Today in Gay History: Billy Crystal Goes Gay, Proudly
By Andrew Belonsky
Conservatives screamed and gays held their breath when satirical soap opera Soap premiered on September 13, 1977, thus introducing the nation to Jodie Dallas, a gay man played by then-unknown Billy Crystal. While the right was worried about nebulous "eroding morality," gays feared a stereotypical portrayal. In many ways, it was the gay groups's prophecies that came true: Jodie's initial proclivity for dressing as a woman and his suicidal tendencies fit a pejorative mould, and later stories involving heterosexual love weren't necessarily the most progressive either. But Crystal's touching, emotive portrayal made these plot lines palatable and, most importantly, understandable. It was Crystal who took a character who could have been a complete pathology and made him one of the show's most admirable personalities. While some actors would have shied away from a gay character, Crystal went at it full-throttle —on stage and off.
In July of 1978, Crystal told the newspaper The Hour, "I get teased a lot about playing Jodie, but it's usually good-natured and it doesn't bother me a bit." That same month, between the Soap's first and second seasons, Crystal told the Boca Raton News that he wouldn't mind Jodie being the season one cliffhanger's killer. He just wanted to make sure the motive wasn't derogatory: "I just wouldn't want Jodie to kill for the wrong reason, like a homosexual rage. That would reduce the whole thing to neuroticism." Jodie was not, it turned out, the killer. He would also later become more comfortable with gay pride and would even show a suicidal lesbian the lavender light.
In honor of Crystal's courage, and in celebration of Jodie, who, as one of the first gay characters on primetime* laid the groundwork for generations of LGBT characters, some even more stereotypical than he, here are five clips of Crystal doing his thing in Soap. Like so many of creator Susan Harris's shows — The Golden Girls, for example — Soap stands the test of time.
(*While Jodie's the most well-known early gay character, the short-lived 1972 show The Corner Bar featured actor Vincent Schiavelli as a gay man named Peter Panama.)