The actor and comedian Leslie Jordan, who has died aged 67 in a car accident, won an Emmy for his role in the hit US television comedy series Will and Grace (2001-06), as the acerbic socialite Beverley Leslie, the titular odd couple’s neighbour.
His career reached even greater heights, however, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when his daily videos on Instagram attracted nearly 6 million followers. With his diminutive frame (he was 4ft 11in), southern accent, and campy but comfortable gayness, Jordan was a mass-market version of Truman Capote, only smaller, more southern and funnier. He talked easily about his favourite subject – himself – like a family member brightening the loneliness of lockdown.
By the time he started Will and Grace, Jordan had been telling people about himself for years, directly as well as through the characters he played – his one-act musical Hysterical Blindness and Other Southern Tragedies That Have Plagued My Life Thus Far ran off-Broadway for seven months in 1993.
He made his acting debut on television in the Lee Majors action series The Fall Guy in 1986, and in 1989 a guest role in Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown caught people’s attention.
His first billed film role came in the comedy Ski Patrol (1990), in which he played the patrol’s Danny DeVito-in-Taxi-style controller. He became a busy guest star in comedies and dramas, with a recurring role in Reasonable Doubts and a regular part in the political sitcom Hearts Afire. He branched off from comedy in episodes of American Horror Story and Boston Legal, and in 12 Miles of Bad Road reunited with the producers of Hearts Afire. He was also popular on talk and variety shows.
In 1996 he starred in Del Shores’s play Sordid Lives in Los Angeles. It was, according to Variety, proof that “nothing succeeds like excess”. Jordan played Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram, a cross-dresser institutionalised because he believes he is Tammy Wynette, in both the play and the 2000 film version. The latter, which also starred Olivia Newton-John, Beau Bridges and Bonnie Bedelia, became a TV series in 2008 and sparked a 2017 sequel, A Very Sordid Wedding.
Jordan spun stories recounting from many angles the struggles and successes of a gay man in an often hostile or uncomprehending world. He wrote a play, Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel, and starred in it as the Storyteller, a gay man who has died of a drug overdose in Atlanta; it became a 2001 film.
In 2004 he toured Like a Dog on Linoleum, a one-man show in which he was accompanied by a gospel choir. His 2008 memoir, My Trip Down the Pink Carpet, became another one-man show, which was released as a film in 2010.
He often attributed his acting success to the ability to amuse he developed as a survival mechanism as a child.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, he was the eldest of three children, and grew up in Chattanooga, where his father, Allen Jordan, a strict disciplinarian, was an officer in the Air Force reserve. His mother, Peggy Ann (nee Griffin), was loving, but confused by her son.
One summer he was sent to an all-boys camp for toughening up; all the other attendees received trophies for their achievements, and, just as his father had finally given up, Leslie was named best all-around camper, because he could make everyone else laugh.
When Leslie was 11, his father died in a plane crash. After Brainerd high school he studied theatre at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, and considered a career as a jockey, but getting lighter and stronger would have been a challenge. He decided to pursue acting.
In 1982 he chose Los Angeles over New York (“so I could fail with a tan”), arriving with money sewn into his jacket by his mother. He started acting lessons, and quickly broke into commercials. Within eight months he had eight national TV ads, including playing the elevator operator to Hamburger Hell in a Taco Bell commercial.
The residual money had its effects. Jordan developed alcohol and drug problems, and was arrested six times for driving under the influence. “If you want to get sober, try 27 days in the LA men’s county jail,” he said, though it would be years before he was sober. In one of his stays in lock-up, he was moved from his cell and his bunk taken over by the actor Robert Downey Jr.
In 2014 he travelled to Britain, to take part in Celebrity Big Brother, and to play a character called Buck A Roo in two episodes of the sitcom Benidorm (2015). He was in the Sky TV series Living the Dream (2017-19), set in a Florida trailer park, and achieved every actor’s dream as Benjamin Franklin in The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time (2018).
Jordan turned his Instagram greeting, How Y’All Doing?, into the title of a memoir published in 2021, by which time he was back in LA starring in another sitcom, Call Me Kat. He died on his way to taping the show, when he lost control of his car.
He is survived by two sisters, Janet and Jana.
• Leslie Jordan, actor and writer, born 29 April 1955; died 24 October 2022