Kenosha native Thom Bierdz ran from home to become a Hollywood star. But his brother's brutal murder of their mother forced Bierdz to confront his troubled past.
Actor Thom Bierdz lived in a fantasyland version of Wisconsin. The Kenosha-born star was a soap opera stud, a heartthrob named Phillip Chancellor III on “The Young and the Restless,” TV’s top daytime drama. The show was set in a pretend version of Genoa City, a tiny Wisconsin town located near Lake Geneva. Amid the convoluted subplots about cheating husbands, babies switched at birth and never-ending family feuds, characters would drop references to Milwaukee’s RiverWalk, Summerfest and the Brewers-Cubs rivalry.
Ironically, Bierdz had fled Wisconsin, only to fictionally relocate in it. But it was all working beautifully. He was auditioning for movies, posing for fan magazines, booking guest appearances on “The New Hollywood Squares.” Then, suddenly, the real Wisconsin reached back for him with ugly insistence.
On the morning of July 15, 1989, while waiting for callbacks on a movie audition, Bierdz got a hysterical phone call from his older sister in Kenosha. Their 19-year-old brother, Troy, had killed their mother, brutally beating her to death with a baseball bat.
The horror and headlines sucked Bierdz back into a past he had tried to leave behind. His life seemed to change overnight. Suddenly, acting had no meaning to him, and he began withdrawing from the showbiz glamour, falling into dead jobs and entropy. He obsessed over his brother’s murderous act, and began to question his own sanity.
Bierdz had hit the low point of his life. He couldn’t forgive his brother and had trouble accepting himself. Although he couldn’t see it at the time, he needed to come to terms with the family – and the personal issues – he had tried to leave behind. He needed to accept the real version of his life before he could become a star again.
Thomas Alexander Bierdz Jr. grew up the second of four kids on the south side of Kenosha. His mother, “a tiny, dark-haired beauty,” as he describes her, just 5 feet tall and barely 100 pounds, was from a large Italian Catholic family. His father was Polish, an introverted man who once dreamed of being an actor but become a psychotherapist instead.
Tom and Phyllis Bierdz divorced when Thom was 12, having separated twice while he was growing up. As the marriage dissolved, Thom’s own drama was quietly playing out. He was different than most of his friends. He was attracted to men. He remembers ogling photos of actor Mike Connors’ TV character “Mannix” and secretly paging through his mother’s copies of Playgirl.
There were no support groups for young gays in a blue-collar, auto-factory town like Kenosha, and he had no way to express his sexual orientation. When he was 19, Thom moved to Milwaukee. He met a bearded bartender one night at Club 219, a disco in Walker’s Point, and the two began dating. Eventually, Thom found the courage to introduce his boyfriend to his mother. He arranged for them to meet at Club 219. As Bierdz recalls: “She marched up to my towering, bare-chested cowboy as the disco hit ‘It’s Raining Men’ bellowed, ordered a drink, then ordered him to take good care of me.”
With his partner’s help, Bierdz got hired as a bartender at Your Place, a Milwaukee gay bar. But like his father, Thom wanted to be an actor. When he turned 21, Bierdz took $5,000 he had saved and headed to Hollywood. He found a cheap apartment and took a job busing tables at a restaurant. There, he met Tim Wood, the manager at the time of actor Rob Lowe. Wood, now deceased, put him in touch with talent agents and helped him enroll in acting classes. As part of his transformation, Bierdz changed the spelling of his first name to “Thom,” putting behind his Kenosha identities “TJ Bierdz” and “Tom Bierdz Jr.”
In his first audition, he landed a part in a Dr Pepper commercial, and over the next year, he found small parts – one line in the movie St. Elmo’s Fire (which was cut) and a line in Back to the Future (also cut) – while holding down his job as a busboy. Hungry for more, he auditioned for TV soap operas, and after his fifth callback to CBS’ “The Young and the Restless,” he won the role. At age 24, Thom Bierdz was heading for stardom – even as his teenage brother was spiraling into darkness.
