Birthplace: Kenosha, WI
You Know Him As: Phillip Chancellor, III on The Young & the Restless, and “rowdy undergrad” in the film St. Elmo’s Fire(1985).
Did You Know?:
Though most people have lives that pale in comparison to those of the eventful and often outrageous characters on soap operas, Thom Bierdz, a well-known daytime television hunk of the 1980’s portraying Phillip Chancellor III on “The Young and the Restless” certainly lives a life in opposition to that assumption. Unfortunately, his real life has unfolded with far more turmoil then his wealthy but deeply confused, alcoholic character on the popular daytime soap; the Kenosha, Wisconsin native has dealt with tremendous personal tragedy while coping with career obstacles being an openly gay actor, writer and artist.
As a child Thom (born March 25, 1965) grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, longing for fame and wealth, as he stated in a 2002 interview for In Magazine: “I always wanted to be a movie star from the time I was a little boy — an ambition that I’ve grown to question. I’ve had to examine why so many actors are neurotic, and not enough by themselves.” At 20, Thom left his mother, sister, two brothers and his childhood home in Kenosha armed with $5,000 in savings from bartending. He moved to California seeking his long sought after fame and fortune. Since Thom was new to L.A. he hooked up with Tim Wood, famed manager of pretty boy actors like Rob and Chad Lowe and Days of Our Lives’ Drake Hogestyn. After three years of acting classes and auditions, he landed a bit part in “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985) and in 1986 he bagged the role of Phillip on The Young and the Restless.
He soon became a daytime soap opera hunk with loads of female fans. Though a sizeable salary and soap opera stardom may be a dream come true for many people, his admired status wasn’t very fulfilling from his standpoint. He elaborates on his predicament revealing that “at the peak of my popularity, I was flown around for personal appearances every other weekend, for $2000 a pop. I’d meet throngs of screaming girls at malls and stay at Ritzy hotels. But there were many lonely nights. Here I was this lower-middle-class gay kid from Wisconsin who had achieved soap opera stardom.it was very difficult hiding my true self – as I felt I had to do in homophobic Hollywood in the mid 80’s, while playing on the number one soap opera that catered to the Bible Belt.”
It had only been a few weeks after he had left his role on Y&R when his entire world was turned upside down. His paranoid schizophrenic youngest brother, Troy, had beaten their mother to death with a baseball bat. Troy is currently serving a life sentence in a Wisconsin prison. Thom recalls that their “mother found out that Troy had a book about paranoid schizophrenia. She didn’t know if he was researching it to fake it or if he was concerned about himself. She had taken Troy to at least 40 psychiatrists between the time he was 15 and started to act out, and 19, when he killed her. Very few of those psychiatrists thought he had a mental problem. They thought he was functional, and just mean.” Thom explains further: “Before the murder, I thought he was just lazy. It only became clear that Troy was a paranoid schizophrenic when I reunited with him five years after the murder.”
Initially, it took every ounce of compassion and understanding for Thom to forgive his brother for the unforgivable. “When I would get parts on shows like Melrose Place or Murder, She Wrote,” Tom recalls, “it was all about me playing a murderer or playing a vulnerable young man who was coming to terms with what he’s done. It was at that point that I was really searching my mind to figure out where my brother’s head was.” Humbleness was one trait he has certainly learned over the years as he describes his reassessment of what is really important to him in life: “Whether or not I was inordinately attached to my mother when she was alive, in her death I could not, would not, let her go. I did, however, let my career go on “The Young And The Restless.”‘ Thom continues, “This Wisconsin nerd had already accomplished his grandiose dreams of fame and fortune, and to be honest, although it was an ego-trip for me to be recognized by fans, it didn’t fix the holes that were inside me.”
Thom’s second family tragedy took place in May 2002. This time his other brother, Craig, committed suicide while in the grips of paranoid depression. His brother left behind a wife and two young children. Thom explains: “He was trapped in a bad marriage. It was unhealthy. He was trying to get out of it and she wouldn’t let him. We keep reliving the parents’ stuff until we get it straightened out. So you see there are similar dynamics. My mother didn’t want to leave my father, either. Craig’s wife wouldn’t let him go.”
