Friday, May 05, 2017

Any Gay You Can Get It

Growing up gay in the '70s and '80s meant getting your acknowledgement -- that wasn't being called a "fag" in the hallway at school -- where you could. The Decider remembers one of those nascent television moments, the infamous "My Brother's Keeper" episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" that originally aired in 1973, where Phyllis's dream of setting her brother Ben up with Mary unravels when he finds Rhoda more engaging. While more subtle than the "Judging Books by Covers" episode of "All in the Family" -- Richard Nixon even got angry when Archie learned his macho football-playing friend is gay -- or any of the episodes about his relationship with Beverly LaSalle (the female impersonator on whom Archie performs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation), Robert Moore's turn as Phyllis's brother was just what a gay boy from Michizona needed at the time (in reruns) to not feel so alone in the world. 

Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal) and Donald (Philip Charles MacKenzie) -- who first played Jack to Cliff's (Paul Regina) Will on Showtime's "Brothers" -- were also a nod, even if they used to make me sweat whenever they came on the screen. 

... and don't get me started about Stephen Strucker from "Airplane"! Although I was so naive when I first saw it I thought he was imitating Mister Rogers, of which you can make what you will. 

And does anyone remember when Mel tried to fix Alice up with a football-player friend (played by Denny Miller) who turned out to be light in the loafers?

Or femme burglar Marty (Jack DeLeon) and his lover, Darryl (Ray Stewart), on "Barney Miller"?

In Valerie Harper's sweet 2013 memoir, "I, Rhoda," she recounted an interesting detail about the episode:
Though [creators] Jim [Brooks] and Allan [Burns] were firmly in charge, they also welcomed our input on how we would deliver certain lines. We were able to offer our emphasis and intention, and if it was funny, the guys welcomed it. After all, we were the ones who had gotten to know each of our characters intimately. This was particularly interesting in the episode when Phyllis tries to set up her brother, Ben, with Mary, only to discover that he's more interested in hanging out with Rhoda. Naturally, this horrifies Phyllis. At the end of the episode, Phyllis tells Rhoda in her own spectacularly condescending way that she's OK with her brother marrying Rhoda, to which Rhoda replies, "Phyllis, I'm not going to marry Ben."  
"Why not?" Phyllis says defensively. "My brother is successful. He's handsome. He's intelligent." 
"He's gay," Rhoda says. 
Before filming, Jim, Allan and I had a discussion with [director] Jay [Sandrich] about how Rhoda should deliver the line. Should she break the news to Phyllis gently? Should she whisper it, to be discreet? I felt Rhoda would be matter-of-fact and not tiptoe around the issue. We all agreed that Rhoda didn't think Ben's being gay was a bad thing. It just made marriage impossible. As in, he's a priest. He's married. He's moving to Tibet. 
The audience didn't see it coming. They roared. The laughter went on so long that Cloris and I had to keep on acting silently until she could deliver her rejoinder. "Oh, Rhoda, I'm so relieved." Anything was better to Phyllis than her brother marrying "dumb awful" Rhoda. 

Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon as seen on "The Funny Side" in 1971. McMahon died in 2015.

Incidentally, the guy who played Ben -- who first made a name for himself by directing the landmark play "The Boys in the Band" -- must have struck up a real-life friendship with the thoroughly modern Valerie (her book reveals her to be a lifelong champion of civil and LGBT rights) because he ended up directing 27 episodes of her "Rhoda" spinoff. The Decider piece makes a point of noting that the "My Brother's Keeper" episode was written by a male-female duo (Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon) that were likely a real-life Will and Grace. (They also wrote for "The Carol Burnett Show" and co-created "The Facts of Life," "It's a Living" and "Mama Family.") But it's also worth (sadly) mentioning that both Robert Moore and Dick Clair died of AIDS -- Moore succumbed to AIDS-related pneumonia in New York City in 1984 and Clair died in 1988 after multiple AIDS-related infections, which was the other side of the coin of knowing about anyone gay back then. (RIP: Rock Hudson, Robert Reed, Lance Loud, Perry Ellis, Freddie Mercury, Anthony Perkins, Ricky Wilson, Brad Davis, Halston, Nureyev, Peter Allen, Liberace, Leigh Bowery, Tony Richardson -- and sassy airport employee Stephen Strucker, who was just 38 when he died in 1986.)

The article also talks about the "Cheers" episode called "The Boys in the Bar," which I need to track down. (I was curiously not that big of a fan of the show.) But while writing this piece I looked it up and guess what? The baseball player who inspired it, Glenn Burke, also died of AIDS, in 1995. What a very dark, dark time in our collective gay history. How fortunate we are that the current generation of LGBT kids have healthy role models from all walks of life, and are often in a better position to be living their lives openly, unashamed and without the constant fear of impending doom hanging over them.

Read HERE.


Unknown said...

It's early for me here so not sure if I am misinterpreting what you said about Brothers, but Cliff Water's best friend was Donald. Joe (and Lou) were Cliff's brothers. And, frankly, while I found Donald to be way too stereotypically effeminate, he was very much an excellent "role model" for any gay person to aspire to. Strong-willed, self-assured and not self-hating, he was great. Of course, if your point was that Cliff was not a good role model (he was wishy-washy, confused, and still very awkward with his being gay), I kind of get that. But his character had just come out of the closet on the first episode, so a lot of that could be excused. Plus, Paul Regina was hot, so his character (who was also super boring), gets a pass from me. :-) And Billy Crystal--after the foot in-mouth disease outbreak when he complained about gays on TV--and the fake apology where he blatantly lied about "what he meant"--is personna non grata (or however it's spelled. It's too early for me to care enough to look it up.)

Unknown said...

Oh, and the Cheers episode was very good, if depressing because everyone in the bar was so homophobic, except Diane and, eventually, Sam. But the show came around and was very gay-friendly later. The episode with Harvey Fierstein was great and there eventually was a regular gay bar fly on from time-to-time. I did a paper/video presentation on gays on TV in college and remember all of these shows/characters/episodes well.

jaragon said...

Very good post

jaragon said...

There was a series about journalist which did not last very long- but it did have an episode about a gay cop

Bill Carter said...

Much as I enjoyed most of "Cheers," I can never forgive the writers for their disgusting fondness for prison rape "jokes".

rob said...

This is one of my favorite posts, Kenneth. Happy Jazz Fest!

Shawn Cullen said...

What a great post! I wasn't much of a Cheers fan, either, but this episode was memorable. Such a dark, sad time those years of the AIDS plague were! One reads to forget until we are reminded of all those who died too young.