You know it’s going to be a fun interview when your subject opens the conversation with “When you’re fifty-seven and have a good bowel movement, it’s going to be a great day.” Such is life with Jim J. Bullock, the once sitcom star, former center square on the revamped “Hollywood Squares,” brief sidekick to Tammy Faye Baker, and self-shouting queer. “I’m a fag!” he Texas-twanged at one point in the talk.
In 1980, a sitcom called “Too Close for Comfort” hit the airwaves, with a post-“Mary Tyler Moore” Ted Knight fretting over his two hot daughters in a San Francisco duplex. “Three’s Company” seemed like an obvious influence, as added to the mix was Monroe (Bullock), the kooky, goofy, neighbor who the girls loved and who…never made a pass at either one. And, was it just me, or did Monroe seem ever-so-slightly a big ‘mo?
“It wasn’t discussed,” says Bullock on the creation of Monroe. “The more comfortable I became the more flamboyant he became. That’s when Monroe became gay. They [the producers] got fan mail and said they didn’t want the character to be gay. I didn’t want him to be gay! I was a Christian. I said ‘Give me a girlfriend.’ They gave me two love interests; an eighty-year-old woman and a transsexual.”
Reflection, and Bullock, has changed. “The show didn’t have the balls to say, ‘We’re gonna make you gay. We’re gonna be the first show to make a main character gay.’ All shows up until that time had tragic gay characters. Who did gay people look up to in the eighties, onscreen or on TV? Anyone?”
The Odessa-born Bullock, who at one time planned to become a minister, and who was battling his own attraction to men during the show, has only fond memories. “What an incredible ride to be put on,” says Bullock. “There were only three networks then; I landed on one of them. Ted Knight was a lovely man. He saw a lot of himself in me.”
Knight died of cancer during the run, promptly ending the series and starting a new phase in Bullock’s too-comfortable life. In 1985, the actor was diagnosed as HIV-Positive, before he’d even told his parents he was gay. “It was a pretty scary time to find out,” says Bullock. “It was kind of like a death sentence.” It was also supposed to be his own business, and Bullock never intended on becoming a spokesman for anything but laughs. In 1997 that all changed.
“I was outed,” says Bullock in regards to his HIV status. “I did the AIDS ride. It was a big giant thing. I sent out a letter, saying ‘You know my partner, John, died of this disease of which I am a survivor.’ Someone said something to the ‘Enquirer.’ There was a reporter in the morning, saying I want to talk to you about your HIV status. I wasn’t even awake yet. I said ‘Who do you work for?’ I realized it was the ‘National Enquirer.’”
Bullock says that he had no desire to fight the tabloid, and had kept his status a secret on the advice of his partner, who told him public disclosure meant he’d be forever out of work. That’s what happened after 1997, but for different reasons.
“On my own I sort of quit,” says Bullock. “I went into the party scene. I got involved with the circuit scene, I got into a little trouble with crystal meth, lost who I was for about three or four years.”
Lest you think this is a four-hanky piece, Bullock’s humor is as resilient as his immune system.
“I was totally irresponsible and it was fantastic,” says Bullock. “For a couple of years I had no responsibility except for my cat, who I’d throw food at once in a time … I still have guilt about poor Ethel. I’d leave for days. That all stopped when the money stopped.”
His arrest for possession helped too, and, like most humor, leads up to a bittersweet tale. “Oh, I was such a whore,” laughs Bullock, before adding, “And I wasn’t safe. Nobody was. Nobody in the bathhouse was saying ‘Put a condom on that.’ I can’t remember that ever happening. I’m not saying that’s right, but when you’re tweaking you don’t think about shit like that, or you just don’t care, but when you come down you do care.”
Bullock begged the police to go easy on him, and they lessoned the sentence because of his cooperation, and willingness to let them search his home. “They go to my condo when I’m in jail,” Bullock laughs. “I read the report. It read ‘We walked into his West Hollywood condo with this very hungry kitty. We found nothing, blew out the candles, and fed the cat.’ Wasn’t that sweet? I didn’t know I’d been gone for hours or that I’d left candles on.”
Today, Bullock seems as perplexed as most of the adult gay world on issues of safe sex and how best to promote it. “Haven’t we lived in the most interesting time,” he says. “From ‘My God I won’t be in the same room with your for fear I’ll catch it’, to ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m HIV-positive.’ We watched our friends who were twenty-two, twenty-five, dropping like flies. It had a profound effect on our lives. That’s not how it is now. It’s like those cigarette ads. I was never affected by those. I’d see it and then light up.”
In regards to his own health (which is great), Bullock’s got nothing short of a positive attitude. “I have given my HIV status very little energy in my life,” he says. “I think there’s power in that. Mostly, I’ve realized I’ve not had to give it much energy because of how fortunate I am to have always had good health and not fight the battle. I go to the doctor about once every two years. I am one of those people who has the virus but it’s dormant. They say I don’t have a door on my cell.”
Thanks, rhetorically or not, to a rag publication, Jim J. Bullock has become more than a funny face. He doesn’t seem too concerned over that role, even if it’s not something he deliberately models. Back in the business, he’s been touring as Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” this past year, and is set to do it in Los Angeles before an eight-month Royal Caribbean cruise-ship tour. He loves theater, and he’d love to be back on TV. “I’d love to be on a game show,” he chimes in.
Bullock’s viewing habits are surprisingly different from what most would expect. “I watch ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Mad Men.’ I’m not drawn to comedies. It’s so funny. I watch ‘Hawaii 5-0’ because the lead guy is so fucking hot. I just sit there and cry and drink while I’m watching that show.”
Bullock lives alone, in Silver Lake, with a new cat, Lloyd, who “I adore. I have pangs about leaving him for eight months. I’m crazy.” He’s also sane, rational (“I’m not seeing anyone; I’m not in that place anymore”), and ready to live for a long time.
“Looking back, I wish I’d gotten a degree,” Bullock said early in our conversation. “But, to get what you want, sometimes you have to be young and stupid.” You also have to know that a little bit of stupid can go a long smart way.
To see Bullock, check out the Musical Theater West production of “Hairspray,” The Carpenter Center, Long Beach, 10/29 through 11/13. After that, he’ll be reprising the lead role on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, starting in 2012.