Leslie Jordan, who attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and was an award-winning TV and movie actor, died today, Oct. 24, as a result of a car crash in Hollywood, California. Jordan was 67 years old.
In 2006, he won an Emmy as guest actor in a comedy series for his role as Beverly Leslie on “Will & Grace.” He also appeared in “Boston Legal,” “Reba,” “Star Trek: Voyager and two seasons of “American Horror Story” and the 2011 movie, “The Help.”
As a UTC theater major in the early 1980s, Gaye Jeffers often watched Leslie Jordan perform onstage.
“I marveled at him even as a young person,” said Jeffers, now a professor in the UTC Theatre Department. “He was very funny even then. He was always very encouraging to those of us who were much younger,” she said.
Throughout his career, Jordan talked about growing up in Chattanooga, including his time at UTC. “How Y’All Doing? Misadventures and Mischief From a Life Well Lived,” is Jordan’s 2021 book in which he mentions Dr. Fred Behringer, former chairman of the UTC Theatre Department, as his first mentor.
“He taught me the craft of acting, that it is something you work at. He told me I was really funniest when I don’t try to be,” Jordan said in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Jayne Holder, former UTC assistant vice chancellor for Alumni Affairs, recalled Jordan coming to Chattanooga for a book signing for “How Y’All Doing?” and his being given a copy of a UTC yearbook.
“He had so much fun going through the yearbook, and he showed everyone in line all these pictures and talked about UTC. He was just so warm and friendly,” Holder said.
As a UTC student, Jordan appeared in such productions as “You Can’t Take It With You,” “The Caretaker” and “The Crucible,” in which he played the Rev. Samuel Parris, one of the play’s nastier characters, Jeffers recalled. It didn’t quite work.
“His good nature and vibrant personality came through, and it was hard to buy into his evil deeds. As a member of the costume crew, we would giggle offstage. He had a flair. Even as a Puritan.”
Susan Pierce, former features writer at the Times Free Press, graduated from UTC in 1975 and was two years ahead of Jordan. They grew up on the same street—Evergreen Drive in the Woodmore neighborhood—and both graduated from Brainerd High School. She knew him so well, she had his personal cell phone number.
“That Southern drawl was not an affected, put-on drawl. That really was him. That really was how he talked,” said Pierce, whose maiden name was Palmer when she was enrolled at UTC.
“A couple of times when he came home for benefits here, I went to those. He just always acted like he still lived on Evergreen Drive. It’d be like, ‘Hey, Susan, how are you? How’s your mama?’”
He was open about his life as a gay man and was part of several benefits to raise awareness and funds for research, including as master of ceremonies for Chattanooga Cares, which raises money for HIV education, prevention and support.
He was active in more personal ways, too, sitting with individuals dying from the disease, tending to their needs and providing comfort, Pierce said.
“There was a very caring side of Leslie that people didn’t see a whole lot because he was always this funny man.”