First comes the wig, a frosted bubble cut, closely cropped to the head. Then the dress, cocktail party elegant and always red. Finally there’s the look, pelvis pulled in to accentuate thinness, eyes a bit crossed and glazed and a withering smile plastered across the face. Ready at last, Nancy Reagan sucks in those cheeks and bravely marches out to meet her public.
Actually, this is not what happens in the White House. But it does take place on national television when Terry Sweeney—the one bright star of Saturday Night Live’s otherwise disappointing season—transforms himself into the First Lady. Sweeney inaugurated his Nancy last November, playing her as a lush who welcomes Princess Diana, played by Madonna, to the White House. Since then his impersonation of the President’s wife has worked up a sweat with Tony Danza and, most memorably, fallen in love with Ron Reagan Jr. in a Back to the Future parody. Though always bordering on the truly tasteless, Sweeney contends that his inventions are innocent fun. “Nancy is the perfect politician’s wife,” he says. “She’s always smiling and looking serene and being supportive for hours on end. I’m like her alter ego, her unresolved side, the part that wants to slip out at night and go shrieking and streaking down the White House lawn.”
The boy’s got chutzpah. In fact he was playing a character called Chutzpah when Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels saw him in a 1983 off-Broadway production, Banned in France. Connie Chutzpah, a tarted-up, loudmouth gossip who embarrasses her interview guests (“Linda Evans, get over here, you 50-year-old Barbie Doll”), was one of the drag routines Sweeney performed in the show. “I hired Terry because he could do impersonations,” says Michaels. “But I mainly wanted him because he was hysterically funny.”
Sweeney was also something else, and he decided to tell the NBC brass what that was before joining the show. The brass didn’t flinch, and so Sweeney became the first admittedly gay performer on network TV. He decided to be open about his sexuality not out of any moral compunction or soapbox grandstanding, but because “no one else in entertainment was saying it. I didn’t want to pretend I had a fiancée and we were going to get married and have two kids. I was tired of invisibility. I wanted people to know gay people are normal with regular jobs and careers like everybody else.”
Born in the borough of Queens and raised in Massapequa Park, N.Y., Sweeney, 35, had a rough time growing up. His father, Terrence, was a butcher, his mother, Lenore, was an eccentric worrier, and Terry—the younger of two boys—was an overprotected child. “My mother was on the alert against everything,” he says. “Her motto was, ‘It’s a rough world out there. Don’t leave the house unless you have to.’ I wasn’t allowed off the block until I was 12.” Even on the block he had to face other kids. “I wasn’t the most masculine child. The words ‘sissy’ and ‘let’s get him’ were familiar to my ears.” For comfort he turned to fantasy. “I lived for the Bookmobile. I read everything, but I lusted after Nancy Drew mysteries and movie biographies. Up in my room, I put on my own Broadway routines. I was the only person I knew who danced to the I Love Lucy theme.” Talent brought adolescent acceptance; satirical sketches and put-downs turned Terry the loner into the class wit.
Dealing with his sexuality took longer. Though Sweeney claims he knew he was gay by fourth grade, fear of rejection kept him from accepting it until he was in college. “I always tried to fit in,” says Terry, who got engaged by his sophomore year. “She was a wonderful girl. The only problem was that she wasn’t a guy.” He joined a Gay Speakers Bureau at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he was studying Spanish and Italian and began addressing civic groups and PTA meetings. He found his hardest audience at home. Two years after his mother’s death, he told his father he was gay. Terence took the news badly. “He said, ‘Oh no, not that! Don’t tell me you’re a homo. I’m going to be sick.’ ” Though pained by the reaction, Terry was relieved that he had expressed his feelings. “When you’re gay, you always feel separate. It’s like guard dogs are pacing back and forth keeping something in you protected and private. The greatest release in coming out is you can send these guard dogs home.”
Sweeney pursued a variety of trades after graduating with a B.A. in 1973. He worked as a counselor in a drug rehabilitation center and waited on tables before trying his hand as a scriptwriter. His personal and professional life started coming together in 1981 when he met comedy writer Lanier Laney in a bar. “I fell in love with Terry the minute I saw his impersonation of Angie Dickinson in her shooting position from Police Woman,” says Lanier, 30. The two began living together two months later and went to L.A. in 1983, where they sold three film scripts. They returned to New York when Saturday Night Live hired them as a writing-performing team. The pair now share a Victorian gardener’s cottage in Westchester County, N.Y.
Sweeney has a whole new cast of characters he plans to unveil: Patti La-Belle hogging the mike, Dinah Shore selling chicken, Mother Teresa kicking up her heels. While his send-ups often are offensive at first, his humor ultimately breaks down barriers. Maybe the best proof of his disarming wit is that even his father has become a fan. “He sends us anniversary presents now,” says Terry. “He’s come a long way from his Archie Bunker days. My dad actually brags that his son is doing drag on national TV.”