Armistead Maupin Remembers “Tales Of The City” and Ponders The Future

by Jim Halterman | March 21, 2014

Mention Tales Of The City to pretty much any gay man of a certain age and a smile will creep across his face. He might also offer how the books helped him to come out.

The beloved series which began in 1976 might have wrapped up earlier this year with the publication of the ninth book, The Days Of Anna Madrigal, but the classic series continues to attract fans, not only for the novels, but also for the groundbreaking Tales of the City film adaptations.

Adapted from the first three books in the series the movies featured an impressive cast, including Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton and Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal. Those films will be celebrated this Saturday night with a screening by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Maupin was on the road when he talked with us earlier this week about seeing the film again, whether he’d like more films to be made and what’s next now that he’s laid to rest the Tales of the City characters once and for all.

TheBacklot: When was the last time you watched the Tales Of The City movies?

Armistead Maupin: I’ve never seen it on a big screen and this night is going to be particularly exciting because Alan Poul, our producer, has sent off to the UK for a clean print, or maybe I should say a ‘dirty print.’ It’s uncensored and also high resolution so it will be a brand new experience. What they said is sort of preposterous but it’s more distracting to see those pixelations on the end of Chloe Webb’s breasts than to actually see Chloe Webb’s breasts!

How involved were you with the making of the film back in the 1990s?

AM: I stayed away for the first 2 weeks at the request of the director and I thought that was a reasonable request. I felt that I should be respectful to him in that way and then afterwards I could restrain myself and I had to be down there simply to be a tourist more than anything else. I stayed out of the process. He was a brilliant man, Alastair Reed, who had nothing but confidence in what he was doing.

And I’ll always remember the Tales of the City movies being the first place I fell in love with Laura Linney. Did you know her before the movie started?

AM: I did not know her. She read for another role and the producers had some other actress in mind, someone who has subsequently faded from view, and when that actress was not available they began to consider Laura. They sent me a tape of her reading from the role and it was clear to me instantly that she was the very incarnation for Mary Ann. I was already in awe of her on the first day she arrived on set and I think a lot of people there felt the same way. You know it when you’re in the presence of that kind of talent.

And you two are still very close friends, right?

AM: Oh, yes! She just had a baby and the baby’s middle name is Armistead! We’re very, very close and it’s one of the great treats of Tales of the City that I got to meet Laura and become her friend.

Is it safe to say when you first started writing these stories, did you envision a movie or TV series?

AM: I did! It was so long ago we were fantasizing Cary Grant in the role of Edgar Halcyon! [laughs] I have a best friend who is a movie buff and we’d sit around and make up fantasy casts. And Warner Brothers optioned Tales of the City in 1979 as a feature film. It never came about, but I had already begun to fantasize at that point. I went out and had a t-shirt made, very naively, that said ‘Soon to be a major motion picture.’ It was only a few years later that I started referring to Hollywood as a town where you can die of encouragement.

Would you like to see the later books made into movies? I know we might have to change up the cast since some time has passed.

AM: I would love to see that happen but so far nothing substantive has happened along those lines. But I have hopes that it might happen in the future.

The decision to wrap up the book series, was it a tough decision to make or did it just feel right?

AM: It just felt right. I didn’t want to dishonor the characters by dragging them on as a continuing commercial venture. I knew I’d pretty much said what I wanted to say about them and i didn’t want to walk into the sunset with them. There are other things that I’d like to do with my career so I felt like it was time to put it to bed. Nine novels felt about right, that’s three trilogies and Anna had reached the age of 92 and it seemed completing it with her was the way to go since it began with her in the first place.

 Usually in the press when I read interviews, I see the word beloved attached to your name. Do you feel beloved with your fans?

AM: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. I just did a book tour that covered four countries and fifteen cities and people displayed the most remarkable affection and sport at book signings. It’s really moving, really, and I have to struggle to feel fully worthy of it and appreciative of it at every moment.

Do you get that same reaction in areas you wouldn’t expect like small towns or countries that might not be as progressive?

AM: It’s fairly consistent no matter where I go so what it tells me is it reaches people roughly in the same way in all the other places. And a lot of that is about empowering LGBT people with the stories. When they first came out in 1976, there was virtually nothing that told you you could have a happy queer life. In a number of these places, the feeling is more intense where they might have felt trapped in a homophobic family or bullied by their church or their government.

I read the books when I was coming out and that’s what they gave to me. It showed me you could have a happy life and be gay.

AM: Our big fear as young queers is that we’ll lose our families and I think Tales of the City showed you that there were other families out there that would be supportive if not more so.

When you were coming out personally, what did you lean on since your books didn’t exist because you hadn’t written them yet!

AM: I think Cabaret was the first time I felt joyful about the wonderful privilege of being gay. I think that was the first big mainstream cultural event that touched me in that way and I subsequently got to know Christopher Isherwood, who was the creator of the source material, The Berlin Stories, and he became a mentor both as a literary figure and sort of as a gay Grandfather. So a lot of the confidence I had in the 70s grew from my connection to him.

It was pretty rough going back when I knew I was queer but not out and not acting on it back in the 50s and 60s. It was the Vito Russo, Celluloid Closet model that the queer always died in the end. A pretty dark picture was painted by American culture.

And you’ve seen so much change in your time. Did you always think that you’d see this time where we can get married?

AM: I did believe I would get to it and hoped we’d get to it a lot sooner but that doesn’t mean that I’m not amazed and delighted that we’re here. There are times when it feels like that phrase ‘Two steps forward, one step back’ and lately it feels like we’ve just been making steps forward and that’s utterly thrilling. You can tell by watching the Right Wing, who are just going nuts at the moment because they’re finally losing their ridiculous battle. They have to shut up the same way that segregationists did back in the 1960s. It’s the same people, of course. You’d think they would’ve learned from the last time around but the stinginess of the conservative heart will apply itself to anything if it can.

I know from following your Facebook page that you and your husband moved away from San Francisco last year. How has it been being away from there?

AM: As it happens, we’re driving to San Francisco to check out a new pied-a-terre. We both loved Santa Fe and the amazing new nature experience it’s giving us but we miss our city and the friends we made there over many years. Chris Turner, my husband, lived there for 20 years and I lived there for 40 years and San Francisco will never stop being in my DNA so we figured we might as well confront that fact and find ourselves a place.

Did it take time getting used to use the term “husband?” I know it took time for me…

AM: I was using it to make a political point in the earlydays. I felt a responsibility to use it to get other people used to it but now it just trips off my tongue and I don’t hesitate to use it anywhere. No one in Santa Fe flinches in the slightest when you refer to your husband and I’m finding that to be more and more everywhere we go and I think it’s our responsibility for those of us who have enjoyed this rare, new privilege of using the term, we need to keep it out there and not chicken out and say ‘partner’ if you think you might have a homophobe on your hands.

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