A slew of sinewy men saunter by outside West Hollywood, Calif.'s tony Crunch gym, but a fast-talking Christopher Landon is too interested in his third iced coffee and conversation about everything from Edgar Allan Poe to what's on the Discovery Channel to notice. Not that gym culture is lost on the tan, lean 24-year-old; a "wishful" 5 foot 10, he admits he downs "lots of shakes" and carries a Crunch pass himself. "I'm as narcissistic as the next guy," he says with a smile. "That's just coming from my background."
Landon grew up in Beverly Hills the scion of Michael Landon, the gregarious, apple-cheeked TV star whose three family values-espousing series--Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven--carried him through three decades of rarely equaled public adoration. With that honor came the world's expectation for Michael Landon--and his family--to not only look good but, well, be good. So naturally in 1979, when 4-year-old Christopher's dad left his mom, Lynn, after 16 years of marriage (they divorced three years later), the tabloids grabbed a fork, stuffed a napkin in their collective collar, and chomped on the family's misfortune.
And when his dad died of pancreatic cancer in 1991 after a grueling fight, Christopher, then 16, and his six siblings were forced to mourn in the presence of cameras. "We all grew up wary of trusting people," says his sister Leslie, 37. "But Chris has always been very well-adjusted." Indeed, says old friend Melissa Gilbert, a close family friend who watched him grow up while she costarred as Laura Ingalls on Little House, "Chris has always been kind and gentle. He has tremendous depth."
Enough to easily admit that being a Landon has had its perks. After his parents parted, Christopher spent weekends at his dad's sprawling Malibu, Calif., spread, replete with horse stables and drop-in dinner guests like Johnny Carson. But no one should feel covetous. "I've always had a lot of things," he says. "But they've never made me any happier."
Or any less shielded from the fears that come with growing up gay. Despite his "star's son" status and 90210 looks, at Beverly Hills High he preferred lunching in a basement with fellow "misfits" to hanging with the cell-phone set--partly to avoid oafish classmates who called him "faggot" because he didn't fit the mold. Adding to his angst, he lived in mild fear that his dad's wholesome image would be tarnished should the taunts ever be found out to be true. "For a while," says Landon with a wincing smile, "I thought an article about me would come out with the headline `Little House on the Fairy' or `Highway to Hell.'"
He found comfort in the macabre. At 7 he was watching Rosemary's Baby. By 10 he was reading Stephen King novels and writing his own horror stories. And three years into studying screenwriting at Los Angeles's Loyola Marymount University, he dropped out after producer-director Larry Clark (Kids) took a lilting to one of his gory scripts and asked him to turn out what became Another Day in Paradise. The edgy street drama starring James Woods and Melanie Griffith didn't blip much at the box office earlier this year, but it did nab great reviews.
The resulting buzz has since landed Landon several script deals with the likes of MGM, where he has been fleshing out Blood and Chocolate ("It's Romeo and Juliet meets The Howling," he says). His mix of high concept and sharp edges extends to gay themes too; his latest work is about the romance between two men--one straight, one gay--on an island (don't call it Pink Lagoon). And along with Gods and Monsters' Oscar winner Bill Condon and others, he is writing and directing one of the four gay-themed stories in the film version of scaremeister Clive Barker's anthologies Books of Blood. "Chris is extraordinarily smart," says Barker, who hired the young Landon in July after seeing a short film he had concocted, a thriller about the dark side of religion. "I was mightily impressed," says Barker. "It's stylish and really scary."
What's also spooky is how driven Landon is. "Downtime drives me up the wall," he says with a sigh before taking another gulp of his frappe. He can chill enough to catch the occasional Frasier and contemplate a career in forensics ("That would be the only other thing I'd go into"). But his bungalow apartment is cluttered with papers, the tires on his BMW M Coupe are fraying, and he tends to just swap messages with pals like Angelina Jolie (Jon Voight's daughter) and Roseanne's Sara Gilbert, who starred in his short film and is Melissa's sister. He certainly doesn't have time for pets. "They always die," he says.
What he has plenty of time for is self-deprecation. Teasingly ask Landon what his sign is, and he'll quip, "Pisces. We're the doormat of the zodiac." Still, though he's had his travails--most recently he ended a two-year relationship with an actor nine years his senior--the young Landon doesn't play victim. As he says in the following talk, if coming out hurts his career, so be it. He gets some of that confidence from his dad, who it turns out had sensed all along Christopher was gay and--Highway to Hell be damned--loved him just the same.
