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Tales of the Tales
This article originally appeared in The Advocate May 22, 2001
An oral history of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, which marks its 25th anniversary with this month’s debut of the Further Tales of the City miniseries By Michael Giltz
Further Tales of the City-the third miniseries based on Armistead Maupin’s Tales novels-begins its four-week run May 6 on Showtime, just in time to mark a quarter century since the stories first appeared as a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle. To mark the occasion, The Advocate spoke to some of the people connected with the serial, the books, and the miniseries.
ARMISTEAD MAUPIN, author of six Tales of the City novels and cowriter of the three miniseries: in 1974 I wrote this single functional piece, and an editor at the Pacific Sun [a San Francisco weekly] suggested that I do it on a weekly basis. I think I did an episode on the baths with Michael, and I can’t even remember what the other four were, but the paper folded after five [installments]. When the editors at the San Francisco Chronicle told me they were interested in continuing it [in 1976], I had one of those great revelatory moments when you run down the street and click your heels in the air–and I mean that literally–because you know you’re on to something really good. I was filled with excitement because I had an idea that was completely fresh and subject matter that had not been tapped.
EDITH STEIN, Maupin’s coworker at the Chronicle: I worked in the People department of the Chronicle, [which] had evolved from the old “women’s pages.” We were all in our 20s and early 30s–very conservative and all on our first marriages. When Armistead first wrote the serial, he used to come in every day and bat out these stories–these wicked, wicked “Tales of the City.” We’d all gather around and he would spill the beans about everything–the true stories behind what he was writing. We’d say, “Is this true? Is this true?” He was larger than life.
MAUPIN, This first five years in the city bouncing from job to job had given me all the material I could possibly need–not to mention that I’d been working at the opera and witnessing the peregrinations of San Francisco society up close. It was as if every crappy little job that had ever bored me silly was suddenly going to be put to use.
The deadlines were enormously useful because they got me past my natural instinct to be self-critical. I had to do 800 words a day, come hell or high water. There were times when the editor of that section would come by and tap her fingernails on my typewriter out of sheer impatience.
My parents subscribed to the newspaper in order to follow the column. So as the hairpins began to drop, they got more and more concerned. And I eventually used the column as my vehicle for coming out.
STEIN, He was terrible with deadlines. [But] he’s a very, very fast writer. It was like a sportswriter–he was writing on deadline but producing this really beautifully written copy.
MAUPIN, Rock Hudson [the basis for the Cage Tyler character in the Further Tales miniseries] showed up in San Francisco and took a bunch of [us] out for dinner. Then we went up to his suite at the Fairmont hotel. I had bragged to him that my column was going to start running the next morning. He secretly went to the desk clerk and bought an early edition of the Chronicle. So here’s a dozen guys in Rock’s suite, and he rises rather drunkenly to his feet and says, “I have a reading I’d like to do,” and he read the first chapter [of Tales] to the group, attempting to approximate the voices of Mary Ann Singleton and her mother. The great irony was that Mary Ann’s mother warns her that San Francisco is a dangerous place because she just saw this horrible thing that happened on McMillan and Wife.
TODD HARGIS, resident of San Francisco during most of the Tales era and friend of Maupin’s: I [left San Francisco] to help my sister move to Arizona and ended up getting stuck in Phoenix. A friend of mine came out to visit and brought me the first Tales in book form. I read it in one sitting. I could not put it down. I remember reading it and thinking, God, look what I’m missing.
After I got back to San Francisco, one of my roommates took me out to [the gay bar] Badlands. I looked across the pool table and saw this guy sitting there reading the newspaper, and he kind of lowered the paper and looked over at me. We smiled, and I went over and said hello. It was Armistead.
MAUPIN, [As the fourth novel, Babycakes, was being serialized], people were very, very angry with me for killing off Jon Fielding, their favorite character. I had lost a very close friend in 1982, one of the very first victims of [AIDS-related] pneumocystis: Daniel Katz.
