As he gears up to cycle in an annual AIDS Ride, actor Chad Allen tests his boundaries and puts the pedal to A&U’s Dann Dulin about God, drugs, depression & HIV
Chad Allen is spoiled, self-absorbed, and a snob. At least, that’s what I’m thinking as my car zigzags through the Hollywood Hills to Chad’s pad. After all, how could this former child star and teen idol be anything else?
Near the top of the hill sits Allen’s quaint and rustic cabin house. A stone sign on a brick wall in front reads: On this site in 1897 nothing happened. A dusty, well-traveled V8 Tundra truck is parked in the driveway. Since the front door is open, A&U’s photographer, an assistant, and I enter the house. “C’mon in,” booms Chad from the dining room where he’s working on his laptop. Allen’s dressed simply in gray cords and a long-sleeved, black T-shirt that highlights his solid, worked-out physique. A small stone hangs from a black cord around his neck. Chad extends his hand, and reveals a captivating smile. “Make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right back.” And off he races up the stairs hollering, “Water and soda’s in the fridge. Help yourself.”
Allen’s home has the tranquil ambiance of a country lodge. It’s well lived-in, and little attention has been paid to order or décor—definitely a “guy’s place.” Woven straw carpeting covers the floors, while white wood beams support the ceiling. Folk art, family photos, and a surfboard compliment the environment. Near a DVD player lies a collection of the classic Thin Man series. Chad’s Trek road bike sits next to the picture window which frames a breathtaking panoramic view of Griffith Park Observatory and the famous Hollywood sign. In June, he will ride the bike in his first AIDS/LifeCycle—pedaling from San Francisco to Los Angeles in seven days.
Allen has already raised over $15,000 for the ride, and is presently in training. (As we go to press, he has upped this to nearly $25,000.) He is dedicating the ride to his good friend and business associate, Craig Wargo, who died last year of AIDS. Chad has participated in AIDS events ever since he was a teen, when he first tagged along with then-costar, Deidre Hall, from the television series, Our House. Today, he is also closely linked to Planned Parenthood Federation of America, GLAAD, Human Rights Campaign, and the Trevor Project.
Though probably best known for his fine work playing Matthew Cooper on the TV series, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Chad’s résumé is loaded with theater, film, and television credits. His recent project, End of the Spear, was released earlier this year. In it, he portrays a missionary, playing both a father and his son. Based on a true story from the fifties, Chad lived for a time with the son, Steve Saint, and the tribesman, Mincayani, to prep for the film. The film caused a huge outcry from some religious fundamentalists who complained that a gay actor should not be playing their hero. In July, Allen continues his “religious” interests by joining Reverend Mel White and his Soulforce to march on the Focus on the Family Compound.
photos by Tim Courtney
Allen has been sober for over five years, and speaks around the country to youth about sobriety, depression, and AIDS prevention. [A couple of years ago, he and his friend, Greg Louganis (A&U, September/October 1995), did a national depression awareness campaign together, as both men had experienced deep suffering from the condition.] At times, it has been a rough road, but Allen seems to have come through it with a positive attitude. “Everyone has their journey and you can either run and hide, or be honest,” says Chad, who has settled in next to me on square, embroidered East Indian pillows that are neatly arranged atop a low rise bench. It fits snuggly up against the picture window that bursts with that grand vista beyond. “I was taught very early on from an English teacher that the greatest thing we can do is reach inside ourselves and figure out what it is we have to offer.”
Such wisdom was put to the test several years ago, when Allen was outed in the tabloids. A photo of Chad kissing another guy at a pool party appeared in print. “The outing certainly put a fork in my rear end to come out, but it was getting sober that made me blossom as a man,” he admits, adding that recovery was not an easy battle after abusing a number of substances, including crystal meth and alcohol, from the age of twelve. “In recovery I learned that service becomes a central part of living a beautiful, healthy, effective life,” he explains.
