By Anthony T. Eaton | January 2021
E. Robert Dunn was born in the Midwest and raised in the Northeast. His life and career are an example of how talent and perseverance can overcome obstacles and adversities beyond our control. Actor, play write, author and more, Eston (his given name) has used his talent and tenacity to create a career that not only promotes his own talent, but promotes and encourages the talents of others who have faced similar challenges and have lacked the opportunity.
After reading a post about his book series along with his bio I thought this guy has something to say that others will want to hear.
Let’s start with young Eston. What was it like for you growing up?
I was born in the 60s, a youth in the 70s, and a teenager in the 80s. So, it had some highlights (like private time with my immediate family during holidays and blizzards) and lows (the multiple deaths of close friends during the AIDS pandemic). When I look back, I survived and am grateful for the examples my parents gave me on how to conduct myself, be a professional, and, overall, how to be a person of my word. I still don’t understand the rejection by relatives and fellow townspeople of me as a young man. I accepted them as they were with all the faults and oddities, but it was not a receptacle (perhaps an endemic flaw in ‘small-town’ society). But, much of my ‘angst’ I transferred into my Art. I will say I have fully-developed and complicated characters in my books and, if I may say so, no actor portrays illness better than me or elitism!
Is there someone that made a significant impact on you growing up?
I do have to give the nod to my Mother (Lida Del King Dunn), my Father (William Robert Dunn, Jr), my two brothers (William and Brian), and their families. Each has been someone to admire and resonate with; they have each been my life preserver at some point. Did I mention my two suicide attempts growing up?
No, you did not mention that; what was the catalyst?
My first attempt was when I was 13 and going through puberty and becoming aware of my sexuality. How I looked at girls did not change, but how I viewed boys did. My classmates (especially the boys) picked up on this ‘change’ and tormented me relentlessly about it; raised as a Born-Again, Evangelical Christian, the message from the pulpit that ‘one was better off dead than to live as a homosexual’ was powerful. Not having a perceived acceptance from my family (some of my tormentors were my male cousins), I decided that the message I was hearing from my church was the only solution. I was also battling dysmorphia and in the full throes of anorexia. My choices seemed grim, and I just wanted to numb my emotional pain. So, I took an overdose of painkillers. Luckily, my stomach did not agree with them, and after a long, long hour of vomiting, it looked like the attempt was all for not; plus, my mother (a nurse) noticed what was going on at the toilet, and we had a ‘sit down discussion.’ That’s when I started (mental health) therapy.
The therapy worked enough to get me through a hellish high school experience. In 1982, I was 19, and Reaganomics was in full swing. My father worked in Pittsburgh as an electrical engineer for a steel mill. Due to the tariffs being lifted for foreign steel, imported was cheaper than domestic, and the majority of American steel mills closed, went bankrupt, or had to lay off the bulk of their workforce. My father was one of the millions to lose their jobs, plunging my family into economic hardship. I was forced to leave college, sell my car, my trust fund was liquidated, and we were on public assistance within a year. To help my family make ends meet, I moved from NYC back to the Pittsburgh area, took a job at the local McDonald’s restaurant (they were one of the few businesses still operating), and transferred my college credits to the community college (where I was also placed on a ‘work/study’ program). I plunged into a deep, dark depression as the threat of losing our home loomed over the near horizon.
You talk about the effect that the church had on you because they were unaccepting of being gay; this was a very different time from where we are now; how did the overall societal viewpoint impact you?
The homophobia I had fled from was still present and even more so because of the recent HIV/AIDS infection, and the Reagan Administration was saying that the epidemic was nothing more than God’s wrath on the gay community because of ‘their aberrant lifestyle.’ In NYC and DC, several of my friends were ill with HIV progressing into AIDS opportunistic infections. Walls of hopelessness were closing in, and I was still closeted with my family. Since I was single, there seemed no need to be honest about my true self with them.
The same demons that had been whispering in my mind’s ear when I was 13 had returned. As I saw neighbors losing their homes and living in their cars, as food became scarce, as family and friends turn their backs on my family, and the Administration’s hateful speech filled the airwaves, it seemed the apocalypse was coming. I wanted out.
