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Homosexuality - In the early days of TV, characters could not be openly gay, but they could strut about the stage, talk with a lisp and act flamboyant as long as they kept up the illusion that they were still straight. Of course, clever TV viewers could tell the difference and gave a quiet wink, wink to the situation.

Ernie Kovacs as Percy Dovetonsils
Ernie Kovacs as Percy Dovetonsils

An early example of an effeminate homosexual-like character was Percy Dovetonsils, a silly, lisping poet created by comedian Ernie Kovacs who frist appeared on THREE TO GET READY on WPTZ in Philadelphia (the station that is now KYW-TV) during the 1950s. Percy who puffed on cigarettes through a long black cigarette holder, sported a mustache, curly bangs, a black and white striped smoking jacket,  and reading glasses with two sleepy eyelids painted on the lenses. Percy read poems like "Ode to Spring" from his lace covered poetry book. With few exceptions to Percy Dovetonsils, the appearances of homosexual characters were virtually non-existent until the 1970s.

The following is a synopsis of some homosexually-oriented movies and TV spots from the 1970s to the present.

  • The first made-for-television movie to deal candidly with the topic of homosexuality was the ABC network film That Certain Summer (11/01/72) about a divorced father whose teenage son was devastated when he discovered his dad was gay. The movie starred Hal Holbrook, Martin Sheen and Scott Jacoby. (The first American feature film about homosexuality was Joseph Mankiewicz's 1959 movie Suddenly Last Summer).
  • Other movies on this touchy topic include Sergeant Matlovich vs. The U.S. Air Force (8/21/78) starring Brad Dourif, Frank Converse and William Daniels based on the factual struggle of an Air Force sergeant who admitted he was a homosexual and then attempted to stay in the service; and Question of Love (11/26/78) starring Gena Rowlands, Jane Alexander and Ned Beatty about a Lesbian mother who fought for custody of her son from her ex-husband. In 1985, the horror of AIDS made its way to television on news reports and special movie presentations such as An Early Frost (11/11/85) which mirrored a family's pain when their lawyer son (who had kept his homosexuality a secret) announced he had contracted AIDS. The movie walked the rope between condemning the disease and romanticizing homosexuality so as not to upset the viewing audience. The film's message emphasized "This is not a gay movie, it is a family tragedy." Ben Gazzara & Gena Rowland played the parents. Aidan Quenn portrayed their 26 year old gay son.
  • The Truth About Alex which aired on the cable channel HBO (2/23/87) starred Scott Baio in a story about a teenager who found out his best friend was a homosexual.
  • THE CBS SCHOOLBREAK SPECIAL. What If I'm Gay? (4/2/87) portrayed the dilemma of high school student Todd Bowers (Richard J. Paul), the captain of the soccer team with a pretty girlfriend, whose friends find a male pornographic magazine in his room. Todd told them he only bought the magazine for a "great weightlifting article." But his friends were not convinced. His confusion leads him to the school counselor and a discussion of his problem.
  • Producer Norman Lear, the creator of the sitcom ALL IN THE FAMILY/CBS/1971-83, dealt with homosexuality during a controversial episode when Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), a blue-collar bigot discovered that his long-time, seemingly macho friend and former football star was a homosexual.
  • It wasn't until the late 1970s that the first recurring gay character surfaced in the guise of Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal) on the soap opera spoof SOAP/ABC/1977-81.
  • The first running character in a dramatic series who proudly committed to a gay lifestyle was Hank Eliot who appeared in November 1988 on the daytime soap opera AS THE WORLD TURNS.
  • In 1990, the topics of homosexuality caused a frenzy of controversy (angry mail and lost ad revenues) when the ABC domestic drama THIRTYSOMETHING featured a bed scene with two male homosexual characters. The two male characters later reappeared during the 1991 News Years episode where they sort of kissed and made up with out the kiss. Later in the series, Peter (Peter Frechetti) whose bed scene with his lover, Russell in the prior season sent advertisers running, discovered he was HIV positive.
