Cult of Personality

Local boy Cheyenne Jackson is worshiped on Broadway. Now on 30 Rock, the Gospel of Jackson goes national.

Victor Grossetti Jr., a 55-year-old New Yorker, is the world’s first apostle of Cheyennetology. “To be in his presence is like watching the sun rise,” Grossetti preaches.

“Cheyenne’s hope and his joy and kindness have touched me and inspired me.”

Since January 2008, Grossetti has seen Jackson on the Broadway stage 15 times. He’s written more 570 posts on the Jackson message boards. He wears a T-shirt with Jackson’s face on it. He presents Cheyenne with an offering of chocolate — truffles, this time — when Jackson sings at Lincoln Center.

Who is this Cheyenne Jackson who inspires such worship?

He’s the singer crooning Frank Sinatra and Indigo Girl songs with New York cabaret legend Michael Feinstein. He’s the guy whom nearly six million Americans watched guest-star on 30 Rock. He’s the chap belting out music atop the Big Apple fl oat in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

He’s the cocky silver-tongued Woody Mahoney in Broadway’s Finian’s Rainbow. He’s the brain-dead rollerskating street artist in Xanadu. He’s the baseball player snared in a Faustian bargain, the Wall Street broker, the hip-shaking rocker, the rugby player hero, the gay icon.

He’s the star. There are throngs of wannabe-actors out there — waiting tables, waiting for their big break, waiting for Godot — who promised themselves they’d now be where Jackson now is. But they never did it, they never broke out, they never made it.

So why Jackson, and not them? “That’s the million-dollar question,” Jackson says. 


The clock reads 5 am. It’s still dark. Jackson wakes up. He has to be in the 30 Rock makeup chair by 6:30. It’s like this six days a week.

Chaos follows that morning alarm. Eight performances of Finian’s Rainbow a week. Here, he’s got a CD signing. There, he’s atop the Thanksgiving fl oat. He’s work-shopping a new musical. In the short breaths in between, he squeezes in interviews with the New York Post, the Associated Press, The Advocate, Variety and The Inlander.

“Normally, I need about nine hours of sleep,” Jackson says. “I’m averaging about six.”

But drive keeps him going. Talent is the grist.

Drive is the mill.

Jackson doesn’t drink alcohol. Just water, tea and lemon. He takes multivitamins. He won’t eat heavy meals at night.

“You have to live and breathe and eat everything that is theater,” says Abbey Crawford, a Spokane actress and cabaret singer. She’s a friend of Jackson. Maybe she once could have been on Broadway — but, she says, she never had the ambition, the pure wanting-it, like Jackson does.

Six days a week, to “pumping music,” Jackson works out, blasting through 30 minutes of cardio, focusing on two specific muscle groups each day. When Jackson goes to dinner, his voice never raises above a whisper.

“Like a runner treats her legs well and a ballerina cares for her toes, I watch my voice,” he tells the New York Post. “I see a friend across the street? I wave. I don’t shout.”

“He wanted it,” Mark Caldwell, his Newport High School choral director, says. “It was part of his psyche. He was always perfecting.”

He had never been to acting school, and he knew that was a problem.

“I didn’t have any method,” says Jackson. “I would learn my lines, and I would try to say them as if I was a real person in that situation and hope for the best. With good-enough looks, talent and charisma, that can get you pretty far.”

But not far enough. Jackson told his producer, (the) Harvey Weinstein, that he wanted the best acting coach he could find. Weinstein got Larry Moss, the guy who coached Hilary Swank to two Oscars.

“He really showed me how to do it. How to do the homework, how to write a back-story, how to really get inside their skin in every way possible,” Jackson says.

A resumé shows off success, not failures. It doesn’t talk about how his Elvis-homage musical All Shook Up closed in six months and lost money. It doesn’t mention that show’s tepid reviews (New York Times: “Bland… appears to have been assembled by committee”).

