Ten Actors Who Played Gay

Root around in the annals of movie and television history, and you may be surprised at the number of famous actors who have gay or bisexual roles in their pasts. Before Leonardo DiCaprio romanced Claire Danes or Kate Winslet, he was David Thewlis’ lover in Total Eclipse (1995). Before Hugh Grant became the go-to guy for straight romantic comedies, he played gay in Maurice (1987) and the TV movie Our Sons (1991). Even Will Smith played a gay role in the 1993 film Six Degrees of Separation, though he refused to kiss a man on camera. It just goes to show that playing gay is not the career-killer it was once thought to be. Here are 10 of today’s TV and film stars who played gay or bisexual roles — many of which have been nearly forgotten — earlier in their careers.

10. Jack Coleman

Coleman currently plays Mr. Bennet, father of perky blond cheerleader Claire, on the hit NBC sci-fi drama Heroes. But not all viewers of the show may remember that Coleman had his own days of perky blondness. From 1982–88, he starred on Dynasty as the second actor to play Steven Carrington, gay son of the show’s main family and one of the earliest queer characters on American television.

The show struggled to keep Steven’s orientation straight, so to speak. He was married twice to women, fathering a child with one of them. But he also had several male lovers, one of whom was played by Grant Goodeve of Eight is Enough fame. Recalling the character of Steven Carrington, Coleman recently told TV Guide: "[Steven] was so timid by today’s standards, especially looking at what’s on cable, with The L Word, Queer as Folk and shows like that. … It was very much The Donna Reed Show in terms of four feet on the floor, nobody actually ever touching."

9 and 8. James Purefoy and Kevin McKidd

In the recently-concluded HBO historical drama Rome, James Purefoy plays Mark Antony, the legendary general, and Kevin McKidd plays Lucius Vorenus, a commoner. Though Rome won Emmy Awards for visual effects, hairstyling, art direction and costumes, the show has been notable for mostly steering clear of another aspect of ancient Roman society: male homosexual relationships.

But this wasn’t the case the last time McKidd and Purefoy shared a screen. In 1998, they starred together in the British romantic comedy Bedrooms and Hallways. McKidd played Leo, a gay-identified man starting to be interested in a woman. Purefoy played Brendan, a straight-identified man starting to be interested in Leo. In the process of exploring their sexual identities, the two men have an affair.

7. Naveen Andrews

Before he was cast as former Iraqi soldier Sayid Jarrah in ABC’s Lost, this British actor was probably best known to American viewers for his role as Kip in the 1996 film The English Patient. But before either of those roles, Andrews created a splash in the U.K. by starring in the 1993 BBC miniseries The Buddha of Suburbia.

Written by Hanif Kureishi (who also wrote the classic gay movie My Beautiful Laundrette), Buddha is the story of Karim Amir, a young, bisexual British Indian growing up in London in the ’70s. Impatient with fixed categories, whether national or sexual, Karim has lovers including Eleanor (played by Jemma Redgrave), a privileged young actress, but also Charlie Kay (played by Steven Mackintosh), a David Bowie-like figure who goes on to become an international punk star.  

6. Russell Crowe

In 2001, Australian actor-turned-Hollywood star Crowe starred in the Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind. A loose biopic of American mathematician John Forbes Nash, the film caused a furor in the gay community over claims that the filmmakers had whitewashed Nash’s alleged bisexuality (even though Nash himself denies being bisexual). Crowe was derided for his defense of the film, saying that the filmmakers didn’t want to equate homosexuality with Nash’s schizophrenia, and also that there was a tiny, two-second scene which could indicate Nash’s possible interest in men.

What some may have forgotten in the flying accusations of homophobia and censorship was that Crowe had already proven himself willing to play a gay role. In 1994, he starred in the Australian film The Sum of Us as Jeff Mitchell, an out gay man living with his widower father, Harry. Having a comfortable relationship, Jeff and Harry support each other through their romantic ups and downs, as Harry dates a woman he met through a computer dating service, and Jeff explores a relationship with a man named Greg (played by John Polson).

5. Al Pacino

Arguably America’s most renowned living movie actor, Pacino has played queer or quasi-queer no fewer than three times. In 1976, he received an Oscar nomination for his lead role as the bisexual bank robber Sonny Wortzik in the fact-based drama Dog Day Afternoon. Married with children, Sonny also has a male lover, Leon (played by Chris Sarandon), whom he has "married" in a bigamous ceremony. Leon wants a sex-change operation, and Sonny decides that he will hold up a bank in order to pay for it.

The original script reportedly contained a scene where Sonny and Leon kiss each other goodbye on the street — a scene that Pacino refused to play. But this resulted in what many feel is the most powerful moment in the movie: Sonny and Leon say goodbye to each other over the telephone, unaware that the cops are listening in on their call. Even if the movie shirked showing physical affection, it didn’t downplay the emotional attachment between the two men. While drafting his will, Sonny references "my darling wife Leon whom I love as no other man has loved another man in all eternity."

