Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name�On TV


By Editors

Over the past few decades, we Americans have watched an awful lot of TV. And, right before our steady gaze, we've watched it grow up. While many of us take positive portrayals of openly gay characters for granted on primetime television these days, it wasn't so long ago that this was considered unthinkable. In fact it wasn't until the 1970s'that golden decade of taboo-smashing comedy series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, Maude, and Soap'that gay characters began poking out of the closet, paving the way for the likes of Ellen, Will & Grace, Six Feet Under, Queer As Folk, and The L Word.

Though Billy Crystal's 'bergay Jodie Dallas on Soap is widely acknowledged as the first openly queer character to regularly appear on a network TV series, it was actually the late, sad-faced character actor Vincent Schiavelli who got there first, playing a homo set designer named Peter Panama in ABC's short-lived and barely noticed 1972 sitcom The Corner Bar. But Soap, which ran on ABC from '77 through '81 (and is still seen in reruns), made the lasting impression.

'We became an icon to the gay community,' recalls Soap producer Paul Junger Witt. 'Billy Crystal has a level of humanity and warmth in him that took this character that most of America had never seen before'and might very well be shocked by'and ingratiated himself with the audience almost immediately.' But not before an initial firestorm ensued'not only from Jerry Falwell and the mobilizing religious right, but from the newly empowered gay community itself, who feared more negative stereotyping.

As former ABC programming chief Fred Silverman saw it, '[Jodie] initially seemed very, very, very flamboyant and bizarre. But then you really got to know and understand the character, 'cause [series creator Susan Harris] really did write very dimensional characters. These weren't caricatures.'

To allay their fears, Harris and Junger-Witt met with concerned gay groups and pleaded for patience in allowing Jodie to develop. 'It's very hard, in one episode or two episodes, when you're faced with 14 characters, to paint three-dimensional ones,' Harris explains. 'So we said, 'Wait until we have a few more episodes, and you'll see.' And he did become a human being.'