Charles Levin was the kind of character actor whose face you’d seen in a dozen places but whose name you never knew. His credits range from playing bit parts in Annie Hall and This Is Spinal Tap to guest spots on nearly every great sitcom of the ’80s and early ’90s.
Tragically, the 70-year-old was reported missing by his son on July 8, and now, after a week of searching, local authorities in Oregon have discovered human remains they believe to be Levin’s.
In addition to a recurring role as Elliot Novak on the long-running sitcom Alice, Levin is also known to fans of classic TV for two small but memorable performances: as The Mohel in “The Bris,” a fifth-season episode of Seinfeld, and as Coco, the gay cook in “The Engagement,” the pilot episode of The Golden Girls.
Coco was, or would’ve been, among the first regular gay characters to appear on television. Susan Harris, who created The Golden Girls, had broken ground with Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas on her pervious sitcom, Soap, which ran from 1977 to 1981.
Though Jodie was gay in theory, he was rarely so in practice, and his initial characterization had raised the ire of gay rights groups who worried that he would be a damaging stereotype. By the time The Golden Girls premiered in 1985, Jodie was long gone and the only other gay characters on primetime were Dynasty’s Steven Carrington (Jack Coleman, the second of three actors to play him) and Hill Street Blues’ Eddie Gregg, who was also played by Levin.
Like Jodie, Steven’s homosexuality was more theoretical, and he was largely involved with women throughout the run of the show. Meanwhile, Eddie was a gay prostitute who befriended Detective Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz). Levin was Gregg for five episodes in 1982 and returned one last time in 1986 to inform Belker he was dying of AIDS.
When it came time to cast Coco, Brandon Tartikoff, then the president of NBC, suggested Levin, who didn’t seem to mind being typecast as gay. Coco was intended to offset Golden Girls’ female-centric cast because a show that only starred women, especially women of a certain age, was (and still is) a risky venture.
Coco would’ve been a departure from Jodie, Steven, and Eddie—in “The Engagement” Coco was a part of the family. He was well adjusted and happy, and like everyone else he liked to shit on Rose (Betty White).
However, by the time Estelle Getty’s Sophia showed up, it became clear that “the fancy man,” as Sophia referred to him, was the fifth wheel.
The politically incorrect octogenarian was only supposed to be an occasional guest star, but Getty stole the show and was made the fourth cast member, replacing Levin. The decision hewed closer to the show’s original premise and mission: to portray the lives of women in their later years. Even though Sophia quickly came around to Coco, there was just no need for a man, no matter how fancy he was.
The last we heard of Coco, he and Sophia were going to go to the tracks for a kiki, but by the second episode he was gone, never to make enchiladas rancheros again. Aside from that pilot and a few Season 1 production stills—which incorrectly credit him as “Scott Jacoby as Michael Zbornak,” Dorothy’s son—you won’t find any other traces of Coco.
Maybe in his fictional journey Coco moved out of the bungalow on Richmond Street, found love, and had a standing monthly date with Sophia at the track. But if he wasn’t long for this world, The Golden Girls ended up doing right by the LGBTQ community, both on- and offscreen.
Over its seven-season run, the series featured numerous queer characters and story lines and tackled issues such as gay marriage and AIDS. In real life, its four leads—Getty, White, Bea Arthur, and Rue McClanahan—were all outspoken allies, with national treasure Arthur leaving $300,000 in her will to the Ali Forney Center, a New York–based charity helping homeless LGBTQ youth.
The Golden Girls was founded on the ideas of love and acceptance, and Coco the cook played an important, if fleeting, role in establishing the show’s legacy of positive queer representation. Hopefully, that will be a part of Levin’s legacy.