Perhaps it's no shock. You have only to look at The Loneliest Runner, a 1976 TV movie about a teen bed-wetter, to know that the elder Landon knew empathy; he wrote and directed the critically acclaimed story based on his own experience. Laugh if you want, but the truth is, the sensitive TV icon "outed" himself to help others. "This was a man who went on talk shows making jokes about the coffee enemas he had because of his cancer," notes Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson on Little House. "He would've been really supportive of Christopher. His attitude was, What are ya gonna do--worry about pleasing everyone your whole life? He was open about everything."
Like father, like son ...
So when did you come out to your family and friends?
I wish I could say it was a long time ago, but it was only two years ago.
And what was the evolution?
It was quite sudden. I had a lot of girlfriends, and I just thought, This is kind of silly. Why haven't I investigated all these feelings yet? And I met a guy, and I fell in love, and everything moved very fast for me. My mom is a born-again Christian, and some of my other relatives are of the same faith. So I think that made it difficult too. But as soon as I realized that I was in love--about two months after I met this guy--I just came out. I went straight to my mom, and I was like, "Listen, this is what's going on, and I don't even know how I even feel about it, but I don't want to live a double life." And it just sort of spread like wildfire through the family.
How did your mom react?
She cried. It was really hard for her. At first she was very upset and then went through this guilty phase where she blamed herself. I think she's finally getting to a point of acceptance. I think the most important thing is that it's forced her to challenge her beliefs. I think everyone needs that. I even said to her, "I don't even know if I believe in God, but if I do, he gave you a gay son so that you can start confronting some of these issues and get yourself out of the box you've placed yourself in for so long." So it was a really positive thing. And most of my other relatives were fine, or they were just like, "Yeah? So? It took you this long?"
Do you think your father knew?
Yeah. My stepmom said, "I knew. And you know what? Your father knew too." Apparently he just told her out of the blue, "I think he's gay, but I'm sure he'll come to that conclusion on his own." I think there was a question of why I didn't keep my high school girlfriends longer. It was kind of actually a comfort to know that he had a good sense of it.
Your dad was probably hit on a lot in Hollywood, especially during his Bonanza days ...
God knows. I know there was a big rumor on the set of Bonanza that he was having an affair with Hoss [costar Dan Blocker]. And my dad would sort of play with it. They would sort of hang all over each other and nuzzle on the set just to stir the pot.
So your family never gave you the sense that he was a homophobe in any way?
No. His public image was very different in many ways from who he was as a father and as a person. He was extremely liberal in his beliefs to pretty much everything. He was not closed-minded to anything. I don't think that it would have mattered to him at all.
But you didn't know your dad knew about you. How tough was being closeted in high school?
It was really awful. I hear these stories from friends who Knew other gay people in school. But there was absolutely no one. I thought, Oh, my God! I am the only one! I am the only gay person in my school. It was completely isolating. I was elated when I graduated.
Was there homophobia on campus?
Oh, my God! I can still remember the names and faces that followed me around going, "Faggot, faggot, faggot!" It doesn't bother me now, of course, but it was painful then. Things can come full circle though. At the premiere for Another Day in Paradise, I was doing an interview for Entertainment Tonight, and this one kid who had followed me around and done all this kind of stuff in high school walked up to me. I immediately recognized him and tried to bum a hole through him with my eyes. And then I realized, he's in the movie. I was like, You little asshole! Then I thought, Wait a minute. No. This is the way it's supposed to be. It's kind of sad that suddenly he's being friendly and kissing my ass.
What do you think motivated his type back in school?
I think I looked a certain role but didn't behave that way. I got hit on a lot by girls in high school, and I didn't pursue it. So the only conclusion that people could come to was that I was gay. [Laughs] I go through pictures from back then, and I think I behaved gayer--if that's even a word--when I was closeted than I do now. I feel more masculine now.
I just think I feel more relaxed. I think that I was so uptight about trying to seem straight that in the process I seemed gay. It becomes such a facade that you can completely deconstruct it. Other people see through it so easily. And I see it in other people sometimes. I have a couple of friends who are struggling with theft sexuality. And when they are out with their straight friends they're going, "Oh, du-u-ude!" And it looks so incredibly false.
Did you ever try to conform?