So, one morning when my mother was leaving to help take care of some of her home-bound family members, my father was out looking for work, and my brothers’ were off with friends, I looked through our bathroom medicine chest and grabbed a giant bottle with pills in it and swallowed the lot.
Once more, my mother was my intervention, and this time my therapist (we had no money for outside help this time). And, through long conversations and re-affirmation that ‘everything is temporary, even the bad, bad stuff”: as a family, we hunkered down and plowed through the horror of the early 1980s until I was again able to leave “small town PA” in 1984.
Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24 and LGBTQ youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.
I know that many people can relate to what you describe and maybe feeling the same way right now. What advice can you give to someone who might find themselves contemplating taking their own life?
My advice to anyone contemplating suicide, looking back, I now realize that I was going for a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I learned that I could not allow anyone or anything to take away my power or my life direction. Bullying is a severe illness in our culture — it is even ingrained in my extended family’s humor (they tear you down and find it funny). Distancing myself from those that do not support, give unconditional love, and uplift me has gotten me to this ripe ole age of 57-8ish and into a healthy loving relationship with a man. He is someone I would have not even approached to be a life-partner as a younger version of myself.
You have shared the struggle of coming out; how and when did you do it?
Hmmm, well, ‘coming out’ for me was in stages. I always felt ‘different’ from my peers. I remember going through puberty, and (as I mentioned before) how I looked at girls did not change, but how I viewed boys changed!! I still remember the ‘crush’ I had as a boy on the cartoon character Jonny Quest and his father’s bodyguard, ‘Race Bannon’; then there was Mark Goodard as Major Donald West on ‘Lost In Space’ (this list can go on and on and on…) But the ‘official coming out’ to my family was when I was 24. My first boyfriend and I had been together for three years (living together for two years), and we were ending our relationship – I was devastated and could not stop crying. My mother, being empathetic like most mothers need to be came to me and asked, “So, ***** and you are more than ‘roommates,’ aren’t you? Want to tell me what is happening between the two of you?”… and the rest is history. The challenge was overcoming the lifetime of indoctrination within the born-again Christian dogma. I would not be only be rejected by the only family member(s) who said they loved me ‘unconditionally’, but by a small-town community at-large…it took decades. However, eventually, I have a core circle of relatives that are true to their word and are still in my life. The rest, well, that’s their challenge to accept their rejection of me.
While coming out is more comfortable, and more resources are available today, it can still be very hard; what advice would you give to someone struggling with coming out?
That is a hard question to answer. It is variable. Each person’s circumstances are unique and as individual as they are and their surroundings. But, if I had to answer, I would advise you to be true to yourself – seek out whatever local support you can find (a teacher, a friend, guidance counselor, online organizations…). As I mentioned before, everything is temporary, even the challenging times in one’s life. A new day does come, and the more days you have, the more you can mold a new reality into whatever you need it to be. Yes, there will times of struggle, time more challenging but, at the end of each day, if you can still hold your head up high before you place it on your pillow, then you are still in the game, and life is good. What you deserve and what you get out of life rarely come together but making the most of what you do have is a reward unto itself, especially when being honest about who you indeed are as a person. Eventually, everyone hopefully realizes you are responsible for who you are in this moment, this day, no one else defines your happiness; you do! Life is only a struggle (at some point), but if you choose to breathe, relax, and come from gratitude; love yourself first and foremost, and NEVER comprise your core values for another’s acceptance you will get on the ‘other side’ of whatever obstacles oppress you. Be your own best friend, companion, confidante, and if need be, partner.
The LGBTQ+ community has come so far; today, we have representation that was unimaginable twenty years ago, but are we doing enough to continue moving things forward?
As with any minority, there is always more to do. For example, with the recent nominations for the Presidency from the Democratic party, why not Pete Buttigieg? Just saying. And where are comic book and cartoon representations?
Let’s talk about your career. You had your first acting role at age 7 when you appeared as a butterfly in a school play. Did you know then that you wanted to have a career in the arts?