Troy was the youngest child of Tom and Phyllis, born just when their marriage was coming apart. After Phyllis’ third child, doctors had said her chances of getting pregnant again were slim because she had a tipped uterus. Still, she wanted another child, perhaps as a way to repair her crumbling marriage. So when Troy was born, she saw him as her “miracle baby.”
But the miracle didn’t save the marriage. His father moved out when Troy was 4, and his mother took on the role of breadwinner, raising a daughter and three sons on her paychecks as a part-time waitress and a part-time records clerk at the Kenosha Police Department.
Troy was a troubled child. He mistreated the family dog and vandalized his school. When he was 12, he wrote an essay on what it would be like to assassinate the president. His early adolescence was fraught with truancy reports, school suspensions, threats of suicide and drug abuse.
As Troy grew older, Phyllis couldn’t control him. At age 16, he stole her car and drove to Florida, where he crashed into a tree and ran. He stole her car again two years later and led Kenosha police on a high-speed chase. When police finally pulled him over, he locked himself in the car and cut his arms with a knife. He was admitted to the psychiatric ward at Kenosha Memorial Hospital, but managed to escape. Caught by police, he was charged with car theft and resisting arrest, and sent to the Winnebago Mental Health Institute.
Even while locked up, Troy’s aggression continued. He grabbed a nurse at the mental hospital and threatened to snap her neck if she didn’t help him escape. Troy was subdued by hospital staff and charged with false imprisonment.
By the time he was 17, he’d been arrested for car theft, burglary and battery, and sent to the Ethan Allen School for Boys in Wales, Wis.
Troy once described to social workers how he wanted to murder his older brother Thom. Troy made a crude sketch of a figure drawn and quartered with electric cables attached to his legs and the words “Helter Skelter II” scrawled at the bottom. “He stated that he would like to experience the excitement of killing someone,” social workers wrote.
His mother found a book on paranoid schizophrenia under Troy’s bed and began questioning whether her youngest child was sick. “My mother took him to 40 different therapists,” Thom recalls. “Thirty-eight said he was anti-social, and only two said he was schizophrenic. … But they didn’t know what to do with him. They didn’t have a place for him.”
While still incarcerated and under psychiatric supervision, Troy tried to hang himself with bed sheets. He shaved his head, urinated on himself and swallowed a spoon. Yet doctors decided he suffered from a personality disorder and not mental illness.
“He can mimic symptoms of mental illness to his advantage whenever he needs to,” reported Dr. Inam ul Haque, a psychiatrist at Winnebago. “It is my opinion … that Mr. Bierdz is not a proper subject for treatment.” Another psychiatrist at the hospital, Dr. Edward D. Meyer, agreed. “This patient is not psychotic,” he wrote.
Throughout her son’s violent outbursts, Phyllis tried to shield him from the consequences of his crimes. She pleaded with prosecutors and judges to go easy, to give him probation instead of jail time. Yet while Troy lived at home, Phyllis could not discipline him.
In a March 1989 statement to the Kenosha County district attorney, Phyllis Bierdz described her son’s threats: “Dozens of times he said to me, ‘Don’t get me mad, Mom, you know what I can do.’ He has also started taking karate kicks at my head, just inches from my face. He doesn’t say anything, he just kicks.”
One day, Troy came up behind her and wrapped a sock around her neck. “He kept pulling it tighter and tighter,” Phyllis told authorities, “saying … how small my neck is and how it wouldn’t take much to snap it.”
Her miracle baby had grown into a monster.
The term “soap opera” dates back to the 1930s, when serialized radio dramas – sponsored by cleaning-product companies like Procter & Gamble – dominated the airwaves. The first TV soap, “The First Hundred Years,” was broadcast in 1950.
“Its presumed audience [has been] stereotyped as the working-class ‘housewife’ who allows the dishes to pile up and the children to run amuck because of her ‘addiction’ to soap operas,” Robert C. Allen, author of Speaking of Soap Operas, notes in an essay. “Despite the fact that the soap opera is demonstrably one of the most narratively complex genres of television drama whose enjoyment requires considerable knowledge by its viewers, and despite the fact that its appeals … have cut across social and demographic categories, the term continues to carry this sexist and classist baggage.”
