Fierstein was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jacqueline Harriet (née Gilbert), a school librarian, and Irving Fierstein, a handkerchief manufacturer. Raised Jewish, Fierstein is now an atheist.
Fierstein occasionally writes columns about gay issues. He was openly gay at a time when very few celebrities were. His careers as a stand-up comic and female impersonator are mostly behind him. Fierstein resides in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
The gravel-voiced actor is perhaps best known for the play and film Torch Song Trilogy, which he wrote and starred in both Off-Broadway (with the young Matthew Broderick) and on Broadway (with Estelle Getty and Fisher Stevens). The 1982 Broadway production won him two Tony Awards, for Best Play and Best Actor in a Play, two Drama Desk Awards, for Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Actor in a Play, and the Theatre World Award, and the film adaptation earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination as Best Male Lead.
Fierstein also wrote the book for La Cage aux Folles (1983), winning another Tony Award, this time for Best Book of a Musical, and a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Book. Legs Diamond, his 1988 collaboration with Peter Allen, was a critical and commercial failure, closing after 72 previews and 64 performances. His other playwriting credits include Safe Sex, Spookhouse, and Forget Him.
In 2007, Fierstein wrote the book to the musical A Catered Affair in which he also starred. After tryouts at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre in Fall 2007, it began previews on Broadway in March 2008 and opened on April 17. He received a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Book of a Musical, and the show won the Drama League Award for Distinguished Production of a Musical.
In 2010, it was revealed that Fierstein will be adapting Newsies, a Disney movie musical, for the stage, along with Alan Menken (music) and Jack Feldman (lyrics).
Fierstein made his acting debut at La MaMa, E.T.C. in Andy Warhol's only play, Pork. Fierstein continued to appear at La MaMa and other venues but also, having some aspirations to become a painter, enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from Pratt in 1973. Fierstein appeared three times in "The Haunted Host" by Robert Patrick: in Boston in 1975, and at La MaMa and then Off-Broadway in 1991. In addition to Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles and A Catered Affair, Fierstein's Broadway acting credits include playing the mother, Edna Turnblad in Hairspray (2002), for which he won a Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical. He later replaced Alfred Molina as Tevye in the 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof. Fierstein and Tommy Tune are the only individuals to have won Tony Awards in four different categories.
Besides his leading role in the film version of Torch Song Trilogy co-starring Matthew Broderick and Anne Bancroft, Fierstein's film roles include Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, Robin Williams' makeup-artist brother in Mrs. Doubtfire, and Merv Green in Death to Smoochy, in addition to parts in Garbo Talks, Duplex, Kull the Conqueror, and Independence Day. He narrated the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, for which he won a News & Documentary Emmy Award. He also voiced the role of Yao in Disney's animated feature Mulan, a role he later reprised for the video game Kingdom Hearts II and the direct-to-DVD sequel Mulan II.
On television, Fierstein was featured as the voice of Karl, Homer Simpson's assistant, in the "Simpson and Delilah" episode of The Simpsons and the voice of Elmer in the 1999 HBO special based on his children's book The Sissy Duckling, which won the Humanitas Prize for Children's Animation. Fierstein became the first openly gay actor to play a principal gay character in a television series when he appeared as fashion designer Dennis Sinclair in the short-lived CBS series Daddy's Girls. Additional credits include Miami Vice, Murder, She Wrote, the Showtime television movie Common Ground (which he also wrote), and Cheers, which earned him an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. He sang a tribute to Katie Couric on the Today Show on May 31, 2006, her last day as anchor. He appeared as Heat Miser in the live-action remake of The Year Without a Santa Claus in December 2006. More recent television performances include an episode of Family Guy, in which he played an overweight, chainsmoking mother and an episode of the second season of the series Nurse Jackie in which he played a man whose husband is dying. He also gave the voice-over for Lily in the "Last Cigarette Ever" episode of How I Met Your Mother when she gets a sore throat due to smoking.
Fierstein returned to the theatre when he toured as Tevye, replacing Chaim Topol in Fiddler on the Roof starting in December 2009. On February 15, 2011, he replaced Douglas Hodge as Albin/Zaza in the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles playing opposite Jeffrey Tambor who plays Georges, although days later Tambor pulled out, which the producers have stated was due to "complications from a recent hip surgery"; Christopher Sieber quickly replaced Tambor. The show closed on May 1, 2011 due to low box office results; It played 433 performances and 15 previews in all.
Torch Song Trilogy (Signet) by Harvey Fierstein
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Signet (January 5, 1988)
Amazon: Torch Song Trilogy
Out Plays: Landmark Gay and Lesbian Plays of the Twentieth Century by Ben Hodges
Paperback: 560 pages
Publisher: Alyson Books (March 1, 2008)
Amazon: Out Plays: Landmark Gay and Lesbian Plays of the Twentieth Century
With a foreword by Harvey Fierstein and a new introduction to The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley, twentieth century theatre is seen as a powerful force in bringing gay and lesbian characters and themes out of the closet and into the spotlight. These dramatic selections share themes of oppression countered by love, fear, anger, and humor–not only gay or lesbian, but universally human.
Included are Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy, Tererrence McNally's The Ritz, Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July, Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz, and many more.
Harvey Fierstein's Safe Sex by Harvey Fierstein
Paperback: 112 pages
Publisher: Macmillan Pub Co (August 1988)
Amazon: Harvey Fierstein's Safe Sex
In these one-act plays, America's premier gay playwright offers variations on the theme of "living with AIDS".
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