Good research. I do not think I realized what precisely I wanted to do in the Arts, but, yes, I knew I had a ‘specialness’ to me where the Arts are concerned; where I could safely express myself.
Your career is impressive not only as an actor but also as a professional dancer, model, writer, and more. What drives and inspires you?
As with most artists, the urge to have your inner self’s voice heard. To leave a legacy that ‘you were here’ and ‘this was my impression of my time here.’ I have so many stories inside of me that I wish to express, share, and become while I am in this dimension. As far as inspiration, it comes from life itself. All that is around me, involved with me, is part of what makes my life’s reality. It is a little bit of history repeating itself. From flashbacks of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the 90s, all the reimagining and revivals in entertainment came from a fashion and societal perspectives.
The adages are Art Imitating Life and Write What You Know. You have also written two off-Broadway plays, “LipSync” and “A Dragged Out Haunting,” and penned a local play entitled “VOiCES.” What has it been like seeing your work come to life on the stage?
Thank you for asking; being primarily a book author, seeing characters that I created ‘come to life’ was the closest I will ever have to children. I was humbled and honored by the experience. Total gratitude for the opportunity, especially off-Broadway!! Spotlight Theater Festival of 2002 was a very moving experience for me. After years of auditioning to be an actor on Broadway (and told I was too tall – I am 6’4″ es), it was satisfying to at least have my words heard close to Broadway! 😊
As an author, you penned a science fiction series, “Echelon’s End,” where did the idea for that come from?
“Echelon’s End” is a culmination of speculation storylines I had written for Space: 1999 (3rd Season – did not happen), Battlestar Galactica (2nd Season – did not happen), and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (2nd Season—storyline changed). My literary agent at the time suggested that I take all the story ideas for those shows, change names, people, and places and create my own ‘universe.’ So, that is what I did; going on 15 books later, the series is still alive and well in my imagination and in print.
I think it is fascinating that you took these things and used them to create something new. Do you have a writing process?
I am not sure you would call it a ‘process.’ Like most writers, authors, play and screenwriters, I do not ‘live off’ of my work. I still have to maintain employment elsewhere to make ‘ends meet.’ So, I write when I can. I try to do something every day, but more than none, that becomes a few times per week. But, I do jot down ideas and inspirations on Post-It Notes and then combine them. When I do sit down to write, somewhat like constructing a jigsaw puzzle into an outline, I then do preliminary ‘flushing out’ of ideas, which I go back and ‘fill in’ overtime until I feel the story idea(s) is/are complete. If I had to link-up my process, it would be dialogue first, action second, then embellishment of emotions, the scenes, et al.
How have you avoided the pitfall that often comes with success, especially those in the entertainment industry?
I am not sure what pitfall you may be referring to, but if you mean believing all the hype that comes with the press and the adulation from fans, no. I know that everything is temporary, the curtain always has to come down, and you are only as good as your last accepted piece of work. I perform to express myself, not to satisfy others. If I am accepted, and my message speaks to another, that is exceptional but not my expectation. Being an outsider for the majority of my life, I have learned to live without acceptance. I am grateful when it happens but not sullen when it does not. I guess you could say, “Rejection, I understand; it is the acceptance I question.”
That is a very practical and reflective way of thinking about it. We often hear about and see the darker side of success where a person cannot cope or manage it, resulting in something destructive. I think more focus needs to be on those who do navigate it well; thank you. Are you surprised by your success and accomplishments?
Surprised? Yes. As I mentioned, I have been an outsider for most of my life: misunderstood, shunned, and avoided. So, when my voice is heard, and others echo back their kinship, I am amazed – every time. Perhaps this is one reason I come from gratefulness and appreciation for those that ‘get my message’ in my work. Now, what is success? What is being accomplished? I still think I have a long, long way to go before acknowledging that I am a ‘success’ or even ‘accomplished.’
Who has been the most memorable person you have worked with, and why?
That is a long, long list. So many of my mentors have ‘gone on,’ but a few still come to mind when it comes time for me to give “Thanks” for guiding me and helping mold me into the performer I am today and still evolving …, such as:
- Ruth Brown (Deceased) – she believed in me as a person.