Whatever their complexity, soap operas deliver pure escapism. You seldom see anyone working. The characters are usually wealthy. Their clothes are pressed, their hair perfect. The men are trim, the women amply cleavaged. Brunettes are bad, blondes are virtuous.
Along with recurring scenarios involving unfaithful spouses, there are standard plot twists – characters stricken with amnesia, kidnap ransoms, deathbed confessions, and characters who are killed off and brought back to life.
“The Young and the Restless” debuted in 1973, created by the husband-wife team of William and Lee Phillip Bell. The Bells broke barriers in the world of soaps. “Y&R” characters were dressed more fashionably, the glossy sets aped the look of a Hollywood movie, and plots dripped with sexual overtones. All this somehow took place in small-town Wisconsin; the writers were former Chicagoans who owned a vacation home in Lake Geneva.
When Thom Bierdz joined the cast in 1986, he played Phillip Chancellor III, the illegitimate son of a rich industrialist. “Little Phillip” was a handsome, rebellious 16-year-old returning home from a Swiss boarding school.
But the misbegotten Phillip III never seemed to fit in with his high-society family. He turned to drinking and a blonde named Cricket for comfort, but was dumped by Cricket when he slept with her best friend, Nina, who became pregnant with Phillip’s child. Nina was then offered a bribe to get out of town by Phillip’s mother, only to marry him instead and raise their son – Phillip Chancellor IV, of course.
But there are no happy endings in soap operas. Storming out of a Chancellor family party in a drunken rage one night, Phillip drives his red Corvette off a cliff. He awakens from a coma days later, his loved ones gathered somberly around his hospital bed. Reaching out to hold his newborn son, he takes his last breath, the heart monitor flat-lining him into nonexistence.
Two months after Thom’s character was killed off, Troy Bierdz was released from a group home in Milwaukee, where the 19-year-old lived as part of his probationary sentence for a car theft conviction. His mother had invited Troy home for the weekend.
At home, they argued when she refused to let Troy use her car. Finally, Phyllis gave in and agreed to ride along as he drove to his friend’s house. She waited in the car while he walked across the street to talk to his friend.
“He asked me if I had my shotgun for sale,” the friend told police. “I asked him ‘What for?’ And he said he wanted to kill his mother.” Because of the matter-of-fact way Troy said it, his friend did not believe him. Troy left without the gun. His friend had traded it for a guitar.
The next day, Phyllis’ father and nephew arrived at her home to help with some electrical work. Loud music played from inside the small ranch house, but no one answered the door. Letting themselves in, they found Phyllis’ body on the kitchen floor. Blood was splattered on the paneled walls and ceiling. Lying at the bottom of the basement stairs was Troy’s baseball bat.
“She was there at my bed in my room,” Troy would later relate, “and it was like she was giving me my bat. And I thanked her by getting up, grabbing the bat and hitting her over the head four times. I don’t know why. … I don’t remember being angry. I don’t remember saying anything. She was acting real nice.”
Police reports say Troy took his mother’s purse and fled in her tan Buick Regal. He picked up a hitchhiker at I-94 and Highway 50 and demanded money from the man. They stopped at a Kmart near Highland Park, Ill., where Troy bought black spray paint, painted his mother’s Buick, and stole license plates from a parked car at a dealership next door. Over the next six days, Troy and the hitchhiker drove from Illinois to Mississippi to Florida, then west to Texas. For gas money, Troy burglarized parked cars and pawned the car radio, a radar detector, and golf clubs that were in the trunk and belonged to his mother. Along the way, he called 911 to implicate his brother in his mother’s death.
“I’m Thom Bierdz,” Troy said to the dispatcher. “I want to admit to killing my mother Phyllis Bierdz and raping my little brother Troy.”
Troy was arrested at a shopping mall parking lot in Laredo, Texas. He insisted he was not Troy Bierdz. While in custody, he tried to burn off his fingertips to hide his identity.
