'He said "you’re as sick as your secrets." He counseled young people about protecting themselves from contracting HIV.'

Michael Jeter, 1952-2003
Recording by Annette Bening
Story by Irwin Rappaport and Annette Bening
Photo from “Evening Shade” (CBS)

Kids and kids at heart knew Michael Jeter as “The Other Mr. Noodle” on Sesame Street.  Others would recognize him as Eduard Delacroix, the death row prisoner with pet mice from the film The Green Mile, or as the hilarious homeless man with AIDS who became a balloon-bearing birthday singer in drag in The Fisher King.

Standing at 5 feet 4 inches, Michael was the unlikely and excitable assistant football coach to Burt Reynolds on the series Evening Shade.  He won an Emmy Award for that role, and a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway musical Grand Hotel.

I’m Annette Bening.  Kevin Costner and I had the privilege of working with Michael on the film Open Range.  He was an absolute delight, a hard worker, a jokester and he had a heart of gold.

Other notable credits for Michael included a sweet mental hospital patient in Patch Adams, a mercenary hunting dinosaurs in Jurassic Park III and Emmy-nominated guest starring roles on the television series Picket Fences and Chicago Hope.

Michael was candid about his battles with drug and alcohol addiction, which led him to quit acting for a while, until he was brought back to TV with a small role in Designing Women.  In his Tony Award acceptance speech, he offered himself as living proof that people with an addiction can stop, can change their lives one day at a time, and that their dreams can come true.

Michael was also open about his homosexuality and HIV-positive status, disclosing it in an interview with Entertainment Tonight in 1997, where he said “you’re as sick as your secrets.”  He counseled young people about protecting themselves from contracting HIV.

In Grand Hotel, Michael portrayed Otto, a mortally-ill small-town bookkeeper who wants one night living the good life in the big city before he dies.  Reviewing the show for The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote, ”Mr. Jeter lets loose like a human top gyrating out of control — literally breaking out of his past into a new existence.”

Michael Jeter died unexpectedly of an epileptic seizure in 2003, leaving behind his partner of many years, Sean Blue.  Our film Open Range and his last film, The Polar Express, were both dedicated to Michael.  As Robin Williams observed when Michael died, “He lit the place up.”