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Revenge of the nerd: American Splendor's Toby Radloff is out and proud about his sexuality and his nerddom.

Toby Radloff is not your average gay icon. The openly gay Cleve land file clerk who appears as himself in the film adaptation of coworker Harvey Pekar's autobiographical comic book, American Splendor, has never appeared shirtless in a bar rag or been photographed with Judith Light at a fund-raiser or waved from a convertible in a pride parade. He's just been himself, his big nerd self. And as with the rest of the lovable eccentrics who populate Pekar's honest, workaday universe, it's impossible not to root for him. "American Splendor is about people who are seemingly invisible," asserts Robert Pulcini, who wrote and directed the film with partner Shari Springer Berman, "and how they find a way to get heard."

The message seems to be getting out. Splendor walked off with the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and according to an unsurprised Radloff, even former vice president Al Gore, an attendee at the lest in Park City, Utah, was impressed. "Of course Al Gore liked the movie," he says with a laugh. "Al Gore is a nerd."

And Toby Radloff knows front nerdism. Since making his first appearance in the pages of Splendor in the early 1980s, the now--45-year-old karaoke enthusiast and self-described "treasure trove of trivia" has continued to pop up--on a series of MTV spots and in the low-budget horror flicks Killer Nerd and Bride of Killer Nerd--as the quintessential glasses-wearing, nasal-voiced, pens-in-the-pocket nerd.

"Toby showed up on the set dressed so perfectly that our costumer did not even put him in another outfit," recalls codirector Berman. "When you see him on film, you might not be sure if he's in on the joke, but he totally is. Toby's in total control of his image."

And incredibly jazzed about the release of Splendor, even more so than Pekar himself. "That may be because I'm a little more neurotic than Toby," says Pekar with his trademark cynicism. "Toby's a smart, honest, hardworking, humane guy, and he hasn't had it easy by any means. Now things are starting to turn around, and I'm happy for him."

"The first time I remember being called a nerd was seventh grade," says Radloff, who still works as a clerk at the veterans' hospital where he met and befriended Pekar some 23 years ago. "It bothered me at first, and I tried to fit in, but I couldn't. I sort of embraced it after high school. Like Some gay people take the word 'faggot' and embrace it in a positive way', I've tried to do the same thing with 'nerd.'"

Though Radloff told Pekar he was gay years ago--Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner, helped Radloff place the coming-out phone call to his fatally--Radloff's sexuality was never part of the comic books' story line. As a result, it isn't addressed in the film. But Judah Friedlander, the actor who plays Toby in the films narrative sequences, tried to incorporate Radloff's homosexuality into his performance, even though he only learned of it the night before shooting.

"The first time I had ever met Toby, we were just chatting in the bar of my hotel," recalls Friedlander, whose previous films include Meet the Parents, Showtime, and Zoolander, "and all of a sudden Toby goes, I'm ga-a-ay!' It was funny because while he was trying to be discreet, pretty much the entire lounge turned around and looked at us. Toby talks loud."

Radloff's self-acceptance didn't come easily. When he was 14 his school principal sent a letter home to Radloff's parents informing them that their son had "homosexual tendencies." "Somebody had seen me doing something with someone in the woods behind the school, and the rumor had gotten around," recalls Radloff, who has been romantically involved for five years with a man who lives a few counties away. "My parents were shocked at first, and I was seeing a therapist for a while, but I've accepted myself, and my parents eventually accepted it too."

Things improved considerably for Radloff after high school. He landed his job at the V.A. hospital and began popping up in Pekar's comics, which, he says, was always a thrill, "although some of the artists would draw me a couple of pounds heavier than I actually am." Then in 1984, Radloff happened upon a movie that seemed to have been made specifically for him, Revenge of the Nerds, and saw it some 25 times in the theater. (One viewing involved dragging along Pekar and Brabner, and it's hilariously re-created in Splendor.)

When asked if there's a gay movie that affected him similarly, Radloff comes up blank, though he claims he never misses an episode of Showtime's Queer as Folk and wouldn't mind doing a cameo. "Brian Kinney could pick me up at Babylon," he says, referring to the show's resident lothario, "when he decides he wants a gay nerd."
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Author:Hensley, Dennis
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Sep 2, 2003
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