’s a phony who doesn’t have the same passion for the truth off-camera that she seems to have on the air.
They invoked a morals clause and refused to pay my contract. Later, when Martin Bashir resigned, I was disappointed. Bashir brought a depth of experience and polish that I imagined might help get MSNBC to a higher place, content-wise, in spite of Griffin and his episodes of Lockup and To Catch a Predator. I suppose the end of the show was inevitable. And the Conan O’Brien treatment came as no surprise. What hurt was that several of the writers and segment producers I worked with were wonderful and talented people. As I meandered through the ill-conceived process, I had grown very fond of them and hopeful about our possibilities once Larsen was replaced.
I went to the opening of the play Machinal, put on by Roundabout, where I’m on the board, and I can’t tell you how frosty the reception was toward me. These are all people who are heavy-hitting theatrical artists in that community and many of them are gay. And I was thinking to myself, These people think I’m a homophobe. And that makes me incredibly sad.
Every time people throw this mud on me, there are very serious consequences in my life. The single most painful episode for me was last year when a New York Post photographer, an ex-cop, accused me of calling him a “coon.” This was totally false, as was revealed on his own tape. A D.A. in the hate-crimes unit called me in. At the time, I had just been asked to join the board of the Arthur Ashe Learning Center, so I had to call Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and ask her, now that I was on the cover of the New York Post labeled as a racist, if she still wanted me to attend a coming event. Jeanne was her ever-gracious self and said yes, but that broke my heart.
I spent 25 years working hard for the issues I care about. When 30 Rock went into syndication, I sensed that I was going to be on TV for a bit, so I crafted my arrangement with Capital One Bank to fund my foundation for charitable giving. They paid me $15 million over nearly five years. After taxes and accounting fees, I will have given all of it, $14.125 million, to charity. After the TMZ event, Capital One did not renew my contract, although it politely said the two things were unrelated. AT&T had booked me for a paid speech in Orlando—and then canceled. WNYC lost funding for my radio show. Bill de Blasio, who apparently gets his news from TMZ, too, distanced himself from me.
Now I loathe and despise the media in a way I did not think possible. I used to engage with the media knowing that some of it would be adversarial, but now it’s superfluous at best and toxic at its worst. If MSNBC went off the air tomorrow, what difference would it make? If the Huffington Post went out of business tomorrow, what difference would it make? Arianna Huffington accomplished what she wanted to accomplish. She created this wonderful thing. And what have they done with that? They want clicks, I get it. They’ve gotta have clicks for their advertisers, so they’re going to need as much Kim Kardashian and wardrobe malfunctions as possible. The other day, they had a thing on the home page about pimples. Tripe. Liberal and conservative media are now precisely equivalent.
I’m aware that it’s ironic that I’m making this case in the media—but this is the last time I’m going to talk about my personal life in an American publication ever again.
When this whole thing happened, Warren Beatty, who is mystifyingly intelligent and wise, said to me: Your problem is a very basic one, and it’s very common to actors. And that’s when we step in front of a camera, we feel the need to make it into a moment. This instinct, even unconsciously, is to make the exchange in front of the camera a dramatic one. Perhaps I fell for that.
In the New Media culture, anything good you do is tossed in a pit, and you are measured by who you are on your worst day. What’s the Boy Scout code? Trustworthy. Loyal. Helpful. Friendly. Courteous. Kind. Obedient. Cheerful. Thrifty. Brave. Clean. Reverent. I might be all of those things, at certain moments. But people suspect that whatever good you do, you are faking. You’re that guy. You’re that guy that says this. There is a core of outlets that are pushing these stories out. Breitbart clutters the blogosphere with “Alec Baldwin, he’s the Devil, he’s Fidel Baldwin.”
Broadway has changed, by my lights. The TV networks, too. New York has changed. Even the U.S., which is so preposterously judgmental now. The heart, the arteries of the country are now clogged with hate. The fuel of American political life is hatred. Who would ever dream that Obama would deserve to be treated the way he has been? The birth-certificate bullshit, which is just Obama’s version of Swiftboating. And all for the electoral nullification that seems like a cancer on the American system. But this is Roger Ailes. And Fox. And Breitbart. And this is all about hate. It’s Hate Incorporated. But the liberals have taken the bait and run in the same direction—and it’s just as corrosive. MSNBC, in its own way, is as full of shit, as redundant and as superfluous, as Fox.
