Part 2 

Drop Dead Funny

The cocktail isn't foolproof for Moore, either. This is the third combination of pills he's been through, and he's worried that if they lose effectiveness, there may not be many more options. His AIDS medication costs $1,500 a month and that's been a source of much of his troubles for the last several years, too.

The difference between HIV and AIDS is measured in T cells, the white blood cells that help the body build up immunity to illnesses. A healthy adult's T-cell count can be as high as 1,500. On the cocktails, Moore stays at about 488. A person with AIDS has a count below 200.

About six years ago, Moore was on the AIDS drug AZT, but it wasn't working. He was trying every rumored wonder cure, down to drinking peroxide. ("My T cells didn't go up, but my hair looked fabulous.") His T cells plummeted to 240, 220, 210. His glands were swollen, he had night sweats and thrush, a fuzzy growth in the mouth.

Finally, he was down to 106. He had AIDS.

Living the life of a stand-up comic, Moore often lost his health insurance through his actors union and unfortunately, this was one such time. He heard about the AIDS cocktail, but the free clinic didn't prescribe it. So he went to see a wealthy Beverly Hills doctor who did.

"I showcased for that doctor, I auditioned," Moore recalls in "Drop Dead Gorgeous. "And you know what? He liked me, he really liked me!"

The doctor told Moore he would help him out. He had a special stash of AIDS medication waiting just for him. He gave it to Moore in a paper bag, and there was no charge.

When Moore got home, he took the pills out of the bag and discovered the pills were all labeled "Patient deceased," with the names of the patients on the bottles. "And I'm taking them, and I'm thinking, 'Thank you, Patrick. Thank you, Tom. Thank you, John.'"

Moore's T-cell count went up, ("AIDS, I hope I never get that again. It was awful,") but his troubles didn't go away. The actor's union reinstated his health insurance after he was paid for the HBO special in 1996, but he had to keep making money from television appearances to keep the insurance, and by 1997, he hadn't made enough.

He was already paying $300 a month in out-of-pocket expenses for his pills, and now the union told him he would have to pay $250 more each month to remain insured. If he didn't have any more work after a year, his policy would be canceled.

Desperate, he called everyone he knew in Hollywood. Only one person called back: Ellen DeGeneres, whom he hadn't seen in 16 years. She gave him a role as a bitchy waiter on an "Ellen" episode starring Emma Thompson. Later, Moore found himself entertaining a crowd of gay celebrity Brits such as Boy George and Sir Ian McKellen when DeGeneres gave him a job performing at a star-studded televised party celebrating the British debut of her famous "coming out" episode.

It still wasn't enough, however. Moore lost his health insurance.

Photo by Chad HuntMoore, pictured with his orange tabby, Douglas Burbank, says he wants to dispel myths and fears about HIV. "People are so paranoid about AIDS, but I have more reason to be afraid of you if you have a cold."In summer 1998, Steve Moore wrote a check to his parents for the last $10,000 in his checking account and wrote "For college tuition reimbursement" on the memo line.

He declared himself indigent so he could receive free medical treatment from MCV. "I'm the only one at MCV who doesn't wear an orange jumpsuit and shackles, but I don't judge," he kids.

He moved to Richmond, and his parents used the $10,000 to make a down payment on a small white, one-story house for him in a neighborhood in Westover Hills that he calls "the 'hood. It's like a tiny Los Angeles." The house next door has a black lawn jockey in the front yard and a Confederate flag with a picture of Hank Williams Jr. on it hanging in the window.

It's a quiet life Moore enjoys, sitting on his porch between his twin pink flamingos and looking out at the white picket fence Skeets built for him.

His parents visit often, and so does his older brother Dale, 48, his best friend and a senior art director with Barber, Martin & Associates. Dale's three teen-age children often spend the night with their Uncle Steve.

Moore also performs benefits for MCV and the Fan Free Clinic, where he attends a support group, and on Sundays, he goes to Unity Church.

But living in Richmond hasn't kept him in total isolation from the entertainment world.

Actually, by the time the HBO special aired overseas last year, he was in demand again, hitting the talk-show circuit in the United Kingdom. He played the Montreal Comedy Festival that summer and in January of this year, he was scheduled to appear on Roseanne's talk show.