A month after being extradited to Kenosha, Troy asked a jailer for a piece of paper. “I, Troy Alan Bierdz, would simply like to walk into the court, plead guilty, and be sentenced on that same day,” he wrote in his confession.
In November 1989, he was sentenced to life in prison. He will be eligible for parole at age 69.
“Troy Bierdz displays no sense of conscience or guilt,” wrote then-Kenosha County assistant district attorney Bruce Becker in his sentencing recommendation. “Any person who could cold-bloodedly kill his mother … could kill anyone.”
Thom was devastated. He ended all contact with Troy after his arrest. His despicable act was unforgiveable. “He was dead to me,” says Thom.
Yet Troy was never far from his thoughts. Guilt tugged at Thom’s conscience. He asked himself, had he abandoned his brother?
Troy was 11 when Thom left home. They had only sporadic contact after this, but when Troy was 18, Thom had reached out to him, bringing his troubled brother to California to live with him. Thom lined up a job for Troy as a security guard at CBS.
Months later, his brother Craig knocked on his door, hoping to follow in Thom’s footsteps and become an actor. The three brothers turned Thom’s garage into a gym. They bought weights and bodybuilding equipment and began perfecting their Hollywood good looks.
The cozy little family didn’t last. Craig would eventually move out and on to other pursuits. And after six months, Troy’s antagonism and laziness wore on Thom, and the two fought bitterly. So Thom kicked Troy out of the house. Their mother, ever Troy’s protector, flew to L.A. and took her youngest son back home to Wisconsin. Less than a year later, Troy murdered her.
It was all too much for Thom. His enthusiasm for acting waned. He took a few small TV parts but wasn’t doing much to pursue his career. Desperate, he found a job at a West Hollywood coffee shop mixing lattes for six bucks an hour.
When a better-paying job with a catering company came his way, he grabbed it. He bartended for celebrities: Joan Collins, Tom Hanks, Rob Reiner, Nancy Sinatra. One day, he was called to bartend at Raleigh Studios across the street from Paramount, where he had filmed the Dr Pepper commercial years ago.
As Bierdz walked onto the soundstage, workers were hanging streamers.
“What’s the big event?” he asked the catering captain.
“It’s a party for the Soap Opera Digest Awards,” he was told.
Bierdz felt nauseous. Once he had been a presenter on the awards show and handed a gold statuette to actress Anne Heche. Now he was a soap opera has-been, mixing cocktails for his one-time co-stars.
By now it had been almost five years since Thom had any contact with his brother. But he suddenly felt the need to break that silence. In January 1994, he flew from Los Angeles to a wintry, subzero Milwaukee, rented a car, and drove to Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage – the prison where serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was serving time.
Troy was housed in the psych unit. When a guard led him into the visitation room, Thom was stunned. A two-inch swatch of Troy’s beard was shaved from one side of his face. His teeth were yellow, his hair was matted and his body smelled. He babbled incoherently as he tried to decide where to sit.
“We all thought he killed our mother because he was an asshole and a bully,” Bierdz tells me. “I didn’t think he was schizophrenic. But five years later when I visited him, yeah, he was f–king out of his mind.”
Thom learned that Troy was not being treated for mental illness. On most days, Troy would lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling, refusing to leave his cellblock or speak. Thom asked the prison doctor to put Troy on medication.
Bierdz began visiting his brother once a year. Even on medication, Troy’s illness was clear, as revealed in an unreleased video documentary of the brothers’ visits by filmmaker Warren Hohmann. It’s disturbing to watch, like a car crash you slow down to look at. You want to turn away, but can’t stop watching Troy speak:
“I might have thought of Charlie Manson – the eyes – and it went from there,” he says in the video, remembering the murder. “He showed me what to do with this power. He said he was Jesus Christ and all that, but here I am, and I realized I’m not perfect or anything. I just have this tremendous ability…”
Troy dreamed he was confronted by his mother in heaven. “She would be just furious and angry. … All these people she’d met and become friends with would attack me, and just hold me down.”
