Leslie Jordan's Life And Career Through The Years

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The following article includes references to addiction.

Before the tragic death of Leslie Jordan at age 67 in October 2022, the actor charmed sitcom viewers and Instagram audiences alike with his effortless charisma. But his fans might not have known that years before he was winning Emmys, Jordan overcome a shocking childhood tragedy.

Jordan's father died in a plane crash in 1967, as The Leaf-Chronicle reported, along with two other men from his army garrison. "He was so loved in the community that all the schools closed for his funeral," Jordan wrote in his 2008 memoir, "My Trip Down the Pink Carpet," adding that 11 was "a terrible time for any boy to lose his daddy." For a long time, the actor worried about his late father's opinions. "He was so masculine, very into sports, so I just wondered: was he in any way ashamed of me?" Jordan told The Guardian

When he later confessed his fears to his mother, however, she told him a story that changed his whole outlook. "When I was 3 years old, in 1958, I said I wanted a bride doll for Christmas," he explained to Today. At first, his military father absolutely refused. But when it got to Christmas Eve, the young boy's heart was still set on the doll. "And my lieutenant colonel of a daddy went out in 1958 in the hills of Tennessee and found his 3-year-old son a bride doll," Jordan continued. "He just wanted me to be happy."

Keep reading to find out more about beloved actor Leslie Jordan, whose distinctive height and voice made him a star.

Leslie Jordan came out to his religious mother at age 12

Despite growing up in a Southern Baptist community in 1960s Tennessee, Leslie Jordan was honest about his sexuality from a young age. "I told my mother I thought something was up. I didn't even know the word 'gay,'" he told People in 2021, explaining that his mother had a mixed reaction to this confession. "... She didn't pull her Bible out, which I thought she would," Jordan recalled. "'I'm just really afraid that if you choose this path, you'll be ridiculed,'" his mother reportedly admitted, telling her son to "just live your life quietly." As the actor observed, he didn't end up taking her advice.

Jordan was part of his church choir while he was growing up, and religion played a large role in his early life. "I was baptized 14 times," he recalled in an interview with Philadelphia magazine. "Every time the preacher would say, 'Come forward, sinners!' I'd say, 'Oooh, I was out in the woods with that boy, I better go forward.'" Although he gave Christianity his best try, as he later told The Guardian, Jordan felt rejected due to his sexuality and ended up completely leaving the church at age 17.

He learned how to be funny to avoid bullying

Leslie Jordan built his acting career by being the funniest person on screen, but he first created that comedic persona as a child to avoid being targeted at school. "I was funny as a kid mostly to keep the bullies at bay," he admitted to WhatsOnStage. "You know they used to yell 'smear the queer' when we played dodgeball, so if I could make them laugh, they would leave me alone." His early heroes were female comedians like Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett, and Phyllis Diller.

When Jordan came to Los Angeles on a bus in his twenties, he didn't have much of a plan. "I had $1200 sewn into my underpants — that was my mother's idea," he recalled in an interview with The Gay & Lesbian Review. But he soon started using the natural comedic abilities he had honed as a child and landed a break-out guest appearance on "Murphy Brown" in 1989 that had everyone from Steven Spielberg to Burt Reynolds calling. "My agent at the time said, 'I've never heard of an overnight success but my phone is ringing off the hook,'" Jordan told WhatsOnStage. "... It was a whirlwind."

Leslie Jordan tried to be a jockey

Leslie Jordan wasn't shy about his love of horses on social media. "Is there anything alive quite as a beautiful as a horse in an open field?" he asked in one TikTok video. In a 2019 Instagram post, he introduced his followers to a horse named Aura from The Los Angeles Equestrian Center. "It was deemed I'm too fat for a pony so I am now riding a Saddlebred," the Tennessee native wrote in part. "She was once a fancy high-stepping show horse. As was I. So we get along swimmingly."

But what his fans might not know is that Jordan used to work with racehorses in Atlanta alongside a famous Argentinian trainer called Horatio Luro, per The Guardian, and unsuccessfully tried to become a jockey in his early twenties. "I don't think I ever could have actually, only because of the weight," he later reflected in an interview with The Telegraph, dismissing the idea that he was a natural jockey because of his height. "People think it's size, or something — it has nothing to do with that. You have to weigh about 104 pounds, and honey, my a** alone weighs 104!"

His addictions led to an unexpected celebrity encounter

In his early life, Leslie Jordan struggled with substance addiction. "I think a lot of gay people started drinking because it was just easier to be gay when we were drinking," he reflected in a 2021 interview with The Telegraph, explaining how his first taste of alcohol at age 14 had made him feel less self-conscious. He once said that footage from his early acting career reminded him of the addictions he was facing behind the scenes. "I'll see old reruns of myself and I see I'm giving it my comedy best, but with dead eyes — no sparkle," the actor observed to Today. "I was in the middle of all that abuse. But now I'm a recovering alcoholic with many years of sobriety."

Before he sobered up, Jordan spent several nights in jail, as he told The Guardian. During one of these stays in 1997, they brought in Robert Downey Jr. and explained that there was no room for the future Marvel star, so he would have to be Jordan's cellmate for the night. "It's a rule in California, that you can't let a drunk out until after the bars close," Jordan added. The pair later ran into each other on the set of "Ally McBeal" in 2001, where Jordan had to jog Downey Jr.'s memory. "He said: 'Didn't we? Are you?' and I said: 'Yep, 152, pod A, cell 13, you was top [bunk], I was bottom.'"