In 1980, Pacino signed on to play New York cop Steve Burns in William Friedkin’s thriller Cruising. Hugely controversial in the gay community at the time, the film shows how Burns — an apparent heterosexual with a girlfriend — is sent undercover in the gay leather scene in order to track down a serial killer who has been targeting gay men. The assignment leads him to question his own sexuality as he visits the leather bars and develops a friendship with a gay man, Ted (played by Don Scardino), who is not part of the scene. Viewed by some as groundbreaking and deliberately ambiguous, and by others as an incoherent and homophobic mess, the film is due out later this year on DVD.

Finally, in the Emmy-winning, star-laden, 2003 HBO television adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America, Pacino played Roy Cohn, a fictional character based on a real-life figure of the McCarthy regime, a homophobic, homosexual lawyer who died of AIDS in 1986. Foul-mouthed, charismatic, bluntly frank about his homosexuality to his doctor (played by James Cromwell) while denying it to the rest of the world, Pacino’s Cohn is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most memorable thing in the adaptation.

4. Robert Redford

Every gay movie viewer worth his salt wants to believe that Redford and Newman were playing gay (if covertly) in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). And if the Brokeback Mountain-style cover of the film’s 2006 DVD re-release is anything to go by, Twentieth Century Fox has apparently had the same idea.

But those who want to see Redford in an acknowledged queer role will have to make do with the film Inside Daisy Clover (1965). Redford plays Wade Lewis, a handsome, young movie star whom out screenwriter Gavin Lambert initially conceived as a closeted homosexual. Redford asked that the character be rewritten as bisexual; the studio got cold feet over the controversial content; and by the end, Lewis’ sexuality was basically boiled down to a couple of lines. (Christopher Plummer tells Natalie Wood after Redford has left her that "Your husband never could resist a charming boy.")

Nevertheless, Wade Lewis was notable both for being such an early queer character, and for the fact that — unlike queer Hollywood movie characters before and since — he apparently goes off to have a perfectly nice life.

3. Bruce Willis

In the 1997 suspense thriller The Jackal (a remake of the 1973 film The Day of the Jackal), Willis plays what might seem like a fairly standard role for him. He is a hardened, macho killer, a man of action and a master of disguise who can assume multiple identities. But this time, this killer’s identities include a gay one.

In Washington, D.C., he goes to a gay bar, picks up a gay man (played by out actor Stephen Spinella), and kisses him. Straight male Willis fans might howl at the idea that "the Jackal" was genuinely meant to be queer — and no doubt it’s not what the studio intended. But although the Spinella character does later prove of minor use to Willis, there seems to be no real reason why he couldn’t have used a woman in the same way — or why he had to kiss Spinella.

All that said, the movie didn’t exactly win any prizes for gay visibility. After a test audience responded with applause to the scene where Willis finally shoots Spinella dead, GLAAD persuaded the filmmakers to reshoot the scene to make it clear that Spinella is killed because he has realized that Willis is the Jackal, and not because he is gay. So, for those who are counting, that’s one more gay movie character who meets an early, violent death — but hey, at least it’s not because of homophobia, right?

2. Marlon Brando

In the 1967 film Reflections in a Golden Eye, based on a novel by bisexual writer Carson McCullers, Brando plays Maj. Weldon Penderton, the repressed homosexual husband of Leonora (played by Elizabeth Taylor). Penderton is obsessed with Pvt. Williams (played by Robert Forster), and from there on things unfold in the tragic, overwrought fashion you might expect from a gay-themed movie made in the ’60s.

But there have been suggestions that Brando may have been less uptight in his own life. In a widely quoted (though unauthenticated) interview, he supposedly told a journalist that "like a large number of men, I too have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed. … Deep down, I feel ambiguous."

Maria Schneider, his co-star in Last Tango in Paris, has been quoted as saying that she and Brando got along because "we’re both bisexual." Assuming these quotations are accurate, it’s a whole other question whether Brando had good taste in men. In a 1994 television interview on Larry King Live, promoting his autobiography, Brando famously finished by kissing King on the lips.

1. Forest Whitaker

Whitaker was this year’s winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Idi Amin, the mad, bad, Ugandan dictator, in the British drama The Last King of Scotland. But his back catalogue includes not one but two queer roles. In 1992, he starred as the gentle, cricket-loving British soldier Jody in Neil Jordan’s highly unconventional sleeper hit The Crying Game. Jody is in love with the beautiful, exotic, transgender Dil (played by Jaye Davidson), but he also flirts with IRA foot soldier Fergus (played by Stephen Rea), telling him, "You’re the one … with the killer smile and the baby face. … You’re the handsome one."

In 1994, Whitaker followed this up with an appearance as the gay fashion designer Cy Bianco, partnered with a flamboyant Richard E. Grant, in Robert Altman’s flop satire of the fashion industry, Ready to Wear.