The Long Road Back
By Nelson Branco
With subplots involving alien abductions, rogue clones, and vampires in the everything-goes world of soap operas, it takes more than faking your own death in a drunk-driving accident to get a rise out of veteran daytime television fans. But when your character returns from the grave after two decades and immediately saunters out of the closet, viewers tend to take notice.
Which is exactly what happened last July when Thom Bierdz reprised his role as Phillip Chancellor III on The Young and the Restless and made history as both the first out daytime TV actor and the first out actor to play a gay character on a soap.
In 1989, the then-closeted Bierdz left Y&R after starring on the show for three years. But the drama followed him offscreen when, just weeks after his departure, his youngest brother, Troy, a paranoid schizophrenic, beat their mother to death with a baseball bat. Then, in 2002, the actor's other brother, Craig, committed suicide. To cope with the tragedies, Bierdz -- who first picked up a paintbrush when he was 6 -- began painting full-time.
'By letting my subconscious tell me what colors to use where and what forms to make with my brush, I unknowingly released many emotions onto the canvas,' he says. 'Afterward, I could see my life and family very specifically in the images. It was something I did just because I loved it.'
Bierdz also penned a memoir, Forgiving Troy, and in 2003 he came out in Soap Opera Weekly. 'I was always scared because I was a closeted gay soap star living in a straight world,' says Bierdz, whose management warned him to keep quiet about his sexuality or risk jeopardizing his career. 'I knew I could never bring my lover to Y&R events or discuss my personal life. I had to take fake girlfriends to industry parties and lie to fans who asked me if I had a girlfriend.'
Meanwhile, as Bierdz was adjusting to life off-camera and out of the closet, soap operas were slowly growing gayer. It took close to 40 years, but in 1988 daytime television welcomed its first gay character on As the World Turns. In 1992, a still relatively unknown Ryan Phillipe played a closeted teen whose sexuality polarized the fictional town of Llanview on One Life to Live. Toward the end of the decade, with more and more women working outside the home, the birth of the 500-channel universe, and real-life dramas like the O.J. Simpson trial clogging the airwaves, producers continued to introduce gay storylines in hopes of hooking new viewers and resuscitating ratings.
And it worked. Today most of the major soaps feature queer characters, including Guiding Light's Olivia and Natalia, who catapulted to the top of fan magazine polls as daytime's hottest couple soon after their debut in 2008. Likewise, As the World Turns's Noah and Luke, affectionately renamed 'Nuke' by fans, became so popular they secured their own YouTube channel and in 2007, when the show's owner, Procter and Gamble, forbid kissing scenes for the couple, fans put pressure on the company until it relented and lifted the ban.
'It's just smart business,' says Soap Opera Digest's editorial director Lynn Leahey. 'Creatively, gay stories put a new twist on the tired soap tale, which can immediately boost the energy of a show and generate mainstream press.'
So when Y&R head writer and executive producer Maria Arena Bell called Bierdz for a lunch date in February, the timing seemed perfect for a comeback. By the time the check came he had rejoined the cast. 'It was a no-brainer,' Bierdz says, adding that he recognizes the debt he owes to those who paved the way for his return. 'I never thought being an out star playing a gay role would be possible,' he admits. 'I doubt I'd be back on Y&R without the insane success of Nuke. All it takes is for one soap to prove it can be done and then the rest follow.'