Jack Merrill is a good actor and a very good manager of
voguish theater companies, but what he’s really good at is positioning himself.
In his two decades in Manhattan,
Mr. Merrill has perfected the Art of Proximity. He’s one of
those people who’s always in the luminous orbit of one rich or famous
person or another-but who does so without guile or sycophancy. Although Naked
Angels, the theater company he co-foundedin1986-which featured Sarah Jessica
Parker, Matthew Broderick, Gina Gershon, Lili Taylor, Marisa Tomei, Rob Morrow
and Fischer Stevens, and had the late John Kennedy Jr. as a board member-is
basically defunct, he has stocked his latest theater troupe, Urban Empire, with
the sons and daughters of the rich and famous: actors Rob Kravis (Henry Kravis’
son), Daniella Rich (Marc and Denise Rich’s daughter) and Linda Powell (she
calls the Secretary of State “Dad”). Board members include Norman Mailer’s son
Michael and David Niven’s granddaughter Fernanda.
Needless to say, most nights he’s out.
“I get invited a lot of
places; I’ve always been lucky that way,” the 37-year-old Mr. Merrill said. “I
think I’m easy . There are famous
actors who always say, ‘I just showed up on time.’ That’s what I do. People
invite me, and I show up and look nice and I don’t complain. And I appreciate
it and I have fun! Then you get invited back. I am extremely grateful, constantly grateful.”
“He’s one of the poorest guys I know who lives the lifestyle
of the rich and famous,” said actress Nancy Travis, who’s known Mr. Merrill
since college. “He’s always calling me to tell me, ‘Well, I just came back from
Aspen,’ or ‘I’m off to so-and-so,
and I’m going here, and I was just at this dinner and that dinner,’ and my God!”
Until this year, Mr. Merrill went by his given name-Merrill
Holtzman. But he changed it to avoid any gender confusion, particularly with
casting agents. “It’s like, enough with the boy named Sue,” he said. His
friends still call him Merrill. In addition to acting in plays, he’s had small
parts on television (a sleazy lawyer on Law
& Order , a blind date on Sex and
the City ) and some parts in films (John Sayles’ Eight Men Out , Neil LaBute’s Nurse
Betty ). Earlier this summer, Mr. Merrill took five one-act plays that first
appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story,
Francis Ford Coppola’s literary magazine, and staged them at Show World, the
porn palace on 42nd Street.
“He just ran with it, as only a person who has a strong sense of what they’re
trying to accomplish does,” said Zoetrope:
All-Story editor Adrienne Brodeur, who will team up with Mr. Merrill again
this fall to hold new fiction readings by actors at the Screening Room in
But none of the above explains why he’s decided to become a
At a recent New Talent Night at Caroline’s comedy club on
Broadway, Mr. Merrill was onstage. “How you doing?
Nice to see you,” he said. “I just want to say that I’m a Greenwich
Village homo. How did this happen? Well, I’ll tell you how it
happened, because all of you sitting in this room tonight are complicit in the
nationwide conspiracy that’s affected my entire
life. It’s the one-dick rule. You know what it is: The guy sucks one
dick-just one- he’s gay. O.K., all right, fine, fine. I sucked one dick. O.K.? One little dick . O.K., it wasn’t that little. O.K., I sucked one big
dick. O.K., I sucked an enormous cock .
So what? So, so I’m gay and I’m out-and I don’t mean out, I mean out , like a social outcast, one of those fuckers on the bottom rung in India.
Give me a pile of cow dung to sleep on, you know what
I’m saying? It’s a nightmare, and it’s my life.”
Laughter-he was winning the audience with the blue material.
“Oh, girls,” he continued. “Girls can eat all the pussy they
want-they’re still straight. Girls can go out and eat pussy breakfast, lunch
and dinner-they’re straighter than ever. Guys, one dick: gay. Gay, gay, gay . Why
is this? Where’s the outrage? I say, why don’t we make it a five-to-10-dick
rule? Why not?”
Caroline’s ended up booking him for two shows, Sept. 25 and
I asked him later why he got into stand-up. “I thought, ‘Oh,
that looks like fun, let’s do it,’” he said. “It’s that simple. I saw Jerry
Seinfeld at a benefit, and he was so funny and so simple, I was so inspired, I went and wrote my thing. I’m always telling
jokes anyway. I just took some of them and threw them into an act.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Mr. Merrill was in the bedroom
of his spiffy, low-ceilinged basement apartment in the West
Village. “This is where it all happens!” he said. He
showed off his glass bathroom cabinet. “It’s all laid out very nicey-nicey,” he
said. On a table was a provocative picture of his friend, fashion designer and
former Jerry Seinfeld flame Shoshanna Lonstein. “She has a perfect body,” he
said. On the refrigerator was a picture of himself
with actress and oil heiress Ginny Bond. Above his desk was a photograph of
John Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bissette. “She gave that to me,” he said, his
voice cracking. “Quite a couple, huh? I kind of put it
there so they’re like watching over me.”
