Remember the culture wars? You know, that titillating moment of history when Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan discovered that performance artists were the biggest threat to society since the death of Soviet Communism. Not poverty or global warming, mind you; performance artists. In 1990, four such individuals were about to be awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts when Helms and company suddenly determined that those same four and their respective shows were obscene and offensive. One who was thus singled out was a manic, seemingly psychosexual performer named John Fleck, who had once dreamed of being a priest when he grew up.
In a one-man show called Blessed Are All the Little Fishes, Fleck was accused of urinating onstage (which he did), onto the audience and/or a Bible (which he didn't), and of masturbating onstage (the act was simulated). The piece was an exploration by Fleck of consumption, greed, and waste in a self-destructive society. "Jesse saw that show about 10 times and just got more and more worked up about it," Fleck cracks in reference to Helms. It was a pivotal performance for the Cleveland native, even before it caught the attention of the Senator from North Carolina. "It got people upset," says Fleck. "I saw that I had the power to push buttons."
All four individuals soon found themselves defunded and labeled by the media as "the NEA Four" or, in some cases, "Karen Finley and the three homosexuals," as though Fleck, Finley, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller were some alternative garage band performing at CBGB that week. Truth be told, Fleck had only worked with one of those other artists--Finley--before Jesse Helms made them a collective target. But, from that point on, they've been bound together for all time in the public mind.
Skip ahead 11 years to the present. The four successfully sued to receive their 1990 grant money; but their parallel suit, which challenged the government's right to withdraw such funding because of nebulous standards of decency, was a loser. Though the NEA Four won twice in lower courts, none other than Bill Clinton (whose middle name is Irony) kept Helms' morality crusade going all the way to a Supreme Court reversal in 1998. Today, the NEA has become a bullet-riddled shell of its former self, someone named George Bush sits in the Oval Office once again, and the cultural watchdogs are watching for someone new to demonize.
Where does that leave our infamous Four? Well, demonized, but still here. The Los Angeles-based Fleck, whose new show Mud in Your Eye is at P.S.122 this month (Finley follows in late May with Shut Up and Love Me), has become a recognizable face in movies and TV since his last New York run in 1994. His latest films include Primary Suspect and Internet Stories. Murphy Brown fans remember him as the seedy drug dealer who sold marijuana in the park to Charles Kimbrough's hapless Jim Dial. (Rough street characters seem to be Fleck's Hollywood specialty, along with various aliens on the last three Star Trek series--four, counting Babylon 5.) Many others will recognize him as Louis Heinsbergen on Murder One, which lasted only two seasons in the mid-1990s despite a strong cult following and critical raves for Fleck's performance.
"When that show was still on," recalls the actor, who turns a boyish 50 this month, "I would get a few letters in my fan mail from Christian fundamentalists saying, 'Read the Bible, it's the only way to salvation, you're going to hell.' They'd found out about the performance art background, and about me being gay, from some of the press I did."
Now that NEA solo grants have been abolished, private funding is down, and alternative performance spaces are disappearing, steady work in mainstream Hollywood is an ingenious way to fund one's own art. But is it worth some of the hassles? "In 1990, I had to get my phone number changed because these neo-Nazis were calling me," says Fleck. "That was unpleasant. And lot of times, I have to react to things that are taken out of context. For instance, it was never true that I'm the guy who pees on his audience. On the other hand, that got my name in all the papers. And I did start working more in Hollywood afterwards."
The actor also manages to do at least one play a year, the most recent one being Charles Mee's acclaimed production of The Berlin Circle, for which Fleck and co-star Megan Mullally (of NBC's Will & Grace) both received L.A. Weekly Awards.
The urge to perform dates back to a time when Fleck was an altar boy in Cleveland. "I was really into Jesus," he says. "I would build shrines in my bedroom. I would wrap myself in sheets like altar boy vestments and have this whole ceremony where everything had to be done in nines, because three times three is the Trinity. I would pray that my father would die, because he was a real bastard, and that I would turn into this beautiful woman. I even had a fantasy for a few years where I became the adopted daughter of John F. Kennedy and Jackie. I drew pictures of her; I had all her bank accounts and houses. I think that's when I started becoming a character actor."
Presumably, this postdated his desire to be a priest? "No, this was during that same period," Fleck replies. "I was very restless. I was always trying to find an identity. Am I an actor, am I a performance artist, am I gay? Well, I'm definitely not straight! Who the hell am I? The new piece is about finding identity. Ever since the NEA thing, I'm just fascinated with labels; what do you stamp yourself as? And the piece is about survival. It's a how-to-survive manual for L.A.-based performance artists."