To that end, Allen’s focus has been the younger members of the gay community and the current crystal meth epidemic. “It’s devastating the community and I think it’s the next great plague that we have to fight,” he adamantly insists. “The first guy I ever sponsored in recovery seroconverted from unsafe sex as a result of crystal meth use. We walked through that together, and since then, I’ve walked a lot of other guys through recovery. I have been engaged in a number of discussions around the country trying to develop awareness about this issue.”
photos by Tim Courtney
While touring the United States, Chad soon discovered that drugs, depression, and AIDS were all connected. “They are all anchored to the core issue of self-esteem,” he clarifies. “‘Am I loved?’ ‘Am I okay just the way I am?’ Very few in this country grow up without some kind of overwhelming spiritual and religious influence. Oftentimes, those beliefs tell us we are bad, which contributes to the erosion of one’s self-esteem. I’m a thirty-one-year-old man who has just hit the tip of the iceberg in dealing with that kind of muck.”
Case in point, Chad was shocked to hear that his dear friend, Craig Wargo, staunchly bought into “the muck,” and until his death from AIDS last year, died believing that God hated him because he was gay. Craig was forty-five, a drama teacher and a director who co-owned the theater company, The Creative Outlet, with Allen and Heather Tom. Chad was Craig’s caregiver, visited him in the hospital daily, and was with him when he died. It was a devastating loss. “That was the first time I really walked somebody through to the end of their life,” reflects Allen. He grimaces, bites the side of his mouth, and glances downward momentarily. “Craig was so filled with shame and guilt about who he was, but he was a Catholic to the very end. He was burdened with the feeling that this was God’s retribution!” Chad’s mouth falls open, he shakes his head, and his eyes bug out in horror. “I decided right then if I do nothing else for the rest of my life, I want to impact the next generation so that nobody will ever have to die believing that God hates them for who they are!”
Chad feels Craig’s presence everyday. “At the moment of his death, Craig recognized his absolute beauty and perfection,” asserts Chad, “And I deal with his loss by spreading that message.” To help Chad through the grief, he was advised to write Craig a letter. When completed, Chad turned the letter over and allowed Craig to answer. “If anybody’s ever dealing with loss I highly recommend this exercise,” he says, half-smiling with moisture in his eyes. “The messages that came back were very different from what I expected. They were beautiful. It might be a little hibbie-jibbie for some people, but there was no question in my mind that it was from Craig.”
Allen first encountered HIV when he was nineteen and dating a twenty-one-year-old. Several months into the relationship, Chad’s boyfriend revealed that he was HIV-positive. “It never occurred to me that out of all the AIDS ads I had come across and all the exposure to AIDS awareness I had, that somebody who looked like me—a strong, healthy, athletic UCLA student—could have HIV. And I was so in love with him,” coos Chad, “but I got really scared.” Chad wanted to discuss the issue, but his boyfriend was firm about not talking about it. Over the next few weeks, feelings and fears exploded inside Allen, so he suppressed them. A friend advised contacting Shanti, an AIDS organization that provides support and education. Chad declined. “Ultimately, I freaked out and ran away from him. I don’t feel particularly proud about that, but I was nineteen….”
Today, Allen has a strong bond with the AIDS community. “As I have grown older, I’ve gotten to know some of those who were at the forefront of the AIDS epidemic, and I have,” he pauses, sighs and says with reverence, “enormous respect—for the generation who came before me who fought the AIDS battle from the very beginning. God, what that must have been like! Some of my closest friends are guys who lost all of their friends. It gives me so much…,” he stops, fumbles for the correct word, then blurts, “hope! Not only did the community go through that, but together they fought this incredible civil rights battle that’s made such a change faster than any struggle in history. We are amazing people!” Allen is stoked, beaming with pride. He brings his legs up underneath him, sits Indian-style, and leans back into the picture window. “We have leadership skills that the rest of the world needs. We know how to walk through fear, and now it’s our job to show the rest of the world. So when I’m talking to groups about Christian fundamentalism, the incorrect approach is to say they are wrong and fight them. It’s, ‘I know that you are scared. It’s okay. Hey, look, I’ve gone through this. I’ve asked these same questions, so let’s find the answers together.’ And we walk together,” says Chad with quiet passion.