I asked him what his favorite thing to do was. “I would have
to say, I’m very attracted to people,” he said, laughing. “Sometimes they don’t
find me as attractive as I find them, but I would say that’s the one thing I
indulge in: getting to know people on a variety of levels .”
“It’s relatively steady,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to be
Most of his friends are straight. “I’ve never really
understood the gay world very much and never really felt a part of it,” he
said. “Because I’m not sure that there is a way to be a part of it. I’ve always
felt like an outsider in that world, because I don’t really think there’s much
in common there.
“I’ve always been an outsider,” Mr. Merrill said. “But not
because I was gay. I’ve always been an inside outsider, always felt that way. I
belonged everywhere and nowhere at the same time.”
Falling in Love
He was raised in Evanston, Ill.,
by a mother who loved jazz and a father, Jerome Holtzman, who was a well-known
baseball writer. Young Merrill wanted to be an actor but spent more time
playing sports. He barely cracked a book at Evanston High, which he called a
“classic John Hughes, all-American high school …. I would be the perfect mix
between Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald. I was the debutante who was always in
He had girlfriends and “there were a couple guys around, and
I sort of experienced both sides of the equation by the time I was midway
through high school,” he said. “But I always thought I’d be married with kids.”
Then, as a teenager, he
fell for a guy in an emotional way that he’d never experienced with a girl.
“And I had to pay attention to that,” he said. “I really fell in love with him,
and that was the indicator for me. I
loved girls , but the depth of the way I was in love made me realize that where
your emotional life is, that’s really where your sexuality is.”
At 16, he moved out of his parents’ house. “That was
probably one of the gutsiest moves I made,” he said. “It just wasn’t a happy
situation, although things are fine now.” Lying about his age, he got his own
apartment and a job as a waiter at Barbara Eden’s nightclub in Chicago.
After a year at the University
of Illinois, he drove to New
York and moved into a studio on West
28th Street with a slanting ceiling and big
roaches. He waited tables at the Russian Tea Room; Madonna was the coat-check
“She had a bunch of shit
in her hair,” Mr. Merrill said. “I also remember she was a bitch.”
He got fired for breaking a Bellini. But he had an uncle in New
York, a successful sculptor and businessman named
Karl Mann. One day they were at Macy’s, and Mr. Merrill mentioned that he had a
birthday coming up.
“We were standing near the men’s department,” Mr. Mann said.
“So I took off my watch and said, ‘I’ll give you two minutes-I’ll give you
anything you want.’ So he grabbed up all these different clothes and threw it
on the counter, and they added it, and it came to about $560. So I paid for it.
A week or two went by, and the next time he came to see me at my studio, he had
this nice jacket on. I said, ‘That’s a very nice jacket.’ And he said, ‘I
cashed in all that trash you bought me and bought a new jacket.’ And I thought,
‘Well, that was a smart thing to do.’”
In 1983, Mr. Merrill enrolled at New
“I hadn’t really planned to go to college when I got here, but then I found out
N.Y.U. had a great gym and a good acting program, sort of in that order,” he
said. The playwright David Mamet was teaching there and became a mentor. Mr.
Mamet hired Mr. Merrill as an assistant during the Broadway run of Glengarry Glen Ross . “That year, I sort
of met everybody I’d thought I’d ever meet in my entire life. It was very
exciting,” Mr. Merrill said. Mr. Mamet took him to his cabin in Vermont,
told him what to read, taught him how to shoot a gun
and how to produce plays.
He took some acting
workshops; at one, he met Martha McCully, who later was on the board of Naked
Angels and now is an Internet consultant at Gloss.com. At the workshop, Mr. Merrill
told a story about the Christmas he’d given a down jacket to his sister, who
was institutionalized and later tried to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge
in Chicago. But she was wearing the down jacket, which
acted like a life preserver, so she floated and lived.
“That side of Merrill is not really the side that everybody
sees all the time,” said Ms. McCully. “When I saw him up onstage and he told
this story, and I was, like, crying .
I knew I was going to be friends with him forever.”
In 1986, Mr. Merrill co-founded Naked Angels with Jenifer
Estess and other friends; she was then an actor and is now perhaps his best
friend. His uncle provided the acting company with rent-free space in a
building he owned on 17th Street
for a year and a half. “He wheedled it out of me,” Mr. Mann said, adding, “He
is the guy who put the Naked Angels on the street. You know, John Kennedy was
of great use to him, but he didn’t use John Kennedy-they were really close
friends. He was really respectful of Kennedy’s feelings; he didn’t trot him out
like a trophy. The whole board of directors was attributable to Jack Merrill.
