Unlike his other hits, Ryan Murphy's macabre and sometimes downright scary The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story has little to no hilarious moments — that is, until Episode 6, when one of Norman Blachford's (Michael Nouri) friends Gallo shows up to tear Norman's live-in con artist friend Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) to shreds. "Only the queen of England has two parties," Gallo quips to Andrew, who's convinced his benefactor to fund two soirees."I'm afraid you're not that sort of queen." But the zinger of all zingers comes when Gallo shoots the unforgettable searing dagger, "What a volatile mix you are — too lazy to work and too proud to be kept." Gallo, as the kids say, read that bitch for filth.
Gallo's lines are expert examples of the gay tradition of "reading" and "throwing shade," but the wig-singeing sass with which the barbs are delivered is hardly accidental: the man tearing Andrew a new one is Terry Sweeney — a pioneering writer/performer who was the first openly gay cast member of Saturday Night Live.
Sweeney's casting in Versace has several layers of resonance — mostly because Sweeney is a living embodiment of the series' main thesis about societal homophobia. Despite becoming memorable for his impersonations of celebrities including Nancy Reagan, Joan Rivers and Diana Ross during his run from 1985-1986, Sweeney spent 10 years after SNL out of work, as Hollywood balked at hiring an out gay actor. But that's only partly why Sweeney's scene-stealing role in Versace feels like a full circle moment. In his early SNL days, a young gay reporter reached out to interview him for a story. That reporter's name? Ryan Murphy.
"I was one of the first people he ever interviewed," says Sweeney, who left Hollywood for Beaufort, S.C. in the mid-2000s. "I could tell he was a young kid and we had a great interview and he wrote a lovely article about me. Who would dream years later someone that works for him would find me and hire me for this part?"
Sweeney got the part after meeting a producer for Versace at a dinner party in Ojia, Calif., a small, New Age-y town about two hours northwest of Los Angeles. "He was looking at me during dinner and said, 'You're the person we've been looking for, you're Gallo.'" Not mentioned in the source material for the show Vulgar Favors, Gallo seems to be a composite of Norman Blachford's older, wealthy friends who were trying to warn Norman about Andrew. It's Sweeney's first dramatic role. "I can now officially call myself a drama queen," he quips. Director Gwyneth Horder-Patyon patiently guided him through relaxing into his body, "doing less" for the camera and reminding him of Gallo's purpose. "She wanted me to be a tough, scary old queen," he says. "Gay people, drag queens — we have this ferocity we can call upon that is fearless and it's intense. That's what I was calling upon in that character, our strength."
In the years after Saturday Night Live, Sweeney called on that strength as well as self-reliance to keep afloat. He wrote for movies (Shag), sketch comedy (MadTV) and got parts here and there; Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David hired him to tussle over a tennis racket with Elaine on Seinfeld, and he got roles on Family Matters and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. But for a gifted comic actor with several seasons of SNL under his belt, the offers were nowhere near what they should have been, a fact Sweeney recounts somewhat ruefully but with a sugary aplomb rather than the bitterness that could've easily consumed him. "At that time [gay people] were so invisible. People said 'Wow, you're so brave I would never want to destroy my career like that.' Or 'Why couldn't you say you just haven't met the right girl yet?' Well, the right girl would have to have a penis. People would call you in to audition and the agent would go 'They went another way.' And you're like, 'Hmm what could that mean?'"
As Versace depicts, Sweeney's early adult years coincided with rampant anti-gay discrimination that not only affected his career prospects but also seeped into everyday life. His time on SNL ran parallel with the onslaught of AIDS — the day he signed his contract, newsstands blared the news that Rock Hudson had contracted the disease — and he, like many other creatives in New York, lost friends in droves. The irony of impersonating Nancy Reagan, who, along with her husband Ronald famously refused to acknowledge AIDS, wasn't lost on him. "They were acting like nothing was happening. I thought really? I've been to 10 memorials for people who are in their 20s. So something is happening. I hate to ruin your dinner on your new china."
The death toll ebbed in the 1990s but the institutionalized homophobia lingered; Sweeney recalls a confrontation with a police officer in Beverly Hills who'd hurled a slur in his direction around 1994. "I couldn't stand it anymore. I said, 'Hey! I'm a faggot. I live in Beverly Hills, and this faggot pays your salary and doesn't want to hear you talking about him like this in a public place!'" Even so-called liberal spaces weren't an entirely safe haven: Sweeney turned down an appearance on a "coming out"-themed episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show because a producer told him he couldn't talk about drag on TV. "[The producer] says, 'We're trying to put a positive image out about gay people, that you're not freaks; you're just like everyone else.'"
Now married (he and longtime writing partner Lanier Laney have been together 36 years) and the author of a comic memoir Irritable Bowels and the People Who Give You Them, Sweeney is keenly aware of how humor can be a weapon against bigotry. But he's grateful for the activists too, for being unafraid to get confrontational when it's called for. "It's time for all kinds of people to reassert themselves. Whether it's kids protesting guns, African-Americans...all kinds of groups are coming out together." Versace, he says, does a good job of showing just a small piece of what gay people were up against only 20 years ago; it is, as Ryan Murphy told TV Guide, a work of activism in its own right. Of course, Sweeney and Murphy were thrilled to reunite so many decades later, the resonance of the occasion not lost on either of them.
"We just love each other," Sweeney says. "He was a joy to work with. He loved what I did and he was quoting my lines. I have so much respect for what he does." Recognizing the shift that's taken place in society and Hollywood, he's back in Los Angeles, ready to share his talents one more time. "I want to do worthwhile work," he says. "I think now there's more opportunity than ever."
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on FX.