Gorgeous George Hearn Is the Queen of Broadway in a Gilded La Cage Aux Folles

updated 09/05/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/05/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In every stage actor's life there are moments of despair and self-doubt, when the ego wavers and the spirits sink lower than the orchestra pit. For George Hearn, a thrice-married, vigorously assertive heterosexual, one such moment occurred when he was sashaying across a barren stage wearing a red crepe evening gown, red wig and size 10 ballet slippers and singing My Heart Belongs to Daddy. "Going naked," mutters Hearn, 49, "would have been easier." Still, his audition for the role of Zaza, the aging drag queen in the Broadway musical version of the Paris play and smash hit film La Cage aux Folles dazzled onlookers. The show's director, Arthur Laurents, was overwhelmed by Hearn's persuasiveness as a female. "You're sure, George," he asked tentatively, "that you're secure in your sexuality?"

He was, and is. Lesser men might have faltered in the long months preceding last week's much-anticipated Broadway opening (the advance sale is nearing Cats' record). Poor George spent endless hours learning how to sway his hips, swish a boa, walk mincingly in high heels and turn his slender ankles to best advantage ("Everybody told me I have great legs," he boasts). His padded brassiere was an irresistible invitation to the groping of teasing stagehands. Well-meaning friends sent Hearn gift certificates to Frederick's of Hollywood. Angela Lansbury, playing up the street in Mame and George's co-star in Sweeney Todd, sent a loving note: "We can be the Queen and Queen of Broadway." To make matters worse, Hearn's sister saw the show during its Boston run and breathlessly told their mother in Florida: "You haven't lost a son, you've gained a daughter."

Certainly the theater has gained a charismatic new leading lady. Hearn, who has been around the New York stage for years in such fizzles as I Remember Mama, Whodunnit and A Doll's Life, is suddenly the belle of Broadway. The critics gave the show enthusiastic reviews and were gaga over Zaza. "What Mr. Hearn does with this role is stunning—a breakthrough, at last, for a fine, hardworking actor who last season alone paid his dues in two Broadway flops," pronounced the New York Times. Instead of playing the part as a screaming drag queen ("The last thing we wanted was camp," says Jerry Herman, the show's composer and lyricist), Hearn portrays his character as an insecure, sensitive creature struggling to hold on to the man "she" has lived with on the Cote d'Azur for 20 years (Gene Barry plays her better half). Understanding Zaza's character, says Hearn, meant probing his "feminine, intuitive side" and studying the opposite sex. "I'd love to know what women know...the sense of the womb and nurturing, the whole connection to the cycles of life," he reflects. "Men are enslaved to the hunt. I'm a hunter, too. If the skirt is tight and the sweater is tight, I'm gone!"

Hearn's passions are also aroused by more cerebral matters. A poet, unpublished novelist and lover of opera, he was devoted to Hegel and Kant as a philosophy major at Southwestern in his native Memphis. After graduation in 1956, he studied voice in Aspen and eventually headed for New York with dreams of finding a career in the theater. Some of Hearn's inspiration to be a performer came from the tales his father, a hearing-aid salesman, told about George's grandfather. A legendary figure in the family, James Hearn had abandoned his wife and kids to become a singer and actor. Along the way he sired two daughters by a barmaid and named them Mimi and Musetta after the girls in La Bohème. "We figure he must have sung it somewhere," says George.

James' grandson, who had respectably married his college sweetheart, Mary Harrell, managed to land parts on the New York stage and in regional theater. The marriage ended in 1962 and produced George's only child, David, now 20 and a student at the University of South Florida. After progressing to such Broadway shows as A Time for Singing, George temporarily abandoned the stage in 1969 for a rural life growing apples and blueberries in northern Maine. "It's a mistake to get your sense of self from the approval of others," he says. "What audiences giveth, they can taketh away."

When life on the farm palled, Hearn returned to a Greenwich Village apartment and steady stage work. By then he was separated from his second wife, dancer Susan Babel. In 1978 George tried marriage a third time with actress Dixie (TV's Filthy Rich) Carter and was divorced a year later. Hearn took awhile getting over Dixie. "That was great high romance," he says. "After the divorce I didn't want to get involved with anyone. I put up defenses. I drank a lot." He did, however, recover. "I love the company of women," he says. "I love women who are interested in the mind. The mind is sexual, you know. But I'm not a big romantic anymore. I have a couple of years until I have my 'old man' infatuation."

In recent years Hearn's frequent companion has been actress Betsy Joslyn, 29, his co-star in A Doll's Life. He calls their relationship "a close friendship" and says of marriage, "I don't think I would do it again for a while. It seems a little irrelevant." Betsy allows that George is "very complex emotionally. He's an Irishman. He gets mad." Often, after the show, George vents his spleen on subjects like environmentalism (he is an ardent conservationist) over Irish whiskey at a Broadway-area bar. "He holds court in bars," adds Betsy. "He'll sing Danny Boy and argue about politics."

At other moments he takes out his wrath chopping wood at his 20-acre farm in Connecticut. He'd like to retire to the country someday. Co-star Barry wonders about that dream. "George said to me: 'You know, with one year of this show, I'll be financially sound for the rest of my life.' That was lovely but naive. He doesn't know how money is spent. Once you begin to earn and obtain, you spend."

For now, though, Hearn figures on playing it all for laughs. "If I can talk Lauren Bacall out of Woman of the Year," he deadpans with Zaza's coquettish smile, "I'll play her next year."

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