Way before characters—and actors—could be out of the closet, there was a spate of them on TV that gave every indication of being gay without actually saying so. For the generation that grew up without a lot of LGBT visibility, these coded personas provided some refreshing gayness in an otherwise exclusively hetero landscape. The dishonestly opaque way they were presented made them a titillating taunt rather than a liberating breakthrough, but they still made a difference. Here’s a dozen of the most memorable ones (and by the way, some of the characters were given opposite-sex love interests, but that didn’t fool me a bit):
Dr. Zachary Smith on Lost in SpaceCBS Photo Archive/Getty
A queeny, scheming doctor in a shiny silver bodysuit, running behind a rock with a boy in outer space? “Danger, Will Robinson” indeed. Even costar June Lockhart said she thought the character was gay. As played by Jonathan Harris in the the 1960s sitcom, the Doc had major gayface.
Mr. BelvedereGeorge Rose/Getty
Clifton Webb played the starchy English housekeeper in the movies. On the sitcom version (1985-’90), it was Christopher Hewett, who flamed up a storm in the role. In real life a “confirmed bachelor,” Hewett had played the gayer than gay director Roger De Bris in the original movie of The Producers, so this was not exactly a stretch.
Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke ShowCBS via Getty
In the 1960s, the gayest thing on the air was Mel (pictured: left), the extremely mannered and imperious TV producer on Van Dyke’s hit sitcom. Bald and bespectacled Richard Deacon played the part with a noticeably swishy demeanor. He went on to play Kaye Ballard’s husband, Roger Buell, in The Mothers-In-Law (1968-9), replacing the equally campy Roger C. Carmel in the role.
Big Al, The Sportcaster on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-InNBCU Photo Bank
As played by funny man Alan Sues on the hit late ‘60s/early ‘70s show of wacky sketches and shticks, Al was an effeminate sportscaster who absolutely loved ringing the bell. Another of Sues’ characters on the show was a guy who swaggers into a bar in the Old West and orders a frozen daiquiri. These people were clearly gay, and so was Alan, who was married to a woman for a time, but dated men on the side. Sadly, the comic felt the need to give interviews boasting about what a straight stud he was. Even sadder, he became overcome with what he felt was the homophobic slant of the material he was given to do. Sues died in 2011.
Uncle Arthur on BewitchedSilver Screen Collection/Getty
From ’65 to ’71, Bewitched—with Elizabeth Montgomery as a witch-slash-housewife—was gay destination TV, thanks to supporting players like Agnes Moorehead, acting all regal and bitchy in fabulous outfits. And of course there was Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur, which the actor brought all his gay tics to, resulting in a typically daring and hilarious performance. Much later, Lynde went even farther, with gayish innuendo on The Hollywood Squares. (“Paul, why do Hell’s Angels wear leather?” “Because chiffon wrinkles too easily.”) He died in 1981, never having come out on the record.
Claymore Gregg on The Ghost and Mrs. MuirNBCU Photo
In the same vein as Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly was a one-man campfest who was gayer than Liberace’s toothbrush. As Claymore, the nutty guy who rents the haunted cottage to Mrs. Muir on the enjoyable sitcom (1968-’70), he was fussy and funny and very queeny. And just like Lynde went on to game show pyrotechnics, Reilly stole The Match Game with his flailing arms and quick wit. He also had impressive theater credentials.
Edward Everett Horton on The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and FriendsClarence Sinclair Bull/Margaret Chute/Getty
Is it possible to have gay voice? Absolutely—let me explain. From 1959 on, Rocky and Bullwinkle were fun and Boris and Natasha were campy (especially Natasha), but when the Fractured Fairy Tales segment came on, I was truly in gay heaven. The Tales—retelling classic yarns with quirky twists—involved Edward Everett Horton’s deft narration, with lots of wordplay and double entendres. He came off so unapologetically gay—and it was just his voice! But this was nothing new; Horton was playing coded gay men back in the days of Fred and Ginger musicals and screwball comedies. A fizzy toast to him.
A gay animated character? Well, yes, That’s how the prissy pink mountain lion (voiced by Daws Butler and started in 1961) was played, and I found him even more appealing than the Pink Panther. The character exhibited all the nervousness, narcissism, and limp wristedness of your everyday gay stereotype plucked out of the wild. “Heavens to Murgatroyd!” as Snags would exclaim.
Milton the MonsterThe Milton the Monster Show
Similarly, The Milton the Monster Show—a cartoon series in the 1960s—trotted out a whole assortment of gay creatures, for anyone who was paying attention. There was Milton himself, a Frankenstein type but overloaded with tenderness and a Gomer Pyle-ish voice, plus Professor Weirdo and his pissy assistant Count Kook (“Better hold my hand, I’m feeling sick!”). What’s more, the women’s voices were done by men. Oh, Mary.
