Vilanch Hosts Lively LGBT TV Retrospect
By Sarah Holbert on May 30, 2008 6:34 PM
On Thursday, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences hosted “LGBT: Above and Below the Line in Prime,” the Academy’s first “state of the union” review and celebration of LGBT contributions to television. Two-time Emmy Award winner Bruce Vilanch jokingly kicked off the evening by announcing his engagement to American Idol winner David Cook.
And thus began a funny, engaging panel discussion about gay and transgender representation on television from the 1970s to today.
The near-capacity crowd at the Academy’s Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre was certainly enthusiastic. GLAAD President Neil G. Giuliano gave the evening’s keynote address. When he referred to Kevin and Scotty’s wedding on Brothers & Sisters and the California Supreme Court marriage decision the audience rose for a standing ovation.
Many actors, writers, showrunners and TV execs participated in the panel, including Billy Crystal, who played the first openly gay series regular character on television. He said that in 1977, he was excited about the prospect of playing Jodie Dallas. “We could do something with this person,” he said. “We could do something important.” He confessed that the cast and crew were nervous at the beginning; Crystal even called them “skittish.” But Soap remained on the air for four seasons, the final season airing with no sponsorship at all, due to many of the controversial storylines, Jodie’s included.
Other actors told their own coming out stories, including Amanda Bearse (Married with Children) and David Marshall Grant (thirtysomething), who is now a producer of Brothers & Sisters. Out comic Ant (Celebrity Fit Club) joked about trying to hide his orientation when he began his standup career, but was too flamboyant to stay in the closet. He blamed it on Hollywood Squares’ Paul Lynde, proclaiming, “Come on! The center square was my role model!”
Transgender actresses Candis Cayne (Dirty Sexy Money) and Alexandra Billings (Grey’s Anatomy, ER) talked about the importance — and pressure — of being role models today to young trans kids. Billings also expressed the need for transgender performers everywhere to be viewed not exclusively as trans actors playing transgender roles, but as simply working actors. “We have to integrate ourselves artistically,” Billings said. She joked that there were exactly five working transgender actors in the business and that is simply unacceptable. The time for visibility and equality has arrived.
Also on the panel were Deondray Gossett and Quincy LeNear, creators of the GLAAD Media Award-winning The DL Chronicles (here! TV). They talked about the difficulty of being a “double minority,” both gay and African American. Meredith Kadlec, VP of here! Productions, said she wholeheartedly supported the show, knowing that though the subject matter could be considered controversial, it was an important story to tell. “The fact that we exist as a non ad-supported network,” she said, “we can take the chances that we do.”
Robert Greenblatt, President of Entertainment at Showtime Networks, echoed that sentiment. Because Showtime is a subscription network, he realizes he can air groundbreaking series like Queer As Folk and The L Word, calling them “revolutionary,” but cautioning, “I don’t know if there will ever be another show with eight gay characters again.”
Most panelists agreed television is moving in a direction in which LGBT characters are woven into the fabric of a series, like Dirty Sexy Money or Weeds. “You don’t need to be a visionary,” said DSM creator Craig Wright. “You just need to know what people want to see.”
Vilanch closed the evening by saying, “Be true to yourself. Write it that way. Produce it that way. The single most important thing you can do as a gay person is come out.”