Though openly-gay Newsweek journalist Ramin Setoodeh’s infamous 2010 article “Straight Jacket” was certainly a misguided piece of criticism, it unfortunately brought to light an all-too-common misconception held by both Hollywood decision makers and members of the public at large – that gay actors are incapable of adequately portraying straight characters on-screen.
History, of course, shows that ludicrous assertion to be entirely false – particularly considering the number of closeted gay actors from earlier eras who vaulted to stardom specifically because they were able to convincingly portray straight romantic leads.
Of course, those were much more intolerant times – times in which actors were continuously pressured to hide their sexuality for fear they’d be rejected if the truth came out (a sadly valid point in those days). Now, however – while we still have a long way to go – there’s an emerging crop of openly-gay actors who are proving it’s possible to thrive in Hollywood despite the public’s awareness of their sexual orientation.
In honor of these brave individuals – and of those actors from past eras who were forced to hide their sexuality for fear of public persecution – we’ve compiled an alphabetical list of twelve thespians (both past and present) who demonstrate that, just as straight actors have proven adept at convincingly “playing gay” in films such as Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain and I Love You Philip Morris, gay actors are likewise more than capable of effectively inhabiting the on-screen lives of straight characters.
Famed British actor Dirk Bogarde’s native stardom shot to the stratosphere with his leading roles in several romantic comedies, beginning with the 1954 box-office hit Doctor in the House. As medical student/straight bachelor Dr. Simon Sparrow, Bogarde was able to showcase both his deft comic skills and leading-man chops in the film, which proved so successful he would go on to reprise the role three more times.
And though he would subsequently “play gay” in several movies beginning with 1961’s The Victim, it’s indicative of Bogarde’s supreme acting prowess that of his six BAFTA nominations for Best Actor, four of them came from playing straight men.
Springboarding to “teen idol” status with his role as young medical intern Dr. Kildare on the hit 1960s TV series of the same name, the breathtakingly-handsome Richard Chamberlain later went on to star as hunky Father Ralph de Bricassart in the blockbuster 1983 TV miniseries The Thorn Birds. In his effortlessly-credible portrayal of a conflicted priest falling desperately in love with the beautiful Meggie Cleary, Chamberlain won the hearts of female viewers everywhere – which must have made it all the more shocking when he was outed by French women’s magazine Nous Deux in 1989 (though Chamberlain wouldn’t publicly acknowledge the fact until nearly 15 years later).
Landing his first major role in the 1995 Parker Posey vehicle Party Girl as a struggling (and straight) New York DJ, Guillermo Diaz went on to nab supporting parts in a string of films and TV shows that almost invariably featured him as a macho criminal type.
This later culminated with his three-season arc as Guillermo, the hardened L.A.-based leader of a Mexican drug cartel, in the hit Showtime series Weeds opposite Mary-Louise Parker. While he’s played his share of gay men (including homosexual drag queen “La Miranda” in 1995’s Stonewall), Diaz has proved adept at utilizing his tough-guy exterior to play a series of butch hetero characters throughout his career.
One of the actors singled out in Ramin Setoodeh’s notorious Newsweek piece, Jonathan Groff has nevertheless become a sex symbol for men and women alike thanks to his performance as the hunky (and straight) Jesse St. James on Glee. Despite Setoodeh’s assertion that on the show “he seems more like your average theater queen, a better romantic match for Kurt than Rachel,” most fans of the show would likely counter that by pointing to Groff’s convincing love scenes opposite former Spring Awakening co-star Lea Michele. The producers of the show seem to agree, as Groff will be reprising his role in the series later on this season.
Neil Patrick Harris
Previously best known as the eponymous teenage medical prodigy in the hit series Doogie Howser, MD, Neil Patrick Harris has more recently gone on to win acclaim for his portrayal of skirt-chaser Barney Stinson on the long-running CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. His confirmation to People magazine in 2006 that he was gay certainly didn’t hurt the ratings for the show, which continues to post strong audience numbers in its sixth season and was recently renewed for two more. Much of this is undeniably due to Harris’ winning performance as the unrepentant womanizer, which has so far netted him four Primetime Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations.
