Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name'On TV
By Out.com Editors
The Mary Tyler Moore Show is still remembered and loved for its wonderful cast, brilliantly funny writing, and the first sustained portrayal of unapologetically single working women as lead characters. But politics were not its strong suit. 'We really tried to keep politics out of the show,' says Allan Burns, who created the famed series with James L. Brooks. 'We weren't in it to try to make social points along the way, other than the obvious women's rights issues.'
Nevertheless, Mary introduced one of the earliest positive portrayals of a queer character to the small screen'a full five years before Soap.
In the episode 'My Brother's Keeper,' written and filmed in 1972, Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) introduces her brother Ben (gay actor/director Robert Moore) to Mary, hoping that the two will hit it off. Instead, Ben bonds with flamboyant, witty, self-deprecating Rhoda (Valerie Harper)'whom Phyllis despises. Throughout the show, she must resign herself to the idea that her nemesis may end up with her brother'until the final moments, when the truth comes out. Literally.
Harper vividly recalls the episode as one of her favorites: 'Phyllis gets tipsy and drunk at the last party, and says, 'Well, Rhoda, I'll just have to accept that it's you that's going to marry Ben.' I said, 'I'm not going to marry Ben!' And then she gets insulted: 'Why not!? He's handsome, he's successful, he's educated'' 'He's gay.' 'Oh, Rhoda! I'm so relieved!' That was the joke: better gay than married to dumb, awful Rhoda. But the laugh came early! We were thinking that the laugh would land on, 'Oh, Rhoda, I'm so relieved.' When I said, 'He's gay,' the audience went berserk! They shrieked. They screamed, they laughed, they had release. Suddenly the whole show made sense!'
It was a simple punchline. If you were watching and you were hip at all, you'd have subliminally known what was going on anyway. Robert Moore wasn't effeminate, but he was a good-looking guy who wasn't married at the age of 40.
We all knew. America may not have known, but we knew. The difference was, The Mary Tyler Moore Show actually came out and said it. What's more, the actor was thrilled to play the part. 'Bob said, 'Be still, my heart!' He had always wanted to be able to say that on national television, for people to know that he was gay,' Burns remembers. 'And that meant a great deal to him.'
Neuwirth's new book, They'll Never Put That On the Air: An Oral History of Taboo-Breaking TV Comedy (Allworth Press), is now available. Purchase a copy here.