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Leslie Jordan became an HIV/AIDS advocate

As an openly gay man in the '80s and '90s, Leslie Jordan was terrified by the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic. "Back then it was a death sentence," he told HuffPost in 2017. As he lost countless friends, Jordan became one of the 12 original members of Project Night Light and used to sit with dying patients, passing out banana popsicles to soothe their dry throats from the medication. 

"We figured out really fast that no one was going to help us," Jordan later reflected to The Guardian, explaining how the disease was ignored for years. "I remember once I showed up and it was just this guy sat in a diaper and it just broke my heart. So I sat with him all afternoon." The actor found that his ability to talk for hours was helpful for AIDS patients who were dying alone, but he was still an unconventional volunteer. "Me and my friends would do little bumps of crystal meth, then go dancing, so I'd be up all the next day and go sit with people," Jordan recalled, admitting that he was still dependent on drugs at that point. "... At least they had company. I was wonderful company."

In his memoir, the actor recalled how he was moved by the LGBTQ+ community's response. "When the AIDS epidemic hit, I had jumped into the trenches. We all did," Jordan wrote. "... And looking back on those days, I do not remember the sadness, I remember the love."

The actor won an Emmy for Will & Grace

Leslie Jordan's most iconic TV role was probably the hilarious Beverley Leslie on "Will & Grace," who exchanged insults with Megan Mullally's Karen in every scene. As he revealed in his memoir, however, the part was originally written for Joan Collins. After she left the project, the producers decided to look for someone in the same mold as Truman Capote instead of a "Dynasty"-style diva, which fit Jordan perfectly. He later told Philadelphia magazine that Mullally was his favorite actor to work with. "She's like me," he explained. "... We'd just get in front of that camera and it was just like verbal ping-pong." In return, Mullally later wrote in an Instagram tribute following his death that Jordan "was flawlessly funny, a virtuoso of comedy."

His performance also bagged him a Primetime Emmy for outstanding guest actor in a comedy series in 2006. As the actor told Philadelphia magazine, the Emmys ceremony made Jordan so nervous that he had to keep stopping his limousine on the way to find a bathroom. "They'd have to pull the car over at the Chevron station. It's just too much pressure," he recalled, calling awards shows "a panic attack waiting to happen." 

But he also revealed that the Emmy win mellowed him out and made him stop worrying about finding the next job. "I just relaxed and decided to let it all come to me as it did, and I've never worked more or been happier in my life," Jordan added.

Leslie Jordan was an author and playwright

Leslie Jordan wasn't just a prolific actor: He also picked up a pen over the years and received acclaim for writing his own material. After his play "Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel" was turned into a film in 2000, Jordan then turned his childhood stories into both an autobiography and a play with "My Trip Down the Pink Carpet." He also performed his one-man show "Fruit Fly" around the world, which was a meditation on one particularly important family relationship. "Do gay men really become their mothers?" he reflected in an interview with WhatsOnStage, adding, "Really, it's a love letter from a gay boy to his mother from day one to the present."

"I think writing is the most cathartic thing a person can do. It slows your mind 'down to the speed of a pen' and you get clarity," Jordan recalled in a 2020 interview, observing how he had been able to examine his own life through the medium of writing over the years. "I am always a little amazed at what a great life I have had. And the ability to write about it is God-given and I cherish that ability."

He won over a new generation acting with Lady Gaga

Leslie Jordan has spoken highly of working with Ryan Murphy on his anthology series "American Horror Story," which introduced the actor to a whole new audience. "It always starts with a wig, honey, it always starts with that wig!" he told the Gay Times, explaining the level of creative freedom on a Murphy set. "It's like summer camp," Jordan added. "... It's so much fun to do a Ryan Murphy show."

He also praised his co-stars, including icons like Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, and Lady Gaga. Jordan's experience with Gaga on "AHS: Roanoke" was particularly memorable, since the pop star apparently surprised him with some unconventional improv during his character's death scene. "She took me out into the woods, and said: 'Listen, I don't want to sexualize this character, and I tend to, and I'm not sure what I need to do,' and then she went into a reverie which I wasn't privy to — she just stood there," Jordan recalled to The Telegraph, explaining how he watched as Gaga silently figured out what she was going to do. "So by the time the director said 'action,' I STILL didn't know what was goin' on!" 

Eventually, the musician climbed on top of him: "She was rubbing, you know, her hoo-ha, and hollerin' at the moon, and shaking her hair, and I remember just lying there thinking: how do I GET into these situations?" The Mother Monster's acting method may have been, well, admittedly odd, but Jordan ultimately gave the onscreen result his seal of approval.

Leslie Jordan's videos kept the world smiling through COVID-19

Leslie Jordan found an unexpected wave of popularity when he started posting videos to amuse himself during the global COVID-19 pandemic. "I was being silly — I thought all my friends have done exercise videos with these flat abs, I thought, 'I'ma do one,' and I got a backscratcher and I made it into a routine, like a baton, and I think that was the one," he told ET in 2020, explaining that he was in lockdown in his hometown with his mother and younger twin sisters at the time. "I just started doing funny things on Instagram."

Other videos soon followed, like Jordan telling stories about his childhood in Tennessee or reacting to the Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's song "WAP." 5.5 million followers later, and his new online popularity led to Jordan publishing another book of his stories titled "How Y'all Doing?: Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well Lived" and dropping a gospel album called "Company's Comin'" featuring none other than artists like Dolly Parton, both in 2021. 

"I think the reason people responded is because I was the one saying, 'What are we gonna do?!'" Jordan told the Gay Times of life during lockdown. "... I voiced what people felt and I was having fun! I started being silly." He also expressed his joy at people finally finding the real him. "You're looking at a 40-year career," Jordan observed. "For them to discover me, like you said, as Leslie Jordan and love that, there's something very endearing about that."