photos by Tim Courtney
But, in June, Chad won’t be walking, he’ll be biking as Rider #6404. He’s been thinking about this event for ten years ever since he first witnessed the cyclists arriving at their L.A. destination. “It was so amazing and I wanted to be a part of it,” he recalls, while fiddling with some straw fiber that he plucked from the carpet. “It took me a long time to go through my own journey and now I’m actually doing it. I’m excited about being another rider out there.” Soon after Craig’s death, Allen jumped right into training. He began in September and now rides twice a week. This past Sunday he “pedaled [his] ass off” (“Boy, does it hurt!”) and rode seventy-five miles from his home to Hermosa Beach and back. “The one thing that’s really tough about training for a ride like this is that it’s not like going to the gym for a couple of hours. It’s all-day training,” he notes, touching my leg to emphasize his point. “And in my life right now, that’s a huge commitment.”
Allen will soon be shooting back-to-back movies in different cities. He’ll be in Vancouver filming the second installment of the Third Man Out series (he’s doing six in all). Then it’s off to Albuquerque where his production company, Mythgarden, is producing, Save Me, a project that is very dear to his heart. It stars Allen, along with Judith Light and Queer As Folk’s Robert Gant, one of his Mythgarden copartners. It’s a love story that tackles the subject of gays and God, currently a central part of Allen’s consciousness. This kind of film was the motivation for creating his own production company, whose goal is to offer honest portrayals of the gay and lesbian community. And something else that is pleasantly occupying his time is a one-year relationship with another actor.
“I didn’t realize at the beginning what a commitment this ride would be. When I first started off [I thought], Psssst, no problem—piece of cake,” he says cockily, with a fling of his arm. “I’m like, I’m in shape, I’m a surfer, there’s nothing I can’t do because I’m that kinda guy. But now, I can’t imagine waking up for seven days in a row and doing eighty miles. It’s like, ‘Fuck, how am I gonna do this?’ Especially with my current workload. But, I’m just gonna take the bike with me and I’ll train when I have a day off. I’ll just do it and be ready in June,” he says emphatically. Chad pauses and looks over at his telescope that is nearby. “I’m not letting these people down. We’ll get it done! I’m really impressed by the people who have already participated in this ride before. I’m gonna need support from you guys!” he yells out, looking into space at imaginary bikers. His sky blue eyes are intense. Allen is visibly nervous, as his mouth is dry and he has a slight shortness of breath. Aware that Chad does like to push his limits, I empathize and say, “Pretty scary, huh?”
He answers resignedly and with a short giggle, “Yeah, maybe I was a little naive.”
Just then his friend and his other Mythgarden copartner, Christopher Racster, walks in, chattering about a scratch on Allen’s truck which he had borrowed. Chad assures him that the scratch was already there. Chad introduces us. The interview concluded, Chad excuses himself for several minutes and huddles around the laptop to take care of some urgent business, as they’re in the process of moving Mythgarden’s offices.
Their business completed, Allen returns. The photographer suggests a location. Allen escorts us through his bedroom, passing a mini-shrine devoted to James Dean. Steep stairs lead to the roof, where he often meditates. I can see why. While the photographer snaps away, Chad relaxes, blowing into this long, cylindrical, wooden Aboriginal instrument, a didgeridoo. The primitive sound blends well with the natural setting that surrounds us. Past the sage-scented hills, skyscrapers converge with the abundant billowy clouds on the horizon. Tops of trees sway rhythmically with a warm breeze. This peaceful scene seems to match Allen’s persona.
At the end of the shoot, we exchange hugs with Chad, wish him good luck, and depart. No doubt Allen will whiz through the AIDS/LifeCycle with rainbow colors, and then offer the fruits of that experience to others, on their own journey. As I walk up the steep street to my car, I am embarrassed. Oh, boy, was I wrong about this guy! It’s so easy to fall into the celebrity trap—you flip through magazines, read the rags, scan the tube, or watch an image up on the big screen—and see the celebrity as only one-dimensional. Today, I realize that I have just met a fully developed person—Chad Allen is a centered and compassionate man. Certainly a far cry from a Hollywood brat.