Over the past few decades, we Americans have watched an awful lot of TV. And, right before our steady gaze, weve watched it grow up. While many of us take positive portrayals of openly gay characters for granted on primetime television these days, it wasnt so long ago that this was considered unthinkable. In fact it wasnt until the 1970sthat golden decade of taboo-smashing comedy series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, Maude, and Soapthat 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 Crystals 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 ABCs 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 beforeand might very well be shocked byand ingratiated himself with the audience almost immediately. But not before an initial firestorm ensuednot 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 werent caricatures.
To allay their fears, Harris and Junger-Witt met with concerned gay groups and pleaded for patience in allowing Jodie to develop. Its very hard, in one episode or two episodes, when youre faced with 14 characters, to paint three-dimensional ones, Harris explains. So we said, Wait until we have a few more episodes, and youll see. And he did become a human being.
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 werent in it to try to make social points along the way, other than the obvious womens rights issues.
Nevertheless, Mary introduced one of the earliest positive portrayals of a queer character to the small screena full five years before Soap.
In the episode My Brothers 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 brotheruntil 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, Ill just have to accept that its you thats going to marry Ben. I said, Im not going to marry Ben! And then she gets insulted: Why not!? Hes handsome, hes successful, hes educated Hes gay. Oh, Rhoda! Im 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, Im so relieved. When I said, Hes 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, youd have subliminally known what was going on anyway. Robert Moore wasnt effeminate, but he was a good-looking guy who wasnt 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. Whats 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.
Neuwirths new book, Theyll Never Put That On the Air: An Oral History of Taboo-Breaking TV Comedy (Allworth Press), is now available. Purchase a copy here.