Staying in Character

updated 11/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

ON NOV. 6, IF ALL GOES WELL, actor Lee Mathis will leave his Manhattan apartment and board a plane for L.A. It will be a bittersweet journey—a chance to do the job he loves, playing lawyer Jon Hanley on ABC's General Hospital in an episode scheduled to air Dec. 1. But this, he knows, could be his last time before the camera. In 1986, Mathis, now 43, found out he was HIV-positive; a year ago he was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.

Since then, he has battled a series of increasingly debilitating ailments: chronic fatigue, high fevers, infections, as well as night sweats that can make sleep virtually impossible. But he has also experienced moments of joy, many on the set of GH, where his character is also gay and HIV-positive.

Many actors with AIDS hide their condition for fear no one will hire them. But being open about AIDS helped revive Mathis's career. In November 1993, desperate for work, he placed a small, sobering ad in the trade paper Variety. It read: "Healthy, HIV-positive actor needs $3,500 worth of [Screen Actors Guild] work by Dec. 31 to maintain his [union] health insurance."

The next day sympathetic casting directors began calling, and Mathis won several small TV and film parts, which allowed him to keep his insurance. Then, in June 1994, he landed the GH role. "It became chic to help me out," Mathis recalls with a laugh.

For more than a year, while appearing on the show a dozen times, he found a family feeling. "There's a warmth that's undeniable" on the show, Mathis says. Cast members say he was an inspiration. "Because he is exactly who he is, Lee's work said to all the people watching, 'This man has AIDS—period, end of subject,' " says Stuart Damon, who plays Dr. Alan Quartermaine. "Outside of that, he is a human being like everyone else, and he is to be embraced."

The high point was an episode this June revolving around an AIDS fundraiser. On camera, Mathis gave such a stirring speech about the disease that many fellow cast members burst into tears. "What a mountaintop experience that was," Mathis recalls. "I was telling my story within the fiction of a soap opera. After the shoot, all the actors stood in line to hug me."

Last summer his health deteriorated, and he had to stop working. His last appearance aired on Sept. 22. Moving to New York City—where he lives with his sister, Heidi, 35, a talent agent, and her husband, Osho Edo, 29, a musician—was rough. Though he goes to the theater often and has joined an AIDS support group, at times he can't help, he says, "hearing the clock ticking much louder."

Mathis fell in love with the theater back in Pittsburgh, where he grew up with Heidi and their brother Jim, now 42 and a Reading, Pa., anesthesiologist. "I knew I'd lost him to show business in the second grade," says his mother, Virginia, who was divorced from Lee Jr., an engineer, in 1974.

After studying English at West Virginia University for two years, Mathis dropped out in 1972 and headed for Broadway. "Dancing was like breathing to me," he says. For seven years he worked as a waiter while taking dance lessons. Eventually he began to get steady roles in musicals, including Bob Fosse's All That Jazz and Pippin.

Then a shadow fell over his life. In 1985 his lover, Tom Cahill, a travel agent, was diagnosed with AIDS. A year later, Mathis learned that he too was HIV-positive. Telling his mother was harder, he says, than telling her a few years earlier that he was gay. But her only concern was how to help him, Mathis recalls. "As soon as I told her, who fell apart? Me, not her. She just said, 'Tell me what I can do.' "

Cahill died in 1986. The next year dancing injuries forced Mathis to switch to acting. He moved to L.A. and won small parts in such films as Bugsy and Barton Fink but never got enough work to stop moonlighting as a bartender. Worried about losing his insurance, he placed the Variety ad.

The impact of the GH role was far greater than he could have imagined. He recalls with pride how his mother and some of her oldest friends, of both genders, gathered in Pittsburgh to watch his June speech. Afterward they stood and cheered. Now, looking toward his upcoming performance, Mathis is stoical. "You feel melancholy, and resentful," he says. "But there's nobody to be mad at but a disease."

GREGORY CERIO
TOBY KAHN in New York City and JEFF SCHNAUFER in Los Angeles

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