Neil Patrick Harris is riding high these days. But in years past, if the average person sitting in his or her Barcalounger knew a TV star was gay, it would have been disastrous for both series and star.
Neil Patrick Harris' career is red-hot. He's won rave reviews as the host of the Tonys, the Emmys, and the TV Land Awards, and this year he received nominations from the Television Critics Award, the Golden Globes, the People's Choice Awards, and the Emmys (his third consecutive) for his portrayal of uber-heterosexual Barney Stinson on CBS' How I Met Your Mother. PopMatter's own Samantha Bornemann called his performance as the bed-'em-and-leave-'em womanizer "scene stealing." (How I Met Your Mother: 'Ted's Quest')
When Harris was cast in the role that would forever allow him to escape the mantle of Doogie Howser, he wasn't yet an out gay man. Consequently, his revelation in 2006 made some fans of the show take notice. A gay man was playing a sexist heterosexual pig? Convincingly? (For those still shocked, it's called "acting".) Not only is Harris believable in this role, it's clear from his on-screen performance and off-screen interviews that he is having a blast doing it.
Of course, Harris isn't the only homosexual actor in recent years to play straight on TV. As elfish intern George O'Malley, T.R. Knight bedded three of the female cast members on Grey's Anatomy, and Sara Gilbert has hooked up with Johnny Galecki on both Roseanne and The Big Bang Theory. Portia de Rossi has established a long list of frosty straight women on such shows as Ally McBeal and Arrested Development. And Amanda Bearse of Married with Children became the first prime-time star to come out while still on a series, 16 years ago.
These actors enjoy a luxury not available to the stars of the past -- the opportunity to be 'out' and still enjoy a thriving career without being stereotyped in effeminate or butch roles. Previously, gay and lesbian actors could be out, just as long as no one in the public knew. Co-stars, friends, and family may have been privy to the information, but if the average person sitting in his or her Barcalounger knew the truth, it would have been disastrous for the series and the star.
There were those actors and public personalities about whom there was little doubt, such as Paul Lynde, but generally these stars didn't assume leading romantic roles. Far more common was the actor who hid his or her sexuality, especially when the actor became a bankable star. Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Dirk Bogarde, and Tallulah Bankhead are just a few of the many stars who kept their sexual orientation secret in order to hold on to their careers. For them, public knowledge could have meant ruin, simply because they wouldn't have been hired.
For television stars, the pressure was greater. Not only would being outed have meant the end of their careers, it would have meant the end of their series, resulting in unemployment for the dozens of people who worked on the show. Rock Hudson made the shift from film to television in the early '70s, where he continued to play the romantic lead, opposite a much younger Susan Saint James in McMillan and Wife, but it wasn't until he was dying of AIDS in the mid-'80s that his sexual orientation became public knowledge. However, he was the hardly the first gay actor to play straight on TV.
Among the first was Sheila James Kuehl, who played tomboyish Zelda, longing for love with the lead character in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. For four seasons, and later in reunion shows, Kuehl's character lusted after Dobie (Dwayne Hickman), never landing the guy, though. The character of Zelda was so popular that a spin-off was planned for her; however, network executives nixed the idea because they found her to be "too butch".
Sheila James Kuehl
In an interview late in his life, Sargent admitted that his homosexuality was no secret on the set: "(Series star Elizabeth Montgomery) knew because my lover was alive when we did Bewitched. We would go to parties with her and her husband and at each other's houses and we played tennis together. That sort of thing. She really loved my lover very much." ("No More 'Straight Man': Dick Sargent Is Out and Proud", GLBTQ) Sargent and partner Albert Williams lived together for the entire run of the series and beyond, until Williams' death in 1980.
Although he assumed a fatherly role to the "Brady" kids away from the set, he never divulged his orientation to them or others. It wasn't until he was days from dying that he notified co-star Florence Henderson that he had AIDS, asking her to share the news with the now-grown kids. Reed reportedly frequented gay bars, but aside from a brief marriage in the late '50s, he never enjoyed a sustained relationship.
Like Kuehl, Kulp became politically active after her series ended, running for office several times, although her attempts were never successful. Unlike Kuehl, though, Kulp remained guarded about her sexual orientation. Late in her life, she told an interviewer who had inquired about the subject: "I'd appreciate it if you'd let me phrase the question. There is more than one way. Here's how I would ask it: 'Do you think that opposites attract?' My own reply would be that I'm the other sort -- I find that birds of a feather flock together. That answers your question." When pressed on the subject, she stated that at her age, admitting to something of that nature seemed to imply that one was embarrassed of his or her life. ("Kulp, Nancy", GLBTQ, 2005)
These four were not the only gay or lesbian actors on TV in its early days. (For instance, Raymond Burr had a 40-year relationship with his partner, but his most notable roles -- in Perry Mason and Ironside -- were largely asexual.) The importance of these four actors is that they established nearly 50 years ago that gay performers could play straight convincingly. That they were able to do so while facing the extraordinary pressure to keep their true personas hidden from the public is further testament to the strength of their performances.
So, we celebrate Neil Patrick Harris' success and laud him for making us believe that Barney Stinson is a boob-loving, think-with-his-penis heterosexual. But the hard work was done long before he arrived on the scene -- long, even, before he was born. Ultimately, though, he is no different than any out, proud and successful gay man or woman; the road we travel was paved by others long before us.