Author, gay icon Armistead Maupin to be profiled in new 'Independent Lens' film

Posted by Chip Chandler on
Armistead Maupin, seen at his San Francisco Chronicle typewriter
Courtesy KQED

By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer

No author has had the kind of profound impact on me as Armistead Maupin.

Don't worry: I don't expect for you necessarily to have heard of him. He's the American Charles Dickens, though his fame isn't anywhere near that widespread.

I first heard of Maupin's works in college when, in 1993, PBS aired a film adaptation of his first book, Tales of the City. Well, most PBS stations did, including the Oklahoma City station that aired in Weatherford, Okla., where I was attending school. Amarillo's, then under different leadership, decided against broadcasting it, as did others. (Thanks to some national backlash, PBS eventually pulled out of airing subsequent adaptations, which were picked up by Showtime.)

I don't remember exactly how I heard about Tales, really — just that, for a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, it sounded like nothing I'd ever seen, certainly not on television. Maupin's expansive chronicle of 1970s San Francisco encompassed all manner of free-wheeling, free-loving people — straight, bi, gay and trans. I watched it every night, beginning a lifelong love of Laura Linney's work and rekindling my adoration for Olympia Dukakis. The guys, incluidng Billy Campbell, weren't half bad either.

I wanted to know more about these marvelous characters: Naïve Mary Ann (played by Linney), newly arrived in San Francisco from Cleveland, Ohio, and anxious to leave her Midwest roots far behind; Michael Tolliver (played by Marcus D'Amico), the world's sweetest man looking for love with all the wrong guys; Mrs. Madrigal (Dukakis), the open-hearted but mysterious landlady of the boarding house at 28 Barbary Lane. 

Then, somehow, I found a paperback copy of Tales at the tiny used bookstore in Weatherford — the most providential find I've ever had in a used bookstore. Then, a couple of years later, I found a hardback omnibus edition of Maupin's first three Tales books in the used book pile at Hastings — the second most providential find I've ever had in a bookstore.

Along the way, I learned more about Maupin and his books. He began writing Tales as a daily newspaper serial in the San Francisco Chronicle (hence its short chapters and my comparing him to Dickens, who wrote in a similar style in his era). The serials were compiled into his first three Tales books (More Tales...  and Further Tales...), and he continued the format for three standalone books in the 1980s: Babycakes, Significant Others and Sure of You

I've read all six of the original Tales books countless times, and I think they're more responsible than any other art for making me the man I am. I'm not alone, either.

"Maupin has always been looked upon as a role model, brash and outspoken about LGBTQ issues," wrote Los Angeles Blade's Susan Hornick in a recent profile.

Later, Maupin wrote Maybe the Moon, a fanciful but tragic imagining of the life of an actress who happens to be a little person, and The Night Listener, a thinly veiled autobiographical novel about a radio talk show host who's possibly catfished by a listener. (Night Listener was adapted into a feature film starring Robin Williams and Toni Collette.) Then, he returned to his Tales universe in 2007 with another trilogy: Michael Tolliver LivesMary Ann in Autumn and The Days of Anna Madrigal.

2017 has been a particularly important one for him: Netflix announced that it would produce a new 10-episode Tales follow-up with Linney and Dukakis. Maupin released his first memoir, Logical Family, and documentarian Jennifer Kroot's The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin made its debut at the SXSW Film Festival, where it won an audience award.

Now, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin will debut at 9:30 p.m. Jan. 1 on Independent Lens on PBS stations, including Panhandle PBS. It will be available for online streaming beginning Jan. 2.

“Jennifer Kroot’s documentary — alternately warm, heartbreaking, and uproarious — reveals how Maupin became one of the first gay writers to attain crossover status,” said Lois Vossen, Independent Lens Executive Producer. “For those who know Tales of the City – the books or television series – the documentary offers a frank look at Maupin's unlikely personal trajectory. For those who don't, it’s a fascinating introduction to an extraordinary man and a crash course in the evolution of the left-right culture clash that continues to this day."



Chip Chandler is a digital content producer for Panhandle PBS. He can be contacted at, at @chipchandler1 on Twitter and on Facebook.

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