He was the impresario. He built the damn thing.”
Mr. Merrill acted in 28 Naked Angels productions, often cast
as a tough guy. In 1997, he went to Hollywood
for the TV pilot season and had an agency meeting. “There’s like seven agents,
and heads of the department, and assistants sitting in the back-one of those
big, classic Hollywood meetings,” he said. “And they
tell me that I’m the next this and I’m the next that: ‘You’re the next Tommy
Lee Jones’; ‘Look at him, he’s got a little of the Bruce Willis thing going
on’; ‘Billy Bob’-whatever-and ‘We’re so glad you’re
here, we’re thrilled,’ blah blah blah. I’m just stunned; I’m thinking nothing
like that ever happened to me before in my life, I don’t even know what to say.
I walk out of the office, and this agent puts his arm around my shoulder and
says, ‘Now, listen-when you buy your house out here, I think that you would
probably be happiest somewhere above Sunset in the hills.’ And I said, ‘Really,
that’s great-can we just work on gas in the car?’ And he smiled.”
After eight weeks, nothing happened. “I don’t like Los
Angeles,” Mr. Merrill said. “It’s one of those places
you go out for two weeks and think, ‘Wow, this is great. This weather’s perfect
and there’s flowers ,’ you’re driving
around and everyone’s got a house and
there’s a lot of work and everything’s great. And then you go on auditions
where they want to put a rubber thing on your head and have you be some alien.”
The friend Mr. Merrill sees most often is Ms. Estess, who is
paralyzed from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He visits her four or five times a week.
They met at N.Y.U., and now he helps her with Project ALS, a nonprofit she
founded. CBS has made a movie of Ms. Estess’ life, The Jenifer Estess Story , with Laura San Giacomo playing her.
“I think he wants to
will me back to health, which is pretty cool,” said Ms. Estess. “He’s extremely
persevering, a wild force of nature or something-he just sort of propels
forward. I remember when we were at Naked Angels and thinking about getting our
first project up, and everybody was like, ‘Oh, we’re not ready; maybe we
shouldn’t do it,’ and Merrill’s like, ‘We’re doing it.’ He’s about getting it
up and getting it out. It’s about carpe
diem . In terms of the scene here, I think he’s a leader. Although right now
Merrill is not Mel Gibson, he does rally the troops forward; he definitely
in a great way, sort of keeps it moving.”
The one thing about straight life that Mr. Merrill says he
yearns for is a traditional marriage.
“There is something
about being gay and going to weddings and seeing families stand up and make
speeches about how happy they are about this union , and how thrilled about the love that these people are experiencing. And you know,
I have been to them and thought, ‘That will never happen to me.’ I don’t get to
do that: I don’t get to have everybody come and tell me how proud and happy
they are that I have met somebody who I love and want to spend the rest of my
life with. I don’t get to do that. And if I do, it’s not real . I didn’t really get
married. It doesn’t really count.”
On a recent night,
documentary filmmaker Alexandra Shiva ( Bombay
Eunuch ), who is a board member of Urban Empire, took Mr. Merrill to a $1,000-a-head
benefit for the Public Theater. There was a private barbecue dinner by the
Great Lawn in Central
Park, followed by a
performance of The Seagull at the
Delacorte Theater and then a party on top of Belvedere Castle. Mr. Merrill, wearing a fedora, mingled near cast members Christopher
Walken, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Goodman; bummed a smoke
off actor Liev Schreiber; and fell into conversation with Marcia Gay Harden, who won the Best
Supporting Actress Oscar this year for her role as Lee Krasner in Pollock .
“Let me tell you something, you looked beautiful,” he told
her. “I was at the boob tube, root-toot-tooting. You looked so fucking
beautiful. I was like, ‘Oh my God, she’s a huge movie star. She’s a movie
Ms. Harden said she was going for an Ava Gardner–Jackie O.
“You want to know
something?” Mr. Merrill said. “You looked like a total fucking movie star. You
know, I love the girls with their hair all fucked up, and then you come out: a
red dress, fucking hair, it’s like, ‘You go,
Marcia Gay Harden! You get up there and you be that fucking movie star, Marcia Gay!”
At midnight, people sang happy birthday to Ms. Shiva. Mr.
Merrill escorted her down the castle’s stone steps, and they got into a golf
cart. They zipped past the people who were already camping out to buy tickets
for The Seagull . Ms. Shiva checked the messages on her cell phone. There
was a voice mail from Daniella Rich, who’d bought a ticket for the benefit but
discovered, when she arrived, that her name wasn’t on the list. So she went
“Oh my God, it’s horrible-she’s pissed, ” Ms. Shiva said.
Mr. Merrill said he felt awful, too, but then he leaned over
conspiratorially and said, “It’s a great New York
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