BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Thirty years after winning the first season of TV's Star Search, entertainer Sam Harris admits he is something of a Ham.
"I refer to it as a 'liter-usical' because it is literary and it is musical," Harris says. "It’s a theater piece that we are playing in theaters, that we’re touring everywhere."
Harris, 52, says the greatest challenge with Ham (the musical) "was to find stories within 305 pages that we could create a linear show, that has stories from childhood, celebrities and parenthood. It’s mixed with songs."
Among stories Harris tells in the book: a sexy game of strip poker with another chorus boy when they toured as kids in Gypsy; rehab with his close friend Liza Minnelli; how he and husband Danny Jacobsen are raising their adopted son, Cooper Atticus Harris-Jacobsen, now 5.
"It’s a non-chronological collection of stories and essays," Harris says of Ham. "It’s not an autobiography. It’s certainly memoirish by definition, because it’s my stories. There is more to come from here. There will be more books. That was the intention, also, in keeping it non-chronological."
Chapter 3 is titled, "Promises," about the disastrous 2002 marriage of Minnelli and David Gest, whom Harris refers to in the book as "the Man Whose Name Shall Go Unmentioned."
"Everyone makes mistakes," is how Harris opens the chapter.
Shortly before Gest proposed, Minnelli nearly died in Fort Lauderdale of brain encephalitis. "You're still recovering," Harris told her before the big wedding, which would feature Michael Jackson as best man and Elizabeth Taylor as matron of honor. "Is it possible that ... you're not yet in your right mind? Literally?"
He and Minnelli have been through a lot together, including rehab. Harris acknowledged his own alcoholism after visiting the Cabaret star at a facility called The Villa.
"I came in sort through the back door, in a very unexpected way," Harris says of his own path to sobriety. "It was very apparent to those close to me that I had a problem. But people have to come to that in their own way, in their own time."
Minnelli encouraged Harris to write Ham, he says.
"It’s not a tell-all book. It’s not a dishy book," Harris says. "Even the stories in which other celebrities are mentioned in the book, even that rehab story is not about Liza, it’s not about her drinking, it’s about me and my alcoholism. She happened to be my friend that I went to visit in family week and it happened to be Liza Minnelli. It was as my friend, not telling dirt on Liza. I would never do that. It’s all with love.
"It’s certainly a tribute to our friendship and our love for each other," he says. "That’s why, because I respect that, things that are outside of that, all of a sudden I feel I am telling tales out of school. I hope that you respect that what’s in the book was sanctioned by her. She read it. In fact it was her idea to not mention [Gest's] name. So I said, 'I have an idea.' Outside of that, we try to keep that separate."
It seems Harris and Minnelli were destined to be close. They met about 1984, just after he won Star Search. His career-making performance: singing Over the Rainbow.
Harris says he was nervous the first time he sang Rainbow with Minnelli in the audience.
"Yes, of course I was. Meanwhile, she had told me that her mother would have loved me and the way I did it and to her, I was the only other person allowed to sing it. I already had her blessing," Harris says. "The song is a Judy Garland song that will always be a Judy Garland song. Like all great pieces of art, they are to be shared and so I’m borrowing it for this period. I hope I do it justice. And I’ve had the good fortune to get stuck with such a great song that continues to change and evolve in meaning for me in all ways."
For many years after Star Search, Harris stayed quietly in the closet.
“Everybody knew I was gay. Everybody in the industry knew I was gay,” he recalls. “I also came up in a time where in my first record company, they would put a girl on my arm and go to the Grammys or the Emmys or whatever. Interviewers were told not to ask me personal questions in that regard, which was ironic, because I would talk about anything. I was always very open about everything, except in this one area where I was told not to speak. It came to a point for me that was just ridiculous. It just seemed that even though I wasn’t overtly lying, it felt shameful. There was a shame involved in it. I said I can’t do this.”
In 1998, Harris came out officially in an interview with The Advocate.
“Maybe it was almost sort of an apology for having been a part of the sham in the first place. Even though it was cultural and of the time. It was a way for me to personally undo that and apologize for that,” Harris says. “I’ve never been one who thinks that anyone should be forced out of the closet, because I don’t think those are the best role models anyway.”
Harris is a role model, says Jeff Kiltie, event services manager for Aventura Arts & Cultural Center.
“I respect that he is still going on as a performer and trying to be a role model in many aspects of the community, including being a parent. He’s a great representative without being overbearing. He’s presenting the average, happily married family man,” Kiltie said.
Harris and Jacobsen, a businessman, have been together since 1994. They married in California in 2008.
“There is a magnifying glass on those of us who have taken this course and fought for that right and now are living it. I’m gladly in that magnifying glass. It’s kind of like when you’re a parent. If you’re a good parent, you have to be your best person. Not just when you’re with the kid, but always. You have to be your best person because you are model for that child,” Harris said. “It’s sort of that way on a large level in this time in history we’re in. We have to be our best couple. We have to be our best marriage. We have to be our best for ourselves, but also because we count. We want to say, ‘Look, we are doing this right.’”
IF YOU GO
Sam Harris performs 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, at Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, 3385 NE 188th St., Aventura. Tickets are $39.50. Click here to purchase.