Tom Judson is Canned Ham
The actor revisits his days as a porn star in a meaty new solo show.
Tue Sep 15 2009
Photograph: Hudson Wright
In a stretch of less than three decades, Tom Judson has enjoyed a cavalcade of provocative careers—film and TV composer, musician, stage actor, house flipper and celebrated porn star among them. Now he's added playwright to the list and will star in his newly crafted traveling solo show, Canned Ham, which hits Dixon Place this weekend. The piece is a part-musical romp through his many past professions. And it was inspired, oddly enough, by its namesake: a 1958 Fan Coach Company silver camper, which Judson refurbished, pimped out and dubbed Canned Ham after buying it from his Catskill, New York, neighbor for just $100.
"It's like he was handing me the next phase of my life," recalls Judson, 48, speaking by cell phone in between rehearsals at Dixon Place. He has certainly had enough experience with phases to recognize such a sign.
His professional journey began at 17, when he left his small town in Orange County, New York, to enroll as a film major at NYU. "It was really just an excuse to move to New York, though," remembers Judson, who quit after just three semesters to focus on being a musician and a composer. He was prolific throughout the 1980s, writing mini musicals for East Village performer friends, and soon went on to compose for TV shows and films, including Metropolitan and The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love.
When the musician met and fell in love with Bruce Birnbaum in 1990, though, his creative output slowed. "He took precedence over my career," he explains, "because I was so in love with him." And when Birnbaum died of complications due to AIDS just six years later, something in Judson became untethered. The loss was what allowed him to be open to just about anything, and set him on what would become a path of many more twists and turns.
"After Bruce died, if something was stressing me out, my mantra was, 'Okay, is worrying about this going to bring Bruce back to life?' The answer was always no," he explains. Another motivator, he adds, has been his take-it-or-leave-it approach to money. "Money is meaningless to me," he says. "Consequently, I do things because I want to do them, because I enjoy them."
In that spirit came a fortuitous audition for the revival tour of Cabaret (a friend dragged Judson to the audition). "I went as a lark," he says. He was cast in the tour and later the national tour of 42nd Street, which led to his next and most well-known stint: as the hunky, hairy, tattooed top daddy known to gay-porn aficionados as Gus Mattox.
"It was a chance meeting," he says, recalling his encounter with porn director Chi Chi LaRue at a bar in Minneapolis, where Judson stopped during a tour break to catch a porn star's appearance. And Ms. LaRue, impressed with Judson's physique, offered him a job. "I was flattered," he recalls. "I was 42 at the time!"
When 42nd Street ended, he took her up on it, making about a dozen films (including The Recruits, Michael Lucas' Dangerous Liaisons and Face Fuckers Vol. I), winning the coveted GayVN Performer of the Year Award in 2006 and retiring after two years—which was plenty of time to get a taste of the business.
"It was nothing like I had imagined. It's so akin to mainstream showbiz, you can't believe it," he reports. "The only thing different is people get naked and have sex on set. And if you see it all the time, it ceases to be outrageous." But, he adds, "I had a fantastic time. There's a certain amount of glamour to it."
Next came his turn as an upstate house flipper, during which time the self-taught renovator bought, lovingly transformed and sold about a half dozen houses through his company, Acme Housing, until the market flopped. "But I think I had sort of had enough," he admits. "The novelty had worn off a bit."
And so, for his final restoration, Judson turned to his Canned Ham, which he's transformed from a disgusting mess ("I actually had to wear a respirator when I was cleaning it out!" he says) to a sparkling vintage gem. And when it rolls into town this week—before it heads off to performance spaces across the country, with the actor's eight-year-old cat, Mickey, onboard—it will deliver vintage Judson. "The last time I performed at Dixon Place was when it was in [founder] Ellie Covan's living room," he recalls. "So it's getting back to my roots."