  • The sitcom ROSEANNE/ABC/1988-97 featured the friend of Roseanne Conner named Nancy (Sandra Bernhard), who revealed she was a lesbian on the 11/10/91 episode. Her lover, Marla (Morgan Fairchild) worked as a cosmetics salesgirl at Rodbell's Department Store. This breakthrough casting was the first instance of a regularly recurring lesbian character on a sitcom.
  • The offbeat drama NORTHERN EXPOSURE/CBS/1990-95 featured two homosexuals (Doug Ballard as Ron Bance and Don R. McManus as Erick Hillman) who wanted to buy real estate in the town of Cecily, Alaska owned by Maurice Minnifield, a former astronaut. However, when Maurice discovered their sexual persuasion, he referred to them as "two deviants" whom he had "inadvertently let enter his home." He later talked to the town doctor and stated he never "had a indecent thought about a man," except for the dream where he was mud-wrestling with David Nivens. "Nothing, of course happened," he cried. Despite Maurice's personal objections to the two men, the businessman in him decided to take their money for the property. In May 1994, the two gay men married in an episode touted to be the first gay wedding on prime time network TV.
  • When two black gay men got married on television on a May, 1991 installment of THE PHIL DONAHUE SHOW, later that same evening on THE TONIGHT SHOW, talk show host Johnny Carson joked about the wedding, saying "I don't want to tell you how they chose the best man." and "There were a few touchy moments when Phil caught the bouquet". That same night on another channel, the late night talk show host Arsenio Hall of THE ARSENIO HALL SHOW talked with his audience which included a group of lesbians who proudly wore tee-shirts proclaiming "Queer Nation."
  • SECRET PASSIONS, a gay oriented soap premiered on leased-access channels in January 21, 1990. Eighty percent of the characters were gay, but the majority of the cast was not.
  • In 1997 ABCs NYPD BLUE Det. Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp) was propositioned by fellow officer Abby Sullivan (Paige Turco) to be the father of a child for her lesbian lover.
  • In March 1997 the Showtime cable channel aired the made-for-cable movie The Twilight of the Golds (adapted from a play by Jonathan Tolins) starring Jennifer Beals and Jon Tenney as expectant parents who learned through prenatal tests that their unborn son was to be gay.
  • On April 30th 1997 Ellen DeGeneres the star of ELLEN ABC/1994-98 played a young bookstore owner named Ellen Morgan who finally admitted (with the help of a counselor) that she was a lesbian thus becoming the first lesbian character to star in a lead role in a prime time series. After accidentally announcing her gayness (to Laura Dern) over an open airport microphone she declared "It felt so Great! It felt so LOUD!" Ellen DeGeneras had already announced to the world that she was a lesbian on the front cover of Time magazine. It carried the simple declaration "Yep, I'm Gay."
  • In 1998 the sitcom WILL & GRACE/NBC/1998-2006 offered the storyline about a straight female interior designer and a homosexual male lawyer who shared a life, an apartment and a deep friendship.
  • In the summer of 2005, MTV network launched LOGO, the first 24-hour digital cable network devoted to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. LOGO is targeting viewers 25-to 49-year-olds.

TRIVIA NOTE: In the more tolerant days of the 1980s & 1990s a number of Hollywood actors came out of the "closet" to reveal their homosexual lifestyle to the general public.

Veteran actor Rock Hudson who played Police Commissioner Stewart McMillan on the police drama MCMILLAN AND WIFE disclosed his homosexuality before his death from AIDS in 1985.

Dick Sargent who played Darrin Stephens on the sitcom BEWITCHED publicly declared his homosexuality in 1991 to protest the veto of a gay rights bill proposed by California Governor Pete Wilson.

Robert Reed who played the father of six children on the BRADY BUNCH also was homosexual. He died of AIDS in 1992. See also "Techniques & Devices - "Lesbian Kissing"

Kelly: Tonight, I become a lesbian.
Peggy: I think you mean thespian, dear.

-- Married...With Children

Jack: For your information, most people who meet me do not know that I am gay.
Will: Jack, blind and deaf people know you're gay. Dead people know you're gay.
Jack: Grace, when you first met me, did you know I was gay?
Grace: My dog knew.

-- Will & Grace

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