I think America’s more fucked up now than it’s ever been. People are angry that in the game of musical chairs that is the U.S. economy, there are less seats at the table when the music stops. And at every recession, the music is stopping.
Am I bitter about some of the things that have happened to me in the past year? Yes, I’m a human being. I always had big ambitions. I had dreams of running for office at some point in the next five years. In the pyramid of decision-making in New York City politics, rich people come first, unions second, and rank-and-file New Yorkers come dead last. I wanted to change that. I wanted to find a way to lower the cost of the city government and thus reduce New York’s shameful tax burden. I would have decentralized the schools. My father was a public-school teacher. He always told me that although you could encourage a child to work hard, you could only go so far; that half the goal had to be achieved at home. As progressive as I’ve been in my politics, there are other things I don’t think of as liberal or progressive, just common sense. Of course, another thing I would have done—and this will not surprise anyone—is change the paparazzi law.
I’ve lived in New York since 1979. It was a place that they gave you your anonymity. And not just if you were famous. New Yorkers nodded at you. New Yorkers smiled at you at the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. New Yorkers would make a terse comment to you. “Big fan,” they’d say. “Loved you in Streetcar,” they’d say. They signaled their appreciation of you very politely. To be a New Yorker meant you gave everybody five feet. You gave everybody their privacy. I recall how, in a big city, many people had to play out private moments in public: a woman sobbing at a pay phone (remember pay phones?), someone studying their paperwork, undisturbed, at the Oyster Bar, before catching the train. We allowed people privacy, we left them alone. And now we don’t leave each other alone. Now we live in a digital arena, like some Roman Colosseum, with our thumbs up or thumbs down.
My uncle was a lifelong New Yorker. He said, “New York is the place where if you really are one in a million, there’s seven other people just like you right here in town!” And I used to laugh at that. He’d say, “New York, millionaires and whores shoulder to shoulder on 57th Street. Some of them millionaires and whores!”
There was a time the entire world didn’t have a camera in their pocket—the first thing that cell phones did was to kill the autograph business. Nobody cares about your autograph. There are cameras everywhere, and there are media outlets for them to “file their story.” They take your picture in line for coffee. They’re trying to get a picture of your baby. Everyone’s got a camera. When they’re done, they tweet it. It’s … unnatural.
I did not have a happy family life a few years ago. I was divorced and I was very alienated from my daughter and I was out there cutting every ribbon and running around New York hosting events for different causes to supplant my loss, because I didn’t have a family to go home to. Now I don’t want to be Mr. Show Business anymore. I want the same thing everybody else wants. I want a happy home, and for the first time in my adult life, I have one. I love my wife more than anything in the world and I love my child more than anything else in the world and I don’t want that to change in any way.
I probably have to move out of New York. I just can’t live in New York anymore. Everything I hated about L.A. I’m beginning to crave. L.A. is a place where you live behind a gate, you get in a car, your interaction with the public is minimal. I used to hate that. But New York has changed. Manhattan is like Beverly Hills. And the soul of New York has moved to Brooklyn, where everything new and exciting seems to be. I have to accept that. I want my newest child to have as normal and decent a life as I can provide. New York doesn’t seem the place for that anymore.
It’s good-bye to public life in the way that you try to communicate with an audience playfully like we’re friends, beyond the work you are actually paid for. Letterman. Saturday Night Live. That kind of thing. I want to go make a movie and be very present for that and give it everything I have, and after we’re done, then the rest of the time is mine. I started out as an actor, where you seek to understand yourself using the words of great writers and collaborating with other creative people. Then I slid into show business, where you seek only an audience’s approval, whether you deserve it or not. I think I want to go back to being an actor now.
There’s a way I could have done things differently. I know that. If I offended anyone along the way, I do apologize. But the solution for me now is: I’ve lived this for 30 years, I’m done with it.
And, admittedly, this is how I feel in February of 2014.
Shia LaBeouf went to a film screening recently and he wore a bag over his head and the bag says I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE. And there was truly a part of me that felt sorry for him, oddly enough.
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This article appeared in the February 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.