Jackson was slated to play the male lead in Family Practice, a Lifetime TV series, but the network never picked it up. He passed up — at least, at first — the lead in the Broadway version of Xanadu, for a horror fi lm produced by L.A. Lakers star Rick Fox called Hysteria. More than a year after the announced release date, Hysteria still hasn’t seen theaters or video shelves.

Nip/Tuck show runner Ryan Murphy wrote a guest role specifically for Jackson on Murphy’s new hit show called Glee. He was to be Dakota, a Broadway perfectionist choreographer — a perfect fit. But 103-degree fever hit and the role was recast and rewritten.

“I didn’t even watch the episode, it was too painful,” Jackson says. Around 6.6 million other Americans did, however.

To an outsider, though, Jackson’s journey of success — from Thoroughly Modern Millie to Aida to Altar Boyz to All Shook Up to United 93 to Xanadu to Damn Yankees to Finian’s Rainbow to 30 Rock and the cabaret lounge — seems almost unfair.


Sherri Jackson proudly holds up a “Cheyennetology” T-shirt. As Cheyenne’s mom, she’s just as much of a fan as anyone is. “I can Google, and I can bring up the lyrics to Xanadu in Korean,” she says.

We sit in a corner booth at Owen’s, a family-run diner in Newport, Wash. The downtown looks like a set in a musical. There’s the diner, the quaint main street, the ol’ sawmill steam wheel.

Small-town wholesomeness bubbles beneath the surface of all Jackson’s performances. He’s like Jimmy Stewart, super-fan Grossetti says, or like Bing Crosby.

Newport is a town that roots for its prodigies. A woman in the diner tells Sherri that she has joined Jackson’s Fan Page on Facebook. The high school athletic director says he’s TiVo-ed Jackson’s 30 Rock episodes. In 2006, the owners of the single-screen Roxy Movie Theatre in Newport brought United 93 to town just for Jackson’s performance. Mom came in every night at the end, and every night circled around to see how many people were there.

Jackson calls his early years in Newport “very Little House on the Prairie.” Maybe that’s because of the rural setting — an outhouse, 40 acres, no running water. Or maybe it’s because, by growing up with a “If Jesus was here, would you be watching this?” sign on the TV, he ended up watching a lot of Little House on the Prairie.

If Grossetti is archbishop of the Church of Cheyenne Jackson, Sherri Jackson is curator of the Cheyenne Jackson Historical Society. She has the posters of all of his Broadway shows on a wall. She can show you old home movies of Jackson and her singing harmony together when he was 6, of Jackson singing “Stand by Me” a cappella at 15, of Jackson as the perfectionist creative director of skits at family reunions.

“I always bring [the videos] out when everybody gets home and they’re like, ‘Oh, Mom,” Sherri says.


But at 19, after he moved to Spokane, Jackson dropped a bombshell that sent his close family reeling.

Jackson had known he was gay since he was 7 — funny feelings after watching a Popeye cartoon — but when he announced it at a family meeting, his family — very conservative, very Christian — was stunned.

There was silence. Sobbing. “We were literally in shock, like any family would be. All of a sudden you realize your dreams and your hopes for their future — it’s almost like a death,” Sherri says. “We didn’t have anywhere to turn or anyone to talk to.”

Jackson tells The Advocate that his parents didn’t discuss the matter with him for about two years. “They say when your child comes out of the closet, you go in,” Sherri says. “So you don’t talk about it, because you don’t want anyone judging your child.”

But now Jackson proudly tells reporters that he and his mom and dad recently went on a Rosie O’Donnell cruise for gays and their families. “I really enjoyed it,” Sherri says. “I’m proud of the things that he believes in and supports… We’re very fond of [Jackson’s partner] Monte. I’m glad he has somebody to love.”

His family’s never stopped rooting for him. When Jackson got his first major role in All Shook Up, the fi rst thing he did was call Mom. She cried.