As Thom made these visits to the prison, he began writing a memoir, chronicling the murder and its aftermath. Paging through court records and recounting family memories, he began to value the visits with Troy more and more. Even today, he makes the cross-country trip from L.A. to Wisconsin to visit his brother.
“I thought Troy was heartless,” Thom says. “But he has a heart and he cares about people. He still has some issues, but he knows what he did. He’s in the psychiatric unit and he’s doing great. Troy has changed dramatically. I know this is my little brother – and there was a while when I forgot that.”
Still, 20 years after the murder, Bierdz has never gotten a satisfactory explanation for why Troy killed their mother.
“I have never asked him,” Thom says, “because I don’t want him to ever feel that he owes me an answer, or that I’m only there for answers.” Although Troy has volunteered reasons, Thom says, “He’s never given a reason that makes sense. Just bizarre reasons.”
Connecting with his brother lifted Thom’s spirits and confidence, he says, and he began auditioning again for TV parts. He guest-starred as an abusive boyfriend on the original “Melrose Place” and a sympathetic killer in “Murder, She Wrote.” “After seeing Troy in life,” Thom recalls, “I was, strangely, ‘playing’ him on TV.”
Then came yet another family tragedy.
Like his father and brother before him, Craig Bierdz had aspirations to become an actor. But after his dream died, he drifted from job to job.
Meanwhile, he struggled to hold together his on-again, off-again marriage, and when it finally collapsed, separating him from his two children, Craig slid into depression. He was alone and discouraged, stacking books at a local bookstore for a living. One day in May 2000, in the closet of his L.A. apartment, Craig Bierdz put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was 35 years old.
“A feeling of utter despair swept over me,” Thom later wrote. Where did all this blackness come from, he wondered. “Were all three Bierdz brothers crazy?”
Thom had always been an anxious person. “I’ve never been mentally ill, but I would say I was borderline paranoid,” he says to me. “I was afraid of being around people. … I was high-anxiety, I had to invent characters to leave the house. There are parties I would go to where I had to have a drink to smile.”
To ground himself emotionally, he started painting, beginning around the time he first joined “The Young and the Restless.” He learned how to create portraits, landscapes, nudes and abstracts. Images from his subconscious seemed to seep onto the canvas in works like Handicapped Brothers, House of Drama and Overburdened Mother. His Conflicted Demon/Angel Boy is a stark portrait of a young man (his brother?) wearing devil’s horns and a halo, his head cocked, his eyes cast despondently to the side.
Gradually, Bierdz built his art into a paying career, booking gallery shows and selling paintings to the Hollywood glitterati, including actresses Kristin Chenoweth and Scarlett Johansson.
He began doing “live” spontaneous painting performances, raising funds for charitable groups like the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, hobnobbing with celebrities like Rosalynn Carter, singer Macy Gray and comedian Jay Mohr.
Out magazine named him Emerging Artist of the Year in 2005. And for his charity work, he was given the Key to the Light Award in 2006 by a Hollywood fundraising group founded by Debbie Reynolds.
“I’m fearless when it comes to canvas,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do, because if it doesn’t come out right, I can change it. It’s just paint.”
Then last February, out of the blue, he got a call from Maria Arena Bell, the executive producer and head writer of “The Young and the Restless.” Bell took him to a Beverly Hills restaurant and bought him lunch. The show’s producers had a proposal, she said. They wanted to bring Phillip Chancellor III back to life. They wanted Thom Bierdz back on the show.
Los Angeles is a gay-friendly city, but the entertainment industry has long been the opposite. During the years he had starred on “The Young and the Restless,” Bierdz had been pressured to remain a closeted gay. His manager and agent advised him to be discreet. Although most people on the “Y&R” set knew he was gay, Bierdz did not come out publicly, believing the show’s producers and commercial sponsors would disapprove. After all, his Tom Cruise good looks had won him the adoration of female fans. When interviewed by Soap Opera Digest, he led the reporter to believe he was straight. Even when he fell in love and moved in with the male actor who played a florist on the show, Bierdz kept it private.
