Friday, June 15, 2012

On Neil Patrick Harris

I wish a very happy birthday to versatile, skilled and charismatic actor/singer Neil Patrick Harris.  I first  saw his talent in the 1988 movie Clara's Heart, starring Whoopi Goldberg.  She was a half-hour guest on my VH1 talk show.  She raved about his young talents.  I know folks who know him and, through the years, three things were constantly mentioned about Harris -- his kindness, his talent, his sexual orientation.  Now we all know that he's gay and has a partner.  We dig NPH as host of the Tony Awards.  He makes us laugh as the womanizer, Barney, on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother.  I am so glad I'm here to see that kind of a career thrive on TV.  It's progress.  When I was new in television, back in the early 1980s, that kind of wonderful career just didn't happen.
The one gay entertainer I saw regularly on TV when I was growing up was the late Paul Lynde.  We just got that vibe from him when he was magical Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, a sitcom that embraced and promoted diversity, and The Hollywood Squares.  Lynde was so hysterically funny on the game show that maybe we didn't realize the bravery of his work on it.  He never said that he was gay but he didn't exactly hide the fact either.  He only pretended to be straight when he comically played married men in movies like Bye Bye Birdie and Under the Yum Yum Tree.  When Rosie O'Donnell fell in love again and got engaged earlier this year, that was the feel-good top entertainment news story of the day.  We sent each other messages on how touching that was.  A same-sex celebrity engagement story prompted good wishes from fans all across the country.  Rosie and I were both veejays on VH1 in the late 80s.  In those days, the country was still in the black grip of the AIDS crisis.  In addition to that, many people didn't come out for fear of losing work and being shunned by family.  In my youth, Hollywood had instilled leading men with the fear that playing gay characters would kill their careers.  Today, planting a big kiss on another guy could get you an invite to Hollywood Prom Night.  William Hurt, Tom Hanks, Javier Bardem, Sean Penn, Greg Kinnear, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Colin Firth all got Oscar nominations for playing gay men.  I loved working on VH1.  I think Rosie did too.  I'm sure we both wondered about life after VH1.  Could we be gay and continue to get work without having to deal with a lot of bigoted bullshit?  I had diversity issues of color and sexual orientation to deal with in my career.  In 1990, I had meetings with Disney's Buena Vista for a possible syndicated celebrity talk show.  Disney's folks liked my VH1 work.  Before a big meeting, I got a "we'd like to apologize in advance" warning.  A top exec was known to say things that were not...well, let's say "enlightened."  We all went into that VP's office.  Halfway through the meeting, I realized why I'd received that apology.  He said something like this: "I've seen a lot of your shows and, frankly, some of your material seems a bit gay.  Should I be concerned about that?"  Others in the room were obviously embarrassed.  My response was:  "Your recent big hit here on the lot is The Little Mermaid.  A red-headed sea creature singing showtunes and wearing a clam-shell bra.  Can you honestly tell me that's a totally heterosexual production?"
They all laughed. It broke the short tension. But I made my point. Unfortunately, the deal didn't work out.  That exec, by the way, was later let go.  Three years later, I was a regular on a local morning news show in New York City.  On the live news show, I was supposed to be lively, funny, entertaining and informative.  Off-camera, my partner had been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.  A few other gay men I knew who also worked at the company strongly urged me to keep quiet about my home life so the station wouldn't use that as a reason to downsize me.  I thought, "Are you kidding me?  This is New York City!" But I couldn't risk it.  I was taking care of myself, my terminally ill partner and helping to pay my mom's mortgage with my jobs.  And that was my main gig.  Not feeling free to speak about my partner's illness while trying to balance that job with being a caregiver was like muffling a scream.  I quit that over a year later, after his death, because of diversity issues. The news director wouldn't air an interview of Harvey Fierstein that I taped when the multiple Tony Award winning actor/playwright was promoting his role in the hit comedy, Mrs. Doubtfire.  There was absolutely nothing inappropriate in that interview.  The news director said, "I have a problem with him being openly gay."  I told Harvey and the film's publicist why the interview didn't air.  That's the kind of bullshit I didn't want.  Today, that wouldn't happen.  Today, I could probably be on a news show and share with co-workers and viewers that a loved one in my life was critically ill -- the way Katie Couric did when her dear husband, Jay, was stricken with cancer.  Today, my two little nephews and their mom are crazy about daytime talk show host, Ellen DeGeneres.  I know how they feel.  I'd love to meet and thank her one day.
Today, Don Lemon is an openly gay anchor on CNN.  He's written a memoir telling about his journey to "coming out" in television.  A black and openly gay news anchor.  Wow.
Rosie O'Donnell had a couple of talk shows.  Carson Kressley, Nate Berkus and Bravo TV's Andy Cohen all became popular and openly gay national TV hosts.  Groovy Neil Patrick Harris can play that babe-chasing Barney on a sitcom, sing showtune parodies as host of the Tony Awards and pose with his husband on the red carpet.  Work it, NPH!  It's something to see, this kind of history.  Something I never thought I'd see.  I pitched writing a piece on this for Huffington Post.  Never got a response though. Big applause to all those TV performers and actors.  Big applause to executives who embraced diversity.  Neil Patrick Harris, have a most fabulous birthday and an equally fabulous Father's Day with your partner and kids.  So proud of you.

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