No. The rumor in high school was that I was either gay or a devil worshiper. I went through my little goth phase where I was wearing some really scary shit to school--a lot of black and cloaked things. I went out of my way to dress differently and not conform.
Where did all that darkness come from?
I've always been fascinated with mortality, and I grew up fascinated with Poe. And when my parents separated, my dad let us pick out movies from the horror section. It was his way of gaining our favor.
So he let you see his early movie I Was a Teenage Werewolf?
Oh, much worse than that. I Dismember Mama and Cannibal Campout, these really awful films.
What was the appeal?
I think everybody is fascinated by death, but sometimes it's that fascination that frightens them more than death itself. And that doesn't bother me. I'm not afraid of looking at those things and that part of myself.
You must have been an unusual kid.
I was a strange kid. I was an underachiever.
Really? You seem so articulate.
I didn't apply myself, as my mother would say. But when my dad got sick, something really clicked in my head like, Oh, my God, I'm really wasting my life. I was in the tenth grade, and I just knew that I was screwing up, and I didn't want to. I wrote a lot of short stories, and I started formulating some sort of career path.
What do you miss about your dad?
Oh, I miss everything about him. He had his faults and his flaws, but he was a good person and an extremely loving man, very maternal and affectionate. I miss stupid things too. He always had this habit when he was thinking of something--he always used to nod his head and just stand in front of the television. He was extremely bright and would go way into his head.
Do you carry his sort of populist sensibility?
I am a sap in a lot of ways, and some of his old shows will make me cry. But his stuff could get kind of preachy. I get to carry the side of my father that he didn't get to expose, which was his dark side. He had a very dry, sick sense of humor. I absolutely got that from him, and I think that comes through in my work.
I know the Clive Barker project is kind of hush-hush. Have you written anything else with a gay theme?
I just recently finished a script a month ago. It's about a straight man marooned on an island with a gay man. They end up spending 11 years alone together. And it's about, when you pull away society's mores and laws, what happens to a relationship between two men when they're struggling with basic elemental needs: food, hunger, and, ultimately, desire. They very much become like a married couple.
Do they go there?
Oh, they go there. And they fall in love.
Can a movie like that get made?
No. [Laughs] My agents sent it out to a lot of big companies because we felt that as long as it was intelligent material, maybe it would somehow get through to someone. And the response, for me at least, was overwhelming in the sense that almost every company called back and wanted a meeting, and a lot of people thought it was my best writing to date. But they weren't prepared to make the film. I don't call it a gay film; it's a film about love, about relationships. It was designed to make straight men uncomfortable because it made them think that they could actually be in that position. And it made them question at least the notion that they could be with only a woman. It made a lot of people uncomfortable. I'll probably have to try and take it the independent route.
Do you find that gay producers are sometimes homophobic themselves?
You know what shocked the hell out of me? The few negative reactions I got on that script were from gay producers, who basically said, "We don't want to see another movie where a gay man falls for a straight man." And that was really sad; they were so locked in their own issues that they didn't really read the script.
Do you have openly gay agents?
No. They're not gay at all. They support the material, and they were completely behind it. And that was enough. I don't want to make a career out of my sexuality either. I enjoy writing characters.
So no acting?.
No acting. And that's not to say that if I read a part that I somehow felt connected to that I wouldn't maybe give it a shot. But I've spent too much of my life in front of people, and not by choice. That's something that most people, I think, tend to not realize. It's stars who choose the attention, not their families. We couldn't walk into a restaurant without everyone staring at us. Even after my father died, I would still walk into a restaurant with my head down and walk to my table. It was a Pavlov reaction. My dad's fame was always very uncomfortable for me.
But now you're publicly outing yourself in the pages of The Advocate. What does that mean to you?
I think it's important to always be who you are and to not be ashamed of that. And to let people know. I actually go into a lot of meetings and people think that I'm straight because of my work. And I think that that's fun. And I hope they pick up this magazine and read the article and get a pleasant surprise. I just think that it helps sort of bash some stereotypes.
Is there homophobia in your generation in Hollywood? Are there still idiots out there?
Yeah. I think there is and I think there always will be because I think people are afraid. And I don't know why. I really don't understand it. But I'm sure that I'll face it. I may fall off some list because of my sexuality. But if that happens, then I really don't want to be on that list anyway.
To read the full interview with Christopher Landon, go to www.advocate.com
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|Title Annotation:||Christopher Landon comes out as gay|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Dec 7, 1999|
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