01.19.10

Timothy Hutton: Literary Sex God

How did the TV drama Leverage gain a cult following among high-brow middle-aged female literary types? A star with a heartthrob past who’s a bookworm--and not afraid to tweet about it.

How did the TV drama Leverage gain a cult following among high-brow middle-aged female literary types? A star with a heartthrob past who’s a bookworm—and not afraid to tweet about it.

TNT’s con-man drama Leverage may not have the buzz of Lost or Glee, but when its second season resumed last week, one demographic went crazy for it: the women of the literati.

Julie Klam, author of the acclaimed 2008 memoir Please Excuse My Daughter, tweeted repeatedly during the show as it aired last Wednesday. “I don’t have a Nielsen box, but I’ve left all of my curtains open so everyone can see I’m watching #leverage,” she wrote, employing a hash-tag symbol to emphasize her focus. “Why the depression medication commercial during #leverage?” she tweeted later in the episode. “People who watch @ timhutton are happy.”

“It’s like we’ve all gone back to high school,” says one novelist. “It doesn’t matter how accomplished you are—we’re all vying for his attention”

Timothy Hutton, the show’s star, won an Oscar for his role as the disturbed-but-adorable Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People nearly 30 years ago. But today, his star shines brightest in the Twitter worlds of middle-aged female authors, publishers, and literary bloggers—many of them stars themselves. From Prozac Nation memoirist Elizabeth Wurtzel to The Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean, Hutton’s online following has reached a relative frenzy, and the actor has not been shy about getting involved.

Hutton engaged the women from the start. Shortly after joining Twitter in November, he tweeted about a literary blog run by Lisa Kenney in Centennial, Colorado, and began following other women she was friendly with. By the time Leverage returned to air (the first half of the season ended in September) he was chatting with Orlean, Wurtzel, Klam, and Twitterers like “Bookgirl96,” an anonymous publicity director at a “major house in NYC,” as her profile says, and “readandbreathe,” the nom de plume of Michele Filgate, the events coordinator for the RiverRun bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In between tweets about football (he’s an Alabama fan) and music (loves Led Zeppelin), Hutton gives book recommendations, discusses spelling variations, and promotes some of these women’s events to his over 5,000 followers.

And, most importantly, he talks books like the doe-eyed, just-geeky-enough heartthrob he’s often imagined to be. Hutton has recently tweeted his affinity for Deborah Eisenberg’s short-story collection, Twilight of the Superheroes, and let his followers know which classic reads he’s catching up on. (Of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, he opined, it’s “very disturbing, puts you right there.”) He’s even willing to get technical. When Orlean recently tweeted the question, “Is it ‘holy moly’ or ‘holey moley’ or ‘holy moley’?” Hutton advised her to go with the first spelling, adding, “I like the possibility that moly may have origins with homer’s odyssey.” Orlean responded: “See? It’s a classic.”

“It’s kind of embarrassing—it’s like we’ve all gone back to high school,” says Elizabeth Eslami, whose book party for her debut novel, Bone Worship last Thursday in Portland, Oregon, was promoted by Hutton. ( Leverage films in the city.) “It doesn’t matter how accomplished you are, we’re all vying for his attention. It’s getting a little bit pathetic at this point.”

Eslami was one of the few literary Hutton groupies willing to speak on the record about the Twitter exchanges. Julie Klam agreed to an interview but then reneged, saying her book publicist—she has a new memoir coming out later this year—advised against it. Jen Deaderick, a Boston writer who rivals Klam for frequency of Hutton-related tweets, demurred as well, before offering this comment: “Timothy Hutton is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Wurtzel and Orlean didn’t return messages for comment. And Hutton himself declined to comment—his publicist said he was traveling.

Many of Hutton’s thoughtful, sensitive-guy characters have felt custom-made for a bookish girl folded into the corner bench of a local coffee shop, devouring novels and—just maybe—penning one of her own. And many of the women now tweeting back and forth with Hutton came of age with him during his early-‘80s heyday. And even the younger ones like Eslami, 31, fondly remember him from 1996’s chick-flick Beautiful Girls.

But, they say, his filmic oeuvre is beside the point. “Mostly I’m interested in Tim Hutton because he has very intelligent things to say about books, and he has great taste,” says A.N. Devers, a New York writer who serves on the editorial board of PEN America’s literary journal. Devers, a friend of mine, catalyzed the Hutton interest when she gave him a “follow Friday” shout-out after the actor, to her surprise, started following her on Twitter. “The other day he mentioned Sana Krasikov, a writer who, despite critical acclaim, seems to be flying under the radar. I was impressed.” Says another short-story writer who’s published in The Paris Review: “He’s cute and he’s famous and he really likes books. He’s a cool guy.”

Of course, many literary women don’t care about the Leverage star, and the male brigade has virtually no interaction with him whatsoever. One female author I know described the obsession with Hutton as “insanity,” while Sloane Crosley, the essayist and Vintage Books publicist, didn’t even know the actor was following her. (“That’s funny,” she said when it was pointed out.) Are all the tweets helping the show? It’s impossible to say, but interest in Leverage is growing—last week’s episode registered about 30% more viewers than have watched in the past.

“I want to be the hitter on the LEVERAGE team. I could so do that,” came a recent tweet from Brooks Sigler, author of the book Five Finger Fiction, referring to Christian Kane, whose character provides the muscle on the show. In real life Sigler doesn’t know Hutton at all, but she says she’d like to meet him. “He’s pushing fifty, but he’s still got it. I mean, come on!” Fortunately her husband doesn’t mind. “He’s more worried that I’m just never going to come home from a bookstore.”

Sean Kennedy writes for New York, Time Out New York, and The Advocate, where he served as the news editor for three years. His writing has also appeared in Newsweek, Elle, Salon, Nerve, Interview, and Out.

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