These days, Jackson is an icon in the gay community. He’s splashed across the cover of The Advocate. He was named “Entertainer of the Year” by Out magazine. Gavin Creel (whose Broadway acting has twice earned Tony nominations) credits Jackson as his inspiration to come out.

Jackson’s openness about his sexuality has worried his former publicists — they don’t want it to cost Jackson roles. Even in modern Hollywood, it’s still a fear. “I can think of an Oscar-winning actor who’s made announcements that he’s heterosexual when he’s not,” says Michael Feinstein, a premier interpreter of the Great American Songbook and Jackson’s current duet partner in The Power of Two.

But Jackson, Feinstein says, has such likeability that “he makes other people comfortable not only with who he is, but with who they are.” Witness the lusting women. They know he’s gay; they just don’t care.


Back to 1994. The second day of Anything Goes auditions at Spokane Civic Theater. Director Melody Deatherage desperately needs to find a man for the role of Billy Crocker — someone who could play young, love-sick, naïve and handsome. So far, no one.

And then he strides onto the stage. A young man from Newport nobody has ever seen before. He has the looks. He has the voice. He has this instantly captivating aura.

North Central theater director Tom Armitage, sitting in on the audition, doesn’t know what it is — just that nobody can take his eyes off him.

“You cannot describe it, except to say you feel ‘the presence,’” Armitage says. “It’s not necessarily the look or the sound or the talk, it’s just what I call theater magic. Boing — he’s got it.”

It’s the thing that made Jackson stand out. “Natural. Stage presence. Good voice. Good movement. Good speaking voice,” Newport High School acting director Ken Perin says. “Everything came easy to him.”

Between Newport and New York, there were years of regional theatre. Kiss Me Kate at Spokane Civic Theatre. How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in Coeur d’Alene. The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Seattle.

He could have been stuck — maybe sort of satisfied — working at regional theatres forever. But then there was a death in the family. And then 9/11, and everything took on new meaning.

“All priorities and dreams and hopes and things we take for granted were just gone,” Jackson realized. “I can’t be an old man thinking, ‘What if?’ and ‘If I only had….’” Let’s move to New York, his partner Monte said. And less than three years later, Jackson found himself on a plane being hijacked by terrorists in United 93. He was playing the small but crucial part of Mark Bingham, the gay rugby player who helped crash the plane before it reached D.C.

It’s fitting that Jackson found himself playing a key figure in the very event that catalyzed his career. “I can’t believe it was my first film,” Jackson says. “I have a lot of those things like that in my career.” Seminal moments, later symbolized in future roles.


Square jaw, “blue steel” eyes, 6-foot-5 muscular frame: Jackson is a Gillette ad, almost a caricature of stock-art handsome.

His picture instantly sends Internet comment sections devolving into slobbering hordes of catcalls. Google overflows with Jackson in sultry poses: in a tank top, in just a dress shirt and socks, sprawled across a bed wearing only briefs. Click deeper, it gets weirder. Lewd cartoon fan art with Jackson and Popeye. And perhaps the most indicative proof of rising fame: pornographic Photoshops breathlessly claiming to be the real thing.

In his comedies, the hunk quotient is usually highlighted with punch lines or reaction shots. “He looks like all the guys in my magazines,” the creepy old janitor says on 30 Rock. He sends the gay character on Ugly Betty stammering. That show gives Jackson the full slo-mo entrance — if he had long locks of blonde hair blowing in the wind.

“Physically, I mean, yeah, I get it. I get the whole hunky thing, if they want to objectify you, I get it, I’ll totally play along,” Jackson says. “But it has to be on my terms.”

Two paths seem to have been cut for hunky actors:

The Matthew McConaughey or the Johnny Depp. The McConaughey road is quick and easy — full of shirtless skin, dude dialogue and easy paychecks. But once you start down that path, forever will it dominate your destiny. The Depp path has demands — odd roles, weird makeup, Tim Burton maybe — but at the end, perhaps, Oscar nominations.