Anthony Bouvier on Designing WomenFotos International/Courtesy Getty
Meshach Taylor played the interior design assistant on the hit series. (1986-93). In ’87, he played Hollywood Montrose, the over-the-top window dresser in Mannequin. In real life, he was married and had four kids, so I have no idea.
Mr. Mooney on The Lucy ShowCBS via Getty
Character actor Gale Gordon hammed it up as Lucille Ball’s foil, the constantly flustered and barking banker Theodore J. Mooney, on The Lucy Show (1963-8). He just came off like such a girl! Lucy obviously liked Gale’s storm of affectations because he came back for roles in Here’s Lucy and Life With Lucy.
King Tut on Batman
Victor Buono was the go-to pudgy ‘60s character actor for campy villainy. In the tale of grotesque sibling rivalry What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, he wasn’t so much villainous as sort of creepily sleazy, yet the most decent one in the room by default. (In Feud, he was seen announcing himself to Bette Davis as a big homosexual. He later got busted in a movie theater oral sex incident that was hushed up.) The hit show Batman was famous for its gay-friendly guest stars like Eartha Kitt, Julie Newmar, Ethel Merman, and Tallulah Bankhead. Along with Bewitched, this show helped catapult me out of the closet even without the word “gay” ever having been uttered. Buono was great as Tut, though he seemed more queen than King. He died of a heart attack at 43.
Honorary Mention: Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), Fred “Rerun” Stubbs (Fred Berry) on What’s Happening!!, the Martian (Ray Walston) on My Favorite Martian, Monroe Ficus (Jim J. Bullock) on Too Close for Comfort, Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) on Dark Shadows, Urkel (Jaleel White) on Family Matters, Uncle Fester (Jackie Coogan) in The Addams Family, Doogie Howser, M.D. (Neil Patrick Harris), the brother on Small Wonder, Tinky Winky (Teletubbies), Squidward (SpongeBob SquarePants), and anything played by Don Knotts—and as for the ladies, Jo (Nancy McKeon) on The Facts of Life, Miss Jane Hathaway (Nancy Kulp) on The Beverly Hillbillies, and Alice (Ann B. Davis) on The Brady Bunch. Yes, I know she was crazy for Sam theButcher. I’m sure he was a beard!
Sissy that TV Channel
Today, gay people on TV are out and in dresses! Fusion TV just announced that it’s throwing Shade: Queens of NYC, a 12-part docuseries about the NYC drag culture, featuring local favorites like Marti Gould Cummings, Tina Burner, Paige Turner, Holly Box Springs, Jada Valenciaga, Jasmine Rice LaBeija, Chelsea Piers, and Brita Filter. Great choices—I’ve enjoyed them all. As for how they cast the show—which premieres October 5—Cummings told me, “This group of queens represents the heart of NYC drag. Their work ethic and drive to succeed in this industry makes them stand out as NYCs finest representation of diverse drag. Our goal is to have this show be a success and hopefully we can introduce more queens as time goes on to continue to showcase the ever evolving NYC drag community.” And if not, there must be a support group by now for drag queens who haven’t gotten on TV.
The Future’s So Bright…
Seen all over the tube are the Blonds—the long-running, glittery duo David and Phillipe Blond, who not only trot out eye catching ensembles for Fashion Week, but provide a swirl of buzzy excitement, thanks to the impossibly jazzy audience that flocks to their shows. Actor/reality personality Will Wikle agrees with me that it’s a great idea to tell people, “I’m busy doing Fashion Week,” and then only go to the Blonds. This time, at Skylight last week, it was the usual madcap scene. And while club doorman Markus Kelle deadpanned, “I see a lot of new faces—plastered on old ones,” he’s a comic and was totally joking, I swear. The room was filled with fascinating looking creatures from the fashion blogosphere—including two dead ringers for the Olsen twins, simultaneously scanning their phones—and they even paused from doing Insta-story to watch the show. And that turned out to be a Kubla Khan-inspired ode to our shared love of music and artists which started with Teyana Taylor pulsing down the runway in a day-glow jacket. The place was aglow with sparkles, trellises, patchwork quilts, and knee-high studded denim boots, capped off by Phillipe himself in full drag and a blinding gold number. It was all so bright you had to wear shades—but only really cool designer ones, of course.The Blonds / Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic
And finally, for some brunette ambition, if you’re in NYC this weekend, check out my Duets show at Alan Cumming and Daniel Nardicio’s new boite, Club Cumming. I have some illustrious drag stars as my duetting partners—isn’t that enough? Plus it’s a benefit for Sage—I don’t know, something about old queens.
Tickets and more information here.