The Call Me Kat actor struggled with alcoholism before entering recovery 22 years ago. “It was easier to be gay when I was loaded," he tells PEOPLE

By Jason Sheeler
January 08, 2021 11:00 AM
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As fans of Leslie Jordan know, the guy knows how to talk.

"There's a secret to telling a good story," Jordan, 65, whispers conspiratorially into the camera on a Zoom call with PEOPLE before Christmas, "First, you have to be Southern. You know, we grow up sittin' around sayin', 'Oh, you won't believe what happened. The other day so-and-so ...' "

The Emmy-winning actor with a distinctive drawl — back on TV this month with the sitcom Call Me Kat — has learned how to spin a yarn over his 40 years in Hollywood. "You've got to have a very strong beginning. You've always got to have a punchline to end it with. It's the middle part that's hard."

The actor — perhaps best known as Beverley Leslie on Will & Grace — sharpened his storytelling skills on Instagram, where he has amassed 5.6 million followers since first posting videos at the start of the pandemic. "You can't meander. I mean, you can, but then they've got to push that button that says, 'Do you want to continue,' after one minute. And you always want them to continue."

For more on Leslie Jordan, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Some of Jordan's stories take place behind the scenes of his new sitcom. Some are about the cats in his mom's neighborhood back home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Some are about his sobriety, and the time when he struggled with substance abuse.

Jordan likes to joke that he "fell out of the womb into his mother's high heels." The real story has less pizazz. He came out to his mother, Peggy Ann, when he was 12. "I told my mother I thought something was up. I didn't even know the word 'gay.'" He's not sure his mother did either. "Her only reference would've been, you know, like Liberace, who never even came out. She didn't pull her Bible out, which I thought she would. She said, 'I'm just really afraid that if you choose this path, you'll be ridiculed.'" She suggested, "'just live your life quietly.' I didn't follow her advice on that one."

He had his first drink at 14. "We were Baptist. There was no alcohol in our family. We were teetotalers." There was a bar at his friend's house. They started drinking. "I remember that, all of a sudden, I wasn't that awkward kid who didn't know what to do with his arms, who was afraid the ax was going to fall at any time. It hit me: I was adorable, I was precious. And I stayed precious and adorable for the next 33 years." 

After studying theater at the University of Tennessee, he moved to Los Angeles in 1982. Jordan soon found work. He started in commercials for Sizzler and Foster's beer. Guest roles were booked, many of them for "gay" characters. "I was never closeted here," he says. "Back then, there were about three or four openly gay actors, but they never had us audition as 'gay.'" The roles called for a "mama's boy," or someone "a little fey," Jordan recalls. "They'd even ask for someone a little 'minty.'" He appeared in '80s classics like The Fall Guy and Murphy Brown. The '90s brought Caroline in the CityHearts Afire, and many, well, forgettable (and forgotten) television shows. Even he can't remember some of them. "I've done some stankers, honey." 

In the '90s, Jordan kept auditioning. "There was a Hollywood producer, Darren Star, that I went in and read for. He wanted to have me in to read. Sex & the City wanted to add a gay [character]. I went in and what they said they wanted, was 'Niles off of Frasier,' who wasn't even gay! But that was what they wanted, that very urban gay. And I asked him, 'Can we not have a lovable c---sucker?'" Star laughed, Jordan remembers. "But he would never hire me. Could we not just have lovable, good, funny? ... They had a real set idea of what was 'gay.' I had to make my own."

Years later, his agent called him. "He said, 'You really made it. They want a Leslie Jordan type.' And I said, 'I'm available, honey. I'm circling the block!' They told [the casting agent] I was available. They said, 'Oh, we don't want him. We just want someone like him.'"

As Jordan's career took off, he descended into substance abuse. Alcohol gave him confidence and self-acceptance through his 30s. "I felt it was a lot easier to be gay when I was loaded. My problem was I was a bar drinker. I started getting DUIs. My gosh. And that one year [1997] I got three in a row. They sentenced me to 120 days." 

leslie jordan
Leslie Jordan
| Credit: Robert Trachtenberg

He never thought he'd actually have to go. "I was on — what was that show called? It was Mario Lopez, and he was a bicycle cop out in Venice." (For the record, the show was Pacific Blue.) "I thought, 'They can't put me in jail. I'm on TV.' Bam." He served 12 days and at one point he shared his cell with Robert Downey, Jr., with whom he'd later guest-star on Ally McBeal. "I'm partially responsible for his success," Jordan jokes. 

Jordan told his sisters to tell their mother he was in rehab. "She told me, 'It's real loud there at Betty Ford.'" Eventually, she learned the truth. "My mother was so frightened for me. We went through it as a family." Jordan has been sober and a member of a 12-step program now for 22 years.  

"I don't do parties," he says, adding he hasn't been out past 6 p.m. in years, mostly because people always want him to perform.

"I love being by myself," Jordan says, who is content living alone. "I think that has a lot to do with my twin sisters. Growing up, they were so close, and then there was me. I played by myself a lot. I'm very much a loner. But today I am more comfortable with who I am than ever. Every day is like gravy."

Call Me Kat airs Thursdays (9 p.m. ET) on Fox.