But as soon as he got off the plane in Los Angeles, he was hit by the worst pain he ever knew. He ended up hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He had shingles, which some middle-aged people get, but usually on their torso and legs. Possibly because of his HIV, the shingles attacked the right side of his face, making him look like he had on monster makeup. One female visitor gagged when she saw him, then left the room and threw up.

Amazingly, he found something positive in the experience: It helped him overcome his chronic low self esteem. "Not in a million years would I have thought I'd be the one to tell you, 'Oh God, just give me my old face back.'"

He also kept his sense of humor. He would get on an elevator and people would cringe, wondering what was wrong with him. As he got off the elevator, just as the doors were closing, he'd look back and say, "What? It's just a pimple."

He performed in March in Miami and Chicago, wearing heavy makeup and sunglasses to disguise it. At one show, with his eye bothering him, he was temporarily blinded by stage lights and fell off the stage into the orchestra pit, eight feet below. The audience gasped, but then laughed when they heard Moore asking, "So, anybody visiting from out of town?"

Now, partly because he's broke, he says, he's doing his show at Fieldens. He was worried about performing before a largely gay audiences again, particularly in a conservative city like Richmond. But the shows have been sold out and end in standing ovations. What's more, his performances have been extended for a third week, which heartens him.

It doesn't surprise his longtime friends, though.

Photo by Chad HuntSurrounded by his own watercolor paintings, Moore plays the piano that friends gave him for his 40th birthday. Moore once didn't think he would live that long: "I'm 45, that's 103 in gay years," he jokes.Moore started out playing piano at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. By his own account, he evolved into a lukewarm stand-up comic who played Led Zeppelin on the accordion and whose catch phrase was, "Feel that energy, folks!"

About a year after he was diagnosed HIV-positive, he had a nervous breakdown, finally accepting his mortality while in a lonely hotel room in Lake Tahoe between performances before bad crowds.

He moved back to Virginia to a trailer on Smith Mountain Lake. Most of his friends assumed he was going home to die, he says, but "I was going home to live." After a year, he decided to go back to Los Angeles and be honest about his sexuality and HIV status on stage.

It was hardly easy. He was heckled and jeered, but he emerged a genuinely talented monologist in the vein of Spalding Gray.

"It changed things and he became really funny," says Moore's former AIDS counselor, Jim Gordon. "A lot of gay people have what I call the three-second delay when they're talking to people, like they have on live TV, you know? There's this three-second delay where you say I'd like to say that, but I can't because it would show I'm gay. Now Steve has the balls to say them."

Close friend Belle Zwerdling, a VCU graduate who went out to California with Moore, is now a Hollywood agent representing Rene Russo and others. Moore "had to take off his mask," she says. "He was really safe. His whole comedy act was about 'feel the energy,' and it was mediocre at best because he was hiding. But he came out in a brave manner, took the mask off and said, 'I have HIV.' He's really been very courageous."

Actor JM J. Bullock, best known for his role on the early '80s sitcom "Too Close For Comfort," is one of Moore's best friends. Moore helped Bullock, who's also gay and HIV positive, get through the AIDS death of his lover and Bullock helped Moore come to grips with HIV.

"To come out as being an openly gay comic was one thing, but to come out as openly gay and sharing your HIV status, that was really a double whammy," Bullock says of Moore. "I think there was concern from everybody that we hoped this would work for him, and this wouldn't get him ostracized from comedy clubs and that audiences would be able to accept it. But Steve did it in the best way possible. The greatest thing he did to it was to bring humor to it and help everybody look at it and remember you've got to keep laughing, life goes on."

Taylor Negron, another of Moore's best friends and an actor best known for his parts in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Better Off Dead," summarizes Moore's transformation as nothing short of a miracle.

Moore, Negron says, is a hero because he turned his back on Hollywood success and focused on the things that really matter. "Some people are guideposts of courage and authenticity," he says. "Steve is a person who calls you to be you and I think that's one of the highest forms of art, when somebody dares to be themselves."

Even in jaded Hollywood, Negron says, Moore's honesty moves people. "It's very rare that an artist can play the violin and make you cry, and to me, Steve is playing the violin up there and he's a virtuoso."

E-mail Richard Foster

To Oz?

The Richmond Triangle Players Present Steve Moore in "I Never Knew Oz Was In Color," 8 p.m. Aug. 6 and 7, Fieldens Cabaret Theater, 2033 W. Broad St. Tickets $12. For more information, call 346-8113.

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