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FROM BILLY TO WILLY.

BILLY CRYSTAL'S GAY CHARACTER ON SOAP WAS A MILESTONE, NOTES TV WRITER BOB SMITH, BUT IT'S BEEN A LONG ROAD SINCE THEN THAT HAS LED TO WILL & GRACE

The genealogy of gay characters on television would be one long, biblical-sounding family tree in which the verb begat is used frequently. For example, Lance Loud, who came out in the PBS documentary series An American Family in 1973, eventually begat Pedro Zamora from the 1994 season of MTV's The Real World, who somehow begat Richard Hatch, the bearish gay guy on CBS's current Survivor. There's a similar lineage for fictional gay people on TV. Way back in 1977--not just 17 years B.E. (Before Ellen) but in my hometown of Kenmore, N.Y., still many years B.C. (Before Cable)--a very young Billy Crystal played the first gay regular in a network series: Jodie Dallas on the ABC sitcom Soap. And somehow, two decades and several begats later, Jodie begat Will Truman of NBC's Will & Grace.

Yes, Soap's Jodie Dallas was a trailblazer--but unfortunately it was a path that I, for one, had no desire to follow. Sure, at first Jodie dated a hunky quarterback, which I certainly hoped was one of the rights we were fighting for. But in episode 4, after Jodie discovered the quarterback was dating women to protect his image, he decided to have a sex-change operation to please his man. While I was prepared to lose sleep over a guy, I wasn't willing to lose a body part.

Billy didn't lose his willy, but his Jodie might have lost some sleep, since he went on to bed not one but two women during the rest of the series; he never had another boyfriend. To me, one out of three didn't even qualify Jodie as a Hollywood bisexual, who at least has to strike a balance between the women he appears with at awards shows and the men he sleeps with in private.

As unsatisfying as Jodie Dallas was, his lineage bore fruit (big studio audience laugh, please) when Will Truman of Will & Grace became the second gay male main character on a television sitcom--no bit player like Jodie. There's never been any confusion about Will's sexuality, although there have been a few nitpicky complaints about the leisurely pace of his sex life. As someone else who recently came out of a long-term relationship, however, I completely identified with his not getting into the groove during his first year as a single man. Anyway, Will outdid Jodie in a more important way: His show is truly funny. Soap had its moments, but it was also one of the first sitcoms to bring on extraterrestrials as recurring characters. (One rule of television: Aliens in a sitcom are always a bad sign. My Favorite Martian begat ALF begat 3rd Rock From the Sun--need I say more?)

Will & Grace has taken the classic four-character sitcom format of I Love Lucy and made gay characters an indispensable part of TV Land. But instead of, say, a season about the birth of Little Ricky, I'm hoping that next season begins off the coast of Fire Island, as Jack rescues an aspiring boy-band singer from Cuba. Jack will want to mentor him, but his manager in Havana will want him back. Janet Reno will guest-star, facing off against lawyer Will. Grace will be momentarily conflicted when she's asked to redecorate the Justice Department while Karen will take Reno shopping for some better outfits. The two of them will wind up in Havana, where they both drink Castro under the table: Yes, I think there's enough material there for an entire season's worth of episodes. Maybe Billy Crystal could do a cameo for old times' sake.

For past Advocate coverage of Will & Grace and links to Web sites related to Soap, go to www.advocate.com

Smith writes for Fox's MADtv and is the author of Openly Bob (Avon) and Way to Go, Smith! (Rob Weisbach).
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Author:SMITH, BOB
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 15, 2000
Words:663
Previous Article:THE CHANGER AND THE CHANGED.
Next Article:SHARP SHOOTERS.
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