[Piece 2 of 2 of the speculative biographies]
WHAT IF THEY’D LIVED? DIVINE
In 1988, Harris Glenn Milstead was said to be the only “saving grace” of a popular but critically-panned television show called Married…With Children. “Milstead,” wrote TV Guide, “better known to the freak culture as ‘Divine’, hasn’t quite left his cross-dressing days behind, playing both Ephraim Wanker and his wife Beulah on FOX’s Married…With Children, parents to trash-chic Peggy Bundy. It’s not hard to imagine Peggy Bundy as the offspring of Divine herself, with her bigger-than-life hair and spandex outfits, as it was Divine who set that standard for all-that-is-filthy in the cult wretch-a-thon Pink Flamingos. But on Married…Milstead’s dual role is a comic goldmine. He squeezes the most out of the hillbilly pair, often evoking the biggest laughs with perfect comedic timing between himself! This Sunday’s episode features a gag centered around the origins of “Welsh Rarebit” that is the trailer-park equivalent of “Who’s On First”, and it’s Milstead alone as Ephraim and Beulah for the entire scene. If anything deserves a spin-off (justifying the jettisoning of the rest of the cast), it’s these two characters.”
The following season, a spin-off was attempted, though Welcome to Wanker County didn’t do as well as expected. Cancelled after only six episodes, Milstead returned to the regular cast of Married…
You wouldn’t hear the-man-who-was-Divine complaining, however. He was happier than he’d ever been, finally achieving his dream of success, fame and friends. His dual role on Married…proved to be a mixed blessing, however. While his role as Ephraim—particularly one out-of-the-ordinary touching episode where he comforts his adult daughter following a disastrous and humiliating high school class reunion (right before he spikes the punch with “Uncle Timmy’s Moonshine” in revenge, striking the evil Vice Principal blind!)—garnered him attention of such diverse luminaries as Martin Scorcese (who cast him in a small role as a doomed mobster in Goodfellas) and John Patrick Shanley (who directed Milstead—as Tom Hanks’ loathsome boss—in the playwright’s film debut, Joe Versus the Volcano), it was Beulah who kept him relegated to character parts—and in drag.
Milstead couldn’t escape the character of Divine. Divine played Ramona Ricketts in Cry-Baby, Divine played herself in Honeymoon in Vegas, even though “she” hadn’t played a nightclub (or drag revue) in years. And while Milstead had nothing against Divine, it wasn’t who he was. Not any longer.
It was Divine they wanted for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it was a different character that he gave them. Milstead arrived on set completely transformed into a sleazy biker, complete with greasy dreadlocks and a gotee straight out of Mandrake the Magician. And Fran Rubel Kuzui loved it. So the character stayed—not as an overweight vamp, but as a vicious, but comedic, biker vamp.
But it was his take on a classic role that shone the spotlight on him directly. When it was announced that Paramount Pictures was gearing up to do a big-screen treatment of the television show, The Addams Family, Milstead’s ears pricked up. Encouraged by friends, he began to lobby the studio heads, going so far as to meet three times with first-time director Barry Sonenfeld. Neither Sonenfeld nor Paramount were interested in casting Milstead, preferring veteran actor Christopher Lloyd for the part. “Lloyd?” remembers Milstead’s friend John Waters. “He weighed less than his own shadow at the time. Glenn could play Fester without padding. And I don’t say that to be mean. Glenn knew who he was—he was a big, fat man with a big fat heart.” Which is how Milstead saw Uncle Fester. The studios were afraid that casting Milstead would look like a publicity stunt. Particularly next to such high-profile luminaries as Raul Julia and Angelica Huston, who were already accused of “slumming” for the cartoony film.
Ultimately, it wasn’t Milstead who persevered, it was his fans. Letters began pouring into the Paramount production offices from Milstead’s fans. “Not just the freaks, either,” recalls Waters. “Not just the Divine fans but fans of Married… With Children and the new, little freaks who loved him in Buffy. There was this letter-writing campaign from all over the world—and this was before the Internet was a household thing. So studios paid attention to things like this.”
Ultimately, the fans had their say. Milstead stepped into the bulky black coveralls to play the bald, beloved Uncle Fester, a character created by former child actor Jackie Coogan on television. Milstead’s portrayal called Coogan to mind, particularly with the high Divine-esque voice that he gave Fester—one that he’d turn into a macabre growl without so much as a syllable to warn you. The most famous publicity still, naturally, was one of Milstead solo, a glowing lightbulb in his mouth, which was considered classic Fester.
The Addams Family was a smash summer hit for 1991 and it, of course, spawned an immediate sequel. Addams Family Values shoved Fester directly into the forefront once again, this time with another devious diva, Joan Cusak, as his side playing his murderous bride.
Sadly, Milstead didn’t live to see Addams Family Values on screen. At the height of his career, weeks before the premiere, Milstead died of a heart attack, brought on due to complications of his weight and sleep apnea, a condition from which he suffered for most of his adult life. Ironically, his co-star and now good friend, Raul Julia, died a few short months later from an aneurysm.
Even after his death, though, Milstead was considered a larger-than-life film icon. While he never did escape the “disguise” of Divine, at least to a new generation of fans, the object in his smiling mouth that gave him fame was not dogshit or an enormous sandwich, but a glowing lightbulb. As weird as he seemed on screen, his friends knew him as sweet, giving and—sometimes surprisingly—very, very talented.