Harvey Fierstein Biography

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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Harvey Fierstein was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a linen manufacturer and a librarian. He got his start in acting at age eleven when he became one of the founding actors in the Gallery Players Community Theater in Brooklyn. In 1973 he graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree from Pratt Institute.

In 1971 Fierstein appeared in Andy Warhol’s play Pork, at La Mama E.T.C. Since then, he has acted in numerous stage productions. He has appeared on television programs such as Murder She Wrote, Miami Vice, Cheers, Daddy’s Girl, and the soap opera Loving and on talk shows such as The Tonight Show, David Letterman, Arsenio Hall, and Politically Incorrect. His film credits include Garbo Talks (1984), Mrs. Doubtfire, and Independence Day.

Between 1976 and 1979, he wrote his best-known work, Torch Song Trilogy, which he later adapted for the big screen. The plays were first produced in small theaters. In 1981 Fierstein starred in an Off-Broadway production of the Torch Song Trilogy, which he later took to Broadway. He was the first person to win a Tony Award for both Best Actor and Best Play for the same production. The film appeared, receiving its own awards, in 1988.

In both his public and private life, Fierstein is a gay rights activist. He has characterized himself as having been the first “real live and out-of-the-closet queer on Broadway.” Homosexuality is the source of much of his comedy as well as the source of much of the tragedy of his drama. In 1998 he spoke at the Matthew Shepard Memorial March and Rally of his emotions at hearing of the student’s death, saying “rage tore through my body nearly shredding my heart.” In his plays and in his public appearances, he has demonstrated his hope that the “struggle for freedom” for the gay and lesbian community may be won.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Harvey Fierstein’s 1981 trio of one-act plays titled Torch Song Trilogy successfully introduced gay characters to the American stage without apology. The central character, Arnold Becker, is a drag queen with a desire to live a life consistent with the American Dream. He wants to secure a loving family life and sees no reason why he should be denied the opportunity of creating one simply because of his sexual orientation. The uniqueness of the play’s statement lies in the fact that the work was premiered at the end of the sexual revolution of the 1970’s, when gay life was viewed by many as simply a series of casual encounters. Americans seemed content with a view of gays as emotional children who lived strange, uncommitted lives. Fierstein’s characters challenge this view.

The son of a handkerchief manufacturer and a librarian, Fierstein grew up in a tight family unit that accepted his gayness. His first encounters with the lifestyle were through family friends who shared long-term, committed relationships. These were his role models, who helped him develop his somewhat conservative view of gay life.

Fierstein’s reworking of the popular French film La Cage aux Folles (1978) is another example of the playwright’s ability to present fully developed gay characters for mixed audiences. Fierstein received a Tony Award for the best book for a musical in 1984. The musical enjoyed a long run in the United States and abroad. Like Torch Song Trilogy, the play is an old-fashioned love story espousing the virtues of family and commitment.

Fierstein’s writing style is a fusion of his several identities. His work is distinguished by a mixture of Jewish and gay humor interspersed with poignant self-revelation. It is this combination that has endeared him to straight and gay audiences. Through laughter and dramatic truth, his characters are able to tap the human thread that brings all people together.

Although best known as a playwright, Fierstein is also an actor who has played various roles on stage, on national television, and in film, most notably as Frank, the gay brother in the film Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). In addition to his work as an artist, Fierstein is active in various...

(The entire section is 1,830 words.)