What’s there left to say about Rock Hudson? He was unequivocally one of the greatest movie stars of the 1950s – a gorgeous leading man who made his name on playing suitor to such top female actresses as Doris Day and Elizabeth Taylor. Despite his sexuality being an “open secret” in Hollywood, so convincing were his portrayals that he became one of the dominant male sex symbols of the era.
One need only witness his palpable chemistry with his female co-stars in films like Pillow Talk, Giant, and Magnificent Obsession to understand how a man leading a gay off-screen lifestyle could’ve held such romantic appeal for legions of adoring female fans.
One of Warner Bros.’ top male stars in the mid-late 1950s, Tab Hunter’s golden good looks allowed him to prosper in several films that played upon his All-American “boy-next-door” persona. These included Battle Cry, in which he portrayed a young military recruit torn between the love of two women, romantic comedy The Girl He Left Behind opposite Natalie Wood, and That Kind of Woman with Italian sex bomb Sophia Loren.
Though tabloid rag Confidential alluded to his sexuality in 1955 by reporting on his arrest for disorderly conduct at an all-male “pajama party,” Hunter’s career was saved due to the mainstream media’s failure to pick up the story.
Starring as anxious surgical resident George O’Malley in the hit ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy for five seasons, T.R. Knight became a sex symbol of sorts for women attracted to his accessible good looks and unassuming demeanor. It wasn’t until an on-set incident in 2006, in which co-star Isaiah Washington reportedly referred to Knight with a homophobic slur, that the actor officially came out as gay, though if anything, the controversy helped bring him to further prominence.
Unlike in an earlier era in which he would’ve been written off the show as a result, Knight continued engaging in believable on-screen affairs with several of his female Grey’s co-stars.
As squeaky-clean architect Mike Brady on the ABC sitcom The Brady Bunch for five seasons, actor Robert Reed was the on-screen epitome of the “perfect” suburban husband and father – handsome, loving, and stern only when necessary.
Off-screen, however, Reed was by most accounts a deeply conflicted gay man who remained fearful of being exposed throughout his life. Though the Shakespeare-trained stage actor reportedly despised his most famous role, regularly throwing tantrums on set over the show’s vanilla plotlines, he ironically came to define domestic bliss for a generation of TV viewers.
Known to sci-fi geeks around the world for his role as Mr. Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek series (as well as the first six films), Japanese-American actor George Takei was sadly never given an opportunity to show off his chops as a romantic leading man (though he did grope crew-mate Uhura in the “Naked Time” episode, in which an inhibition-lowering virus invades the ship, and in one of the movies was revealed to have fathered a daughter).
Nevertheless, he unfailingly managed to convey a cool-as-ice masculine authority throughout his Star Trek run – a composed bravado he has parlayed into his current off-screen role as a staunch advocate for gay rights with long-time partner (and now husband) Brad Altman.
With his unabashedly boyish good looks (those ears!), English actor Russell Tovey has quickly risen to “sex symbol” status with his role as werewolf George Sands on the hit BBC series Being Human. Though part of his attractiveness undeniably lies in that cute little bum (regularly flaunted on the show in all its naked glory), it’s Tovey’s brand of goofy sex appeal that truly makes him the object of adoration for so many.
And despite what conventional “wisdom” might say, the actor’s public coming-out certainly hasn’t hurt his following with women – which probably has something to do with how convincingly he plays his on-screen romance with co-star Sinead Keenan.
Coming to minor attention as one of Diahann Carroll’s love interests in the groundbreaking late ‘60s/early ‘70s TV series Julia, late actor Paul Winfield later scored an Oscar nomination for his role in 1972’s Sounder, in which he played a Depression-era Louisiana sharecropper who is jailed after he steals a ham to feed his starving family. One of the rare-African American actors to play leading roles at a time in which those opportunities were generally reserved for whites only, the actor’s sexuality was not widely known to the public during his career, though he remained in a committed relationship with partner Charles Gillian for three decades until Gillian’s death in 2002.