Mark Patton was introduced to the films of James Dean at Kansas City’s Tivoli theater.
“My girlfriend took me to the Tivoli for a double-header of ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and ‘East of Eden,’” the KC native says. “She leaned over to me during ‘East of Eden’ and whispered, ‘If anybody ever played him in the movies, it should be you.’”
Flash forward a few years and that same girlfriend showed up at Patton’s opening night on Broadway. He was starring in the play “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” about a fan club dedicated to the late actor.
“She came into my dressing room and said, ‘I told you so,’” Patton recalls.
Now Patton is coming back to the Tivoli to present a double feature of his two best-known movies: Robert Altman’s 1982 film adaptation of “Jimmy Dean” and 1985’s “Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” a box-office hit that has more recently gained a cult following for its subversive subtext.
“Coming home, I’m a little nervous,” the 56-year-old actor says. “It’s going to be really emotional for me, especially to see (‘Jimmy Dean’) in that setting and circumstance.”
The handsome Patton earned his first screen role after wowing audiences as Joe Qualley, the transgender Texan in the stage version of “Jimmy Dean.” The art-house film adaptation reunited him with the same basic cast, which included Cher, Karen Black, Sandy Dennis and Kathy Bates.
“The women treated me like a pet,” says Patton, the only male in the cast. “Cher adopted me. I became her best friend, confidante and traveling companion for a couple years.”
As Kansas City’s most famous filmmaker, Altman demonstrated strong support for his fellow homegrown artist.
“He knew exactly where I grew up and exactly how I grew up,” Patton says. “He took very good care of me. At that point I was being followed by teen magazines. He was teaching me how to be famous.”
Part of that involved interacting with the celebrities who flocked to the Oscar-nominated director of “M*A*S*H” and “Nashville.” Patton met such legends as David Bowie, Louise Brooks and Leni Riefenstahl through Altman.
The film also jump-started Patton’s Hollywood career. In 1984, he screen-tested for Wes Craven’s horror classic “A Nightmare on Elm Street” but lost the part to Johnny Depp. The next year proved more fortuitous when he landed the lead in the rushed-into-production sequel.
Patton hoped it would be the mainstream break he needed.
But the actor had moved to New York not just to pursue his dream; he also left to get away from what he perceived as an oppressive environment in Missouri. In the Big Apple, Patton felt comfortable enough to live life openly as a gay man. At least in his personal circle. Professionally was a different matter.
He says, “It was easy for me as an actor to play any boy who had a tic or a nervous breakdown. I got commercials because I could cry on demand. But just to play a normal, all-American guy was going to be my ‘Hamlet.’ And ‘Nightmare’ was my chance.”
Initially, audiences were more impressed with the flick’s special effects, in particular a scene in which dream-stalking villain Freddy Krueger literally crawls out of Patton’s character.
“That’s all pre-CGI, of course. I actually had a body dummy built where I had to be buried in full plaster of paris,” says Patton, who just returned last week from appearing at “Nightmare”-related events at the San Diego Comic-Con. “It took four and a half days to shoot that scene. It looks cheesy now, but at the time it really scared people.”
Horror fanboys weren’t the only ones to champion the movie. “Freddy’s Revenge” soon became more renowned for its blatant homoerotic undertones. (Cracked named it No. 1 on a list of the “Most Unintentionally Gay Horror Films.) Patton knew it immediately once filming began. He also assumed that as soon as the movie got released, he would be forever stereotyped and unable to get cast in “straight roles.”
“Nobody could have played that part and not been read as a homosexual,” he says.
“That particular time in Los Angeles, the industry had become very AIDS-phobic, more than homophobic. You could live the life up until 1985. But then it became a very bad thing because you had to take a physical and a blood test. They’re supposedly not allowed to look at your HIV status, but they did. It became scary because your career could be destroyed.”
Fearing the professional fallout and tired of pretending to be something he wasn’t, Patton quit the industry entirely. He developed into a successful interior designer and gradually forgot all about performing.
On his 40th birthday, he saw a doctor to treat what he thought was bronchitis. Tests revealed he was HIV-positive. Around this time, he moved to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and met his future husband, Hector. His health improved as his anonymity increased.
“I never knew that I had any fame whatsoever until five years ago when they made the documentary ‘Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy.’ They hired a private detective to find me because I was off the grid,” he says. “They were calling me the Greta Garbo of horror.”
Almost overnight, he began touring the convention circuit to discuss his experiences.
“This sequel that started out as a joke has turned into something that’s inspirational. It’s been a doorway into me speaking about issues that are really important. I talk about HIV, homophobia and bullying to a crowd of headbangers — people who would have scared me growing up,” he says.
He’s also finishing up work on his own documentary called “Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street.” The project traces the interaction between himself and “Freddy’s Revenge” writer David Chaskin, attempting to put in perspective the elusive context of their infamous effort.
Not surprisingly, all the publicity has had another side effect. For the first time since 1986, he’s back in front of the camera. Patton just shot a feature in Berlin and is in pre-production on several others.
“Mark was that kid whose innate talent brought him a lot of attention but also made him a target,” says the Tivoli’s Jamie Rich, who attended North Kansas City High School with Patton.
“The minute you met him you knew he had that creative gift. And when you saw him perform he had that unmistakable spark that made him highly watchable. But all of his classmates knew he was destined to find his real creative outlet elsewhere.”
Despite bouts with pneumonia and tuberculosis exacerbated by his HIV, Patton says he has been healthy for more than a dozen years. According to doctors, his diagnosis is a standard lifespan.
“I feel like I’m one of those lucky guys where I’m just going to go to sleep when I’m old and be on the other side the next day.”
Hopefully, he won’t meet Freddy Krueger there.
“The fact is I know the real Freddy,” Patton jokes. “And it wouldn’t be so bad anyway.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author.
Tivoli Cinemas will screen “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 23; and “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” at 9:15 p.m. Friday, July 24. Mark Patton will autograph and sign memorabilia starting at 7:30 p.m. Friday. For tickets and information go to TivoliKC.com.