- Barry Morse (Deceased)—he saw my talent as an actor.
- Charlene Naglich (Deceased)—inspired me to stay within the Arts.
- Bob Myers (Deceased)—believed in me so much to get me, my first literary agent.
- Elena Marie Garcia—has been my biggest fan/collaborator/supporter since college.
- Thomas Dane – friend and colleague who is always ready to collaborate.
I better stop, this could get very, very long. 😊
Has there been someone you admire, a role model, or mentor, and if so, what is it about them that resonates with you?
Well, if you go back to my previous answer, their ‘ness’ resonates within me. Each person has been an example of humbleness, perseverance, loyalty, friendship, love, and community. Now, that list is not complete by any means –
You founded the nonprofits artsUnited, Inc and WatchOutWeb Charities, Inc.; what inspired you to start not one but two organizations?
Rejection inspired me. In my small, local gay community here in South Florida, I was not accepted, nor was my work, so I founded my first nonprofit (thanks to another nonprofit through the county library system – ArtServe and one of its representatives who believed in my work’s message [Constance Avery]). The objective was to provide a venue for others who did not portray the ‘mainstream gay message or images (drag queens, bitchy hyper-femininity, and nudity).’
My second charity came from the inaccessibility of Hollywood (California). I live in Southeastern Florida, where there is a plethora of talent, but that talent has to leave because work here in the Arts is scare and nepotistic. WOW Charities, Inc was born out of that orphanage created by the cultural wasteland left behind; its mission statement is ‘to tear down walls and build bridges between peoples historically separated by ignorance, bigotry, and misunderstanding through all media of visual art.’ One of our eventual goals is to live-stream live theater featuring unknown or struggling playwrights, directors, actors, et al. and develop theatrical works into other media such as film, televisions, gaming, etc.
WatchOutWeb.org mission is to create content that educates, informs, and inspires. To do this, WatchOutWeb Charities, Incorporated, offers online programming that expands the minds of the public, documentaries that open up new worlds, non-commercialized news programs that keep citizens informed on world events and cultures, and web-programs that expose the global community to the worlds of music, theater, dance, and art.
You are “out,” whatever that means today. Still, there was a time, not so long ago, that being “out” could be career-limiting or even ending, especially for those in entertainment, “Hollywood” in particular. Has that passed, or does that still exist?
In my opinion, it still exists. As a society, we still have a long, long way to go before such bigoted and prejudicial perceptions are eradicated; to where people are just seen as people who love whom they (consentingly) love. We will be there when people are represented in all mainstream media, from cartoons, feature films, major network programming, and documentaries.
You mentioned political representation earlier. We had some wins on the political front, and hopefully, we will have more with a new administration. There has been a lot written about you and your work, and now there is some more; what is something we don’t know that you think is essential?
Good question; I guess, perhaps, that I am extremely shy and self-conscious. I still have the ‘demon voices’ of my youth telling me that I am not good enough, that I will not be successful, that I am a fraud … and so on. I have (and still do) battled with an eating disorder (anorexia and bulimia) coupled with dysmorphia – perhaps that is why I became a dancer and then eventually went into the fitness industry (retired after 30 years).
What are you working on now? What is next for you?
Presently, I just finished a short novel entitled “UN-Para-Llel” and another entitled “Playing It Forward: A Queer Compilation Of Plays” —this is a compiling of all my play scripts. I began the second installment in my “Echelon’sEnd” off-shoot series entitled: “PlanetStrike” during the COVID-19 shutdown and continue to develop the storyline, to hopefully have a draft completed by this year’s end.
I am a lover of inspirational and motivational quotes; do you have a favorite?
Not sure if this is inspirational or motivational, but I going to use a quote from my mother that helps keep me centered in gratefulness and have a focused perspective on my reality:
“You are born alone, you will die alone, but if you get someone to hold your hand halfway through the journey, consider yourself blessed—never expect them to be there, live as if they will not.”
Your mother is wise; it certainly inspires me.
Thank you for this opportunity!
Check out Eston’s work and follow him on social media.