On his website, www.thombeirdz.com, Thom continues revealing how he has dealt with so much tragedy and how he has been able to put everything into perspective: “a paranoid schizophrenic brother in prison and my other brother, [committing] suicide in a paranoid depression. And me, the oldest boy — I was in a paranoid time in my life and could no longer run from that truth. I was so afraid to go in public I invented characters to do so, and secretly checked out books on multiple personalities out of the Beverly Hills library. Still, I was reticent to believe in us Bierdz boys having a paranoid ‘gene’; I did not want that doomed forecast for me. Instead I examined our brains psychoanalytically. What circumstances made us who we were? What environments? What conditions in our early home? I already had in my possession 400 pages of Wisconsin court records with Troy and my mother (his adolescent crimes, his animal-killing diaries and Satanic poems). I needed the advice of my dad (who used to be a psychotherapist, and was at one time suicidal) and my wonderful aunts (who are supersensitive, sometimes manic (in a good way) and I needed to face my life, my lacks, my fears, my martyrdom. To see that my brothers were not victims to a gene, and neither was I; that the nonsensical acts they did actually could make sense (in hindsight). I needed to detour my current pattern of destruction and take mental inventory, so I could be at the cause and not the effect of what was to come for me. That is when I came out as being gay. To keep my balance, I needed to stand in the truth.” Thom certainly has come a long way from the painful, confusing, secret life he once knew, as he now aims for an honest and upbeat perspective on life and all things deemed important in it.
When asked if life has changed much since he has openly indicated that he is gay, he expressively responded: “My mother was a very honest person, and I am too, by nature. Hiding being gay, such an important part of me, paralyzed me. Your family owes you respect for who you are. I don’t care if they like it or not, that’s what a family does. Support and love you unconditionally. Feel that, let it resonate your whole being, be all that you are. And please accept other gay friends as your family.” After being faced with a great deal of discord and heartache in his life, Thom has managed to make peace with the tragedies of his past by forgiving his brother and by creating artwork to express his feelings. Thom explains stating that “Troy and I are very close. We’ve been on an unbelievable roller coaster ride. He is schizophrenic and also honest in a wonderful, infantile manner. I, too, am honest and open and more than a bit offbeat. We have people who want to make a movie of our lives because normal people are quite inspired by our universal themes — love and forgiveness, transcendence and hope. Art was my first love, but I never took it serious. I have painted now and then over the years as a hobby. But in my darkest period a few years back, I clung to the canvas as a way to keep me in the moment (as I was either haunted by the past or anxious of the future). I am constantly surprised that people respond so strongly to my art.”
As Dana Caprina interviewed Thom for Chicago Magazine, he revealed his perception of his artwork as representing “expressionism, impressionism, surrealism and symbolism. Painting is what keeps me in the moment, as I am haunted by the past or anxious of the future. Painting has been my therapy, and I have painted my whole life. I had never imagined my art would be my career and take over like this. People are surprised I have such heavy emotional pieces and, then, whimsical tree houses and the like. In spite of what has happened in the past, I have an optimistic soul, and much of my work is bright and cheerful. Currently, my pieces go for $2000 – $8000. We are working on a gallery showing in association with The Art Of Elysium charity (for children who are terminally ill). It is committed to bringing artists to terminally ill children [to] help them deal with their illness through art. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this wonderful mission.”
When asked about his autobiography, “Forgotten Brother,” that he has recently finished writing (a work in progress for about 15 years) and the reasons for writing it, he indicated: “Initially, I began writing the story to honor my mother, to show she was a good mother and in no way responsible for her matricide. I felt an obligation to share my brother’s and my story — and now that that is underway, I can relax. I’d like to travel the world and live on canvas.” The emotional depth of the story is intensified throughout the book by Thom’s paintings. In the artist own words: “Each painting became an earnest attempt to make sense out of the senseless; to make something beautiful out of something tragic.”
Biography By Brigette Jensen