You Don't Know Jack

Play word-association games with Sean Hayes and here's what you'll get in response to the phrase ''TV movie'': ''Drugs. Alcohol. Cancer. Dying. Overacting. Poorly directed. Poorly written.'' So it's surprising that he's now starring in one himself. Hayes will confess that taking the part ''scared the hell out of me,'' but he quickly adds, ''That's why I did it. I enjoy scaring myself.... One of the scariest things in the world would be saying yes to playing Jerry Lewis.''

So scary he almost didn't do it. Zadan and Meron (whose 2001 miniseries ''Me and My Shadows: Life With Judy Garland'' featured plenty of booze, pills, and an untimely death) found themselves pitching Hayes endlessly on the idea of portraying the nutty professional. ''Our little campaign went on for months,'' says Zadan. ''I'd tell him about Martin and Lewis, and he'd change the subject. [But] Neil and I were so sure that Sean would change his mind, we told CBS to go ahead and get the script written.''

The producers may not have been able to sway him, but the teleplay written by director John Gray (''The Glimmer Man'') did. Last July, Hayes reported for duty to a Toronto soundstage, taking on a role that required him to re-create Lewis' unglamorous beginnings as a physically gifted performer willing to do anything for a laugh. With little videotaped material of Martin and Lewis' nightclub act to reference, Hayes was forced to virtually reinvent the shtick from scratch. ''Sean would go home, stay up all night, and sit in front of the mirror to create these routines,'' says Zadan. ''It was all trial and error, really difficult.'' Bloody difficult, actually. ''I got two huge, bloody knees,'' says Hayes. ''I had all sorts of pratfalls. I had bloody ankles. I thought I broke my elbow at one point. My neck went out of whack.''

Of course, career-related hazards are old hat for Hayes, a classically trained concert pianist from the Chicago suburbs who moved to Hollywood in 1995 with (pass that cliché platter, please) ''not a penny to my name and no place to live.'' His early gigs included a national tour of, um, Kenny Rogers' Christmas show, along with numerous TV commercials and, finally, the lead role in 1998's fizzy gay romantic comedy ''Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss.'' But it wasn't until Jack first blew into Will Truman's apartment four years ago that Hayes finally attained major notice, along with second-banana posterity. Since then, he's received three consecutive Emmy nods -- and nabbed a statuette in 2000.

But while Jack McFarland's flamboyant ways have made him a fan favorite, they've also fueled speculation about Hayes' well-guarded personal life. The is-he-or-isn't-he? issue, which has plagued the actor since ''W&G'' premiered, is a touchy one, and today's interview will not provide clarification. You can't really blame him. Even an ultra-mainstream comic like Billy Crystal -- whose career has held steady for 25 years -- understands the risks of playing a gay character. In early October, he told The New York Times that if he had to choose again, he might not have taken the part that brought him to national prominence: playing the openly homosexual character Jodie Dallas on ABC's late-'70s comedy ''Soap.''

''Really?'' asks Hayes, when told of Crystal's comments. ''That's kind of sad.'' Does he ever harbor the same regret about ''Will & Grace''? ''If you're truly an actor, in the long run...'' He pauses. ''I don't know that I would have done it either. I think of all the things that I still want to do, and I don't know if I'll get to do them.

''I love that people think I'm gay,'' he adds. ''I love that people think I'm straight. I think it's fun.''

Fun?

''I think it's SO much fun,'' he insists. ''It's the right way for me to be.... Every time you see Tom Cruise on the screen, what you don't see is a character. You see Tom Cruise, the guy who divorced Nicole Kidman. You see Tom Cruise, the guy who sued some guy who said he was gay. Every time you see Ellen DeGeneres or Anne Heche...it's everything but the part that they're playing.

''There are some actors who, the second you ask them if they're playing a gay role, they say, 'I'm straight! I'm straight and I'm married. I have two kids and I'm straight. Did I mention I'm straight? I'm straight,''' says Hayes. (It's a description, we might add, that could apply to Hayes' ''Grace'' costar Eric McCormack.) ''Wouldn't it be great if they didn't say that? Then you might actually believe they're gay.''

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