A 90th birthday party for Anna Madrigal is the setting for Netflix’s nostalgic revival of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” premiering Friday.
Madrigal, played with beguiling charm by 89-year-old Olympia Dukakis, was a pioneer — one of TV’s first transgender characters — but she also knew how to invest in real estate. Her home at 28 Barbary Lane, an interlocking jungle gym of apartments that housed gay outcasts as well as innocents such as Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), is now worth a fortune — and its inflated value stands as a symbol of what’s wrong with San Francisco.
Series executive producer Lauren Morelli acknowledges that the tech boom has made San Francisco one of the country’s most expensive cities. “The reality is so grim, it’s so counter to everything ‘Tales of the City’ is,” she says. “How do you tell stories about Barbary Lane that tell people it’s not so easy to live in San Francisco?”
You bring back the famous faces to make us forget that reality. “Tales,” originally a 1993 series inspired by Maupin’s 1970s columns in the San Francisco Chronicle, aired on PBS in 1994. It launched Linney’s career and gave Dukakis an outrageous feather in her cap following her Oscar win for “Moonstruck.” They’re back, along with Paul Gross, as Brian Hawkins, and Barbara Garrick as DeDe Halcyon Day. There are new faces as well, some in roles played by another actor in the original series, others playing new characters.
Murray Bartlett (“Looking”) joins the show as Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, the no-longer-young man who explored his sexuality in the original, survived the AIDS plague that decimated the city and now has a younger boyfriend played by Charlie Barnett (“Chicago Fire”). Bartlett tried not to think about the other actors who played the role before he did, but he re-read all nine novels in the Maupin series.
“Mouse went through the whole AIDS epidemic and thought he was going to die,” says Bartlett. “It was an incredibly profound period and it changed him, but he still has that buoyancy. You do grow into a different version of yourself after you face your own death.”
The Australian-born actor came to San Francisco in the mid-1990s and watched the first season of the series on VHS. “What I felt connected to was the sense of family in Barbary Lane,” he says. “I was in my 20s. I don’t know if [it was because] I was similar to Michael Tolliver or where he was at in his life. The show had such a beautiful sense of community and I felt that when I came here.”
Morelli reveals that Dukakis, Linney and Ellen Page, who plays Shawna, daughter of Mary Ann and Brian, were attached to the 10-episode project when she came aboard to write the pilot. It then fell to Morelli to cast the new characters such as Jake (Garcia), his girlfriend Margot (May Hong) and Tolliver.
“Murray is the embodiment of ‘Tales of the City,’ warm, generous and kind, very thoughtful,” she says. “One of the things about being in a casting room, when someone walks in and they are beyond what you are looking for… Murray was that person.”
Bartlett says working with Dukakis and Linney gave the entire project more cohesion. “It was wonderful that Olympia was willing to come back,” he says. “It was like having your own guru on set. If the role was to be cast today, it would be played by a trans woman, but she’s so identified with Anna.”
It was “surreal” working with Linney. “There’s always a little piece of Mary Ann with her,” he says.
Morelli tapped into the city’s gay and transgender history to bring an extra level of authenticity to the new episodes, in particular the 1966 riots at the Compton Cafeteria in the Tenderloin, which predate Stonewall.
“We read a ton of books and saw [‘Screaming Queens’], Susan Stryker’s short documentary on Compton’s,” she says. “I also had to go through that process of learning about things that had come before me. I’m talking to you today because of all the work Armistead did before me.”