HARGIS, I had friends who were really upset. “How could he do this? We know he’s got to make a political statement. But why do it with our friends?”
MAUPIN, Jon Fielding’s death was, as far as I knew, the first AIDS death in fiction when it appeared in the Chronicle in 1983. I knew that I had to be faithful to the rules that I had laid down for myself, mainly that I would try to reflect the reality of my own life as much as possible within the context of this protracted fairy tale. I wanted to make other people feel some of the pain that I was feeling over this loss–the pain and the panic.
HBO had optioned the books in 1982, [but as they developed the project, it] felt like they couldn’t do a story about the freewheeling days of 1976, and they couldn’t update it without making AIDS a part of the equation. So it sat on a shelf at HBO for many, many years.
ALAN POUL, executive producer of all three miniseries: HBO actually took it to the script stage. But the rights fell to [the U.K. Producers] Working Title [and its U.S. production partner, Propaganda, where Poul worked]. I jumped up and down and screamed at the possibility of being involved.
OLYMPIA DUKAKIS, who has played Anna Madrigal in all three miniseries: I hadn’t read the books, and I was advised by the director [of the first series, Alastair Reed] not to read them until it’s over. So I did what he said; I waited until it was over.
MAUPIN, You can imagine Olympia’s amazement when she began reading the novels and discovered her own family being discussed in [Sure of You, which includes a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos].
DUKAKIS, I know, isn’t that interesting? That my paternal grandfather and grandmother come from that Island? Then, of course, you know Anna gets involved later on with a Greek fisherman. I’m waiting for that.
MAUPIN, I remember the night that we final shot the kiss scene [in the Tales miniseries] with [Marcus D’Amico, who played Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, and] Billy Campbell [as Jon Fielding]. I was standing at the top of the Barbary steps, looking down on the car where the kissing was going on. In between takes, Billy would come up and join me and talk about his current heartbreak, because he’d just broken up with Jennifer Connelly. I remember thinking how blessed I was that this simple act of a kiss between men was finally being filmed.
POUL, The first series [which was financed by British television and aired on PBS in the United States], we did 12 days in San Francisco, and the rest of it was shot on stages and locations here in Los Angeles. Barbary Lane completely occupied a big stage. At the time, it’s just crazy and you never have enough money and you’re trying to cobble together a production. So the depth of the reaction from the critics and the incredible ratings success that PBS had with it took us by surprise. And then we were completely flummoxed by the hostile reaction it got from certain parts of the country. At first we were just kind of amused, and then we realized it was not necessarily a laughing matter. Then PBS got cold feet.
DUKAKIS, PBS said, “We don’t like to repeat them.” Meanwhile, we had six years of Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect with stories about murder and pedophilia. And this is just about people struggling to find love and be loved.
POUL, We had absolutely given [a miniseries sequel] up for dead. There was about three years of somewhat cautious hope followed by absolute despair and resignation. And then we made the [second] show. [Laughs] The way we were able to finance the second series was by shooting it primarily in Montreal, and financing dictated that we must hire a Canadian director who qualified as a resident of Quebec. So I must have looked at the work of a dozen directors before we found Pierre [Gang, who directed More Tales and Further Tales].
HARGIS, I was working with computers in a hotel accounting office. It was good pay, but it wasn’t very stimulating. Armistead and my mom both said I should do something with horticulture. It really wasn’t because [the character] Michael did it; I just really enjoyed it. [But] one of the things about Tales I learned early on is that you never know where the fiction leaves off and reality starts, or vice versa.
STEIN, The Chronicle has talked over the years about doing something like Tales of the City [again]. but it won’t work now. Silicon Valley? Those people aren’t going to be interesting in that same way. Everyone was living on the edge, and if they weren’t, they wanted to know all about the people that were. It was an outrageous time. Armistead was just the right person at the right time. now, when you think about those days you can hardly believe that they were true.
Giltz writes regularly for the New York Post and other publications.