Marlborough Express

Computer-illiterate actor turned himself into an Instagram star during lockdown


Leslie Jordan stepped on to the stage of London’s Apollo Theatre in 2011 and powered his way through a story of gay confusion and redemption­through-showbiz with dazzling physical comedy and impression­s, not least of himself at his most absurd. ‘‘I am a high-school cheerleade­r stuck in a 55-year-old’s body: cut me open and Hannah Montana would jump out,’’ he told his audience.

It was for his role in the sitcom Will & Grace that the diminutive Jordan, who stood only 4ft 11in (1.5 metres), was best known. He played the sassy socialite Beverley Leslie, a camp-but-closeted southern Republican who shares an apartment in New

York with a straight interior designer and often walks on screen unexpected­ly with the line: ‘‘Well, well, well.’’ One recurring theme was his spiky friendship with Megan Mullally’s boozy Karen Walker, once greeting her with the line: ‘‘I thought I smelt gin and regret.’’ In 2006 he won an Emmy award for his role.

During the Covid-19 pandemic the computer-illiterate Jordan, who has died aged 67, found a new audience with a series of entertaini­ng videos that he posted twice a day on Instagram. Holding his phone inches from his face, he shared candid and hilarious memories of his southern upbringing, tales from Hollywood and anything else that popped into his head. It started as a way of relieving the boredom of lockdown. ‘‘I had a little B&B, but I was in Chattanoog­a [Tennessee],’’ he said. ‘‘There’s not a lot to do. So I started posting funny things.’’

There were videos of him twirling batons for exercise, singing and even eating breakfast while apparently watching pornograph­y, all of which brought him 5.8 million followers. He was perplexed by such numbers. ‘‘Who are these people?’’ he asked during a Washington Post interview in 2020.

‘‘I had no idea. It’s all of a sudden becoming popular, and how is this happening?’’

Leslie Allen Jordan was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of Allen Jordan, an army officer who died in a plane crash when Leslie was 11, and his wife, Peggy (nee Griffin), who loved horses; he had identical twin sisters who were 22 months his junior. He claimed to have known from an early age that he was gay. ‘‘I fell out of the womb and landed in my mother’s high heels,’’ he said, adding that he had been ‘‘on the prance ever since’’.

He was raised in Chattanoog­a in a family of Southern Baptists. ‘‘I so wanted to be a good Christian, I really did,’’ he told The Guardian. ‘‘I wanted to follow the teachings of Christ to the best of my ability, and I tried, but then the whole gay thing starts happening. At the age of 17, I turned my back on religion.’’

His father, concerned that Leslie only played with girls, sent him to a summer camp. At parents’ day, the organisers handed out ribbons. ‘‘So here’s one for the best archer, here’s for the best horseback rider, here’s for the best swim person and I didn’t win anything,’’ he told The New York Times. ‘‘And my mother said my dad was just sinking lower and said, ‘I have scarred this child for life.’ And then they came out with the trophy and said, ‘This is for the best all-around camper. We have this kid who wasn’t actually the best at anything, but boy, he sure did make us laugh.’ And I won best all-around camper.’’

He moved to Atlanta to work with horses with Horatio Luro, the Argentinia­n trainer, ‘‘toying with the idea that maybe I could be a jockey’’. But in his mid-20s he decided to resume his education. ‘‘I had $1200 that Mother had pinned into my underpants and I had decided New York or LA. And if I was going to starve, I wanted to starve with a tan,’’ he said of his choice of Los Angeles.

While studying journalism and theatre he found an agent and began making television commercial­s. ‘‘People would recognise me. I was the PIP Printing guy. I was the elevator operator to Hamburger Hell for Taco Bell, where you went if you didn’t eat tacos.’’ He also fell into drugs and drink. He was arrested on several occasions, including three times in 1997 for drink-driving, and told of once sharing a cell with Robert Downey Jr. When they both appeared on the Ally Mcbeal show, Downey could not remember where they had met before. ‘‘He said, ‘Didn’t we? Are you?’ and I said, ‘Yep, 152, pod A, cell 13, you was top [bunk], I was bottom.’ ’’

By the early 1990s Jordan was helping with Project Angel Food in Los Angeles, a nonprofitm­aking organisati­on delivering food to people with HIV/AIDS. ‘‘But I wasn’t very good at it,’’ he said. ‘‘I was too talkative. I remember once I showed up and it was just this guy sat in a diaper and it just broke my heart. So I sat with him all afternoon.’’

He appeared in several TV series, including The Fall Guy (1986) and The New Adventures of Superman (1993), and in 2001 landed the role in Will & Grace. He had dozens of character-actor roles on the big screen, including newspaper editor Mr Blackly in The Help (2011). There was also stand-up comedy, which brought him to London in 2011.

His pandemic posts led to a wave of new opportunit­ies including his own gospel album, Company’s Comin’ (2021), singing the hymns of his youth with a range of partners including Dolly Parton, Eddie Vedder and Tanya Tucker. He died in a car accident. – The Times

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