“I did what most gay soap actors in the closet do today: I did not mention that side of my life,” he says.
Bierdz enjoyed being a soap star. He liked being invited to parties, he palled around with the teenage actress who played Cricket, Lauralee Bell, the daughter of the show’s creators. He liked the celebrity – the appearances on “The New Hollywood Squares” and the mobs of fans greeting him at “Y&R” promotional events.
Yet the double life ate at him. Not only were gay actors compelled to stay closeted, but they all played heterosexuals. Not one character on daytime television was gay, including Phillip Chancellor III.
But Thom was a different man now. He had lost his fame and fortune. He had lost his family – his mother murdered, one brother imprisoned, the other a suicide victim. He had completed his memoir, Forgiving Troy, which had become a self-published book in 2007. Honesty had become too important to him. Bierdz told the “Y&R” producers he would only return to if he could play Phillip III as an openly gay character.
Two weeks later, the producers called Bierdz and agreed: He would become the first openly gay actor to play an openly gay character in a principal role on a soap opera. “That was so important to me,” Bierdz says.
Bringing characters back from the dead relies on a writing device called “retroactive continuity,” in which the original back story is altered to accommodate changes to the plot. The new storyline is almost always farfetched, yet, to the audience’s delight, always tantalizing.
It was hard enough to bring Phillip III back to life, but he also had to come back gay. And so the character appeared out of nowhere, explaining that his car accident was actually a failed suicide attempt. He had bribed his doctor into faking his death, filled his casket with sandbags, bought a forged passport from a Genoa City cop, and disappeared into the night, bound for Australia to live an uncloseted life.
Soap opera fans gave Bierdz mixed reviews for his first performances in July, calling him wooden and rusty. But by August, fans were warming to him.
“At first he was stiff, uncomfortable,” wrote “reggyreg” on the Web site Daytime Confidential, “but he is starting to become more comfortable in his own skin. I am truly glad he is back.”
Not everyone bought the “return from the dead” plotline, though. “Isn’t it the consensus of most people that Phillip’s return has been a misfire?” said “josstheguy” on Daytime Confidential. “Having Phillip flee and fake his death because he was gay … didn’t make sense. … The story would have worked better if his reason for leaving was focused on his being clinically depressed.”
Yet undeniably, Bierdz had broken ground. Last summer, “Y&R” producers revealed that another character, Rafe Torres, was gay (though the actor is not). “We’re totally committed to telling gay stories on our show,” executive producer Maria Arena Bell told the press.
Meanwhile, Bierdz’s gay character propelled him into the real-life role of a gay activist. Shaking off his reclusive nature, he was soon doing radio interviews and posing again for the covers of magazines, this time including gay magazines. TV Guide Canada named him one of the 25 most powerful people in daytime television, lauding him for inspiring the gay community, “both in front of and behind the camera.”
Also in September, the Minneapolis chapter of the Human Rights Campaign gave him its coveted Visibility Award. “This show is seen in 30 countries by 10 million people,” said Bierdz as he accepted the award. “Ten million people are getting to know a gay man, Phillip Chancellor III, who pops into their TV room every day. It is my sincere hope that perhaps Phillip will show them that gay people are nothing to be afraid of.”
Since first moving to L.A., Bierdz has always lived within a mile of the Television City studio where “The Young and the Restless” is taped. He remembers entering the studio for the first time, stepping through the exclusive entrance reserved for CBS artists, and walking down the long hallway lined with poster-sized photos of shows that were filmed in the building: “I Love Lucy,” “Sonny and Cher, “The Jeffersons,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Young and the Restless.”
In the years after leaving the show, he says, he would pass the building at least once a week, filled with mixed emotions – pride, regret, loss, jealousy, excitement – never imagining that one day he would walk back into the studio and reclaim his stardom.
Like the resurrected Phillip Chancellor III, Thom Bierdz has achieved his own retroactive continuity, reconnecting with his family and rewriting his life, scene by scene.
“I have come full circle.”