“I think of myself as a character actor. I always have,” Jackson says. The character actor, like Steve Buscemi or Philip Seymour Hoffman, plays distinct, eccentric roles rather than sprinting after generic leading-man stardom.

But sometimes the roles aren’t there. Come TV pilot season, Jackson sifts through countless scripts with generic roles like “Doctor,” “Lawyer,” “Cop.” “It’s hard for me to latch on to something if there’s not a kind of oddness,” he says. In Xanadu, say, he was a disco-dancing sexy-but-stupid-but-sweet chalk artist in cutoff jean shorts and roller skates.

Among critics, there’s a cry for further diversity from Jackson. “I, for one, would like to see him play a villain next — a change from the genial, nice guys he has portrayed in several Broadway musicals,” writes Associated Press theater critic Michael Kuchwara in an e-mail.

The Internet agrees. “Jackson is playing the role (sadly) the same way he plays every role,” one amateur reviewer laments on his Finian’s Rainbow review at BroadwayWorld. com.

Another commenter agrees. “His next role needs to be a real stretch to see what he can really do without relying on his folksy/sexy charm.”


It took six weeks. Six weeks from when Jackson landed in New York, until he was literally standing in the Broadway spotlight, filling in for the lead of a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.

“You could put a thousand actors in a room and throw a dart, and one of them would have a chance to be in a Broadway chorus,” Civic Theater’s resident director Troy Nickerson says. But sometimes the one-in-a-thousand dart toss — like Jackson’s audition for an understudy in Thoroughly Modern Millie — hits the bull’s-eye.

Fame breeds further fame. When Jackson played Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees, there, in the audience, was Tina Fey, watching this handsome, talented man singing duets with 30 Rock cast member Jane Krakowski.

Suddenly, Jackson found himself in a meeting with Fey and 30 Rock show runner Robert Carlock. There’s a multi-episode guest role they had written for Jackson, as a street robot performer suddenly turned into a television star.

“We want to gauge your interest in this,” they say. “You could say my interest is high,” Jackson spits out.

“Very high.”

The studio wanted somebody more famous, Jackson thinks. But Fey wanted him. “To take a chance on someone really primarily only… known in the Broadway world, was a gamble,” Jackson says. “I wanted to prove Tina right.”

And so, like the 30 Rock character he plays, the relative unknown finds himself vaulted to a level where he’s acting alongside Alec Baldwin. “He is very intimidating,” Jackson says.


Fame ruins people, that’s what they say, but from all accounts, Jackson has Clark Kent humility to go along with his Superman looks. He runs into Tom Armitage from North Central in the Seattle airport, recognizes him, chats for a while and makes him promise to see United 93. “You can still send him an e-mail, and he will still respond,” says Crawford, the Spokane actress.

A message pops up in Victor Grossetti’s inbox.

“Thanks so much for coming, I always appreciate seeing u boyz” says the e-mail. It’s from Cheyenne Jackson! “And thanks for the delicious chocolates, they were unbelievable!” It’s almost like that one episode of 30 Rock when the good-looking new cast member (Jackson) joins the show, but he has no idea that, as a brand-new TV actor, he’s supposed to treat underlings like dirt.

“He realizes to be thankful,” Sherri says. “Because it could all be gone.” A show ends, and he’s unemployed again.

For a moment, the aw-shucks small-town Newport Cheyenne persona melts away, replaced with the steely confidence of the driven, ambitious Broadway perfectionist. “I have a lot inside of me that I can’t wait to show,” he says.

Like what? Cue the dramatic monologue: “I want to show happiness, I want to show pain… I want to make people pee because they’re laughing so hard. I want to make people moved because they’re feeling so much,” Jackson says. “I want to show how I can take the experiences of my life and tell someone else’s story.

“To underestimate me? I say bring it on.”

Mulholland Drive @ The Kenworthy

Thu., Oct. 6, 7-9:30 p.m.
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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...