On TV, Leslie Jordan has made a career of small roles, but he doesn't like waiting for casting directors to call, so he regularly performs his solo comic cabaret-style show. He's in New Orleans this week for two shows at the AllWays Lounge and Theatre.
Directors have called often enough to make him a familiar face on many shows. One of his best-known recurring TV appearances was his Emmy-winning role on Will & Grace as Beverly Leslie, the socialite nemesis of Karen Walker (Megan Mullally), the boozy, rich and smart-mouthed assistant to Grace (Debra Messing). He talks about the role a lot in his cabaret show.
"Everyone assumes because the character's name is Beverly Leslie that the part was written for me," Jordan says. "It wasn't. It was written for Joan Collins.
"In the episode, Joan was supposed to try to steal Karen's maid Rosario from her. They were supposed to get in a knockdown drag-out fight over it on a pool table — like a big fight on Collins' show Dynasty. They were supposed to rip each others' wigs off. But Collins' management said 'No.' No wig was coming off. So I got the part."
When the recurring character won Jordan an Emmy, he thought he could parlay that into greater things.
"I won an Emmy for Will & Grace, and I thought I was set," he says. "I thought, 'I will be offered my own television show.' And I am telling you: nothing. Nothing. People would want me to do a TV show and my manager would say, 'Well, you know you need to pay him, he won an Emmy.' And they didn't care."
Mullally tried to develop a show for her and Jordan's characters, but it never got off the ground.
Jordan has a long list of TV credits, often playing a similar type: a closeted gay man with a sharp wit and Southern accent. He's appeared on Desperate Housewives, Boston Legal, Boston Public, Ally McBeal, Murphy Brown, Reba and many others. He's also known for playing cross-dressing, closeted homosexual country music fan Earl "Brother Boy" Ingram in Sordid Lives. Del Shores' dark comedy chronicled a wildly dysfunctional family of Bible-thumping Baptists living in a small Texas town overrun with scandalous intrigue. Sordid Lives started as a play (1996), was released as a movie (2000) and followed as a series (2008). Jordan also performed in Shores' Southern Baptist Sissies.
Shores and Jordan followed similar career paths. Shores grew up in Texas and eventually went to Hollywood to write for TV and film. Jordan grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., and went to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. Jordan often seeks Shores' advice on traveling gigs.
"He is very brave," Jordan says. "He'll go everywhere. I call him and he'll say 'Listen honey, you've got to do New Orleans.' Or you need to do this place."
Jordan's performances at the AllWays are part of what is only his second trip to New Orleans. Although he grew up in Chattanooga, he visited the city for the first time to headline a show in the gay community's series of parties and events known at Halloweens in New Orleans several years ago.
The show at AllWays, Stories I Can't Tell Mama, is an ever-changing collection of anecdotes, mostly about his life in show business. He'll share behind-the-scenes tales from The Help, Sordid Lives, Will & Grace and other shows.
"I ain't Kathy Griffin yet," he says, noting that he has a strong fan base.
He also has some stories about Varla Jean Merman. The two collaborated on Lucky Guy in New York, which flopped.
"We shared a dressing room," Jordan says with a laugh. "I had to sit clear over in the corner. I had five little inches. She's a big old girl, and her costumes took up the whole room."
Besides his cabaret show, Jordan has done other one-man shows and more polished pieces. In 2008, he did an off-Broadway show called My Trip Down the Pink Carpet. He's returning to New York in a couple weeks to perform in a one-man play festival at the Cherry Lane Theatre. In Los Angeles, he's been performing an original piece called Fruit Fly.
"It answers the age old question: Do gay men become their mothers?" he says.
Jordan grew up in highly religious Southern town with a father in the military, which tempered his willingness to acknowledge his homosexuality.
"I (still) do it to myself," he says. "Something will trigger it, and I'll think, 'Oh, I can't act the way I do.'"
Even though his mother now lives in Laguna Beach, Calif., they slip back into old habits.
"My father was in the military, so my mother can shop at Camp Pendleton," he says. "I'd drive her down there and she'd say, 'Are you going to leave that bag in the car?' She doesn't want me prissing around."
But Hollywood and his fans have enjoyed his characters and their zingers. He's got a show in development, and he's ready to be in the spotlight.
"I'm still trying to convince people I can carry a show," he says. "After 30 years, I'm still here. I'm still relevant."