Former Olympics champion Bruce Jenner, who once graced the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, will debut a new identity on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine this summer. He's in transit from male to female. Actress Laverne Cox, star of Orange Is the New Black, is the first transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy. Back in the 1970s, on prime time television, an actor left the ABC sitcom, The Brady Bunch, and had a sex change on CBS. The actor was Robert Reed.
Today, gay people are all over the television landscape. They've starred in weekly scripted network hits, they host talk shows, they've hosted the Oscars, they vie for celebrityhood on reality TV shows and anchor news programs. That certainly was not the case back in the 1970s. As for Hollywood, William Hurt broke a taboo when he played an openly gay character and won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance. 1985's Kiss of the Spider Woman made Hurt the first actor to win the Oscar for playing an openly gay man. And playing an openly gay character did not kill his leading man film career the way it may have for a Hollywood actor 10 or 20 years before that. He went on to other lead roles and more Oscar nominations. Actors could be brave enough to embrace diversity and play gay lead roles on the big screen. Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (1993), the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote (2005) and Sean Penn in Milk (2008) followed and won Oscars in the same category as William Hurt.
You did not see openly gay talent, journalists or series characters on weekly TV in my teen years the way you do now. Gay-related issues were rarely addressed on TV. But, in 1975, a special 2-part episode of the hit CBS prime time drama series, Medical Center, respectfully acknowledged a gay issue. The series aired from 1969 to 1976.
The groundbreaking Medical Center story starring the late Robert Reed was directed by veteran Hollywood director Vincent Sherman. At Warner Bros. in the 1940s, he directed Ida Lupino in The Hard Way and directed Bette Davis in two of her popular films, Old Acquaintance and Mr. Skeffington. The later brought Davis one of her ten Best Actress Oscar nominations. He directed Joan Crawford in three of her 1950s films and directed movie newcomer Paul Newman as a lawyer in 1959's The Young Philadelphians. In that courtroom drama, future TV star Adam West has a brief role in the first ten minutes as a closeted homosexual who marries a woman.
Actor Robert Reed died of AIDS in 1992 at age 59.
When "The Fourth Sex" aired on Medical Center in 1975, could any cast or crew member have dreamed that someone like fabulous Laverne Cox would be an Emmy-nominated TV star, that someone like veteran sitcom actor Jeffrey Tambor would win a Golden Globe for his stunning and serious work on Amazon's Transparent as the divorced dad who finds his truth in a new transgender identity or that little Chastity Bono, seen with her parents on CBS' hit 1976 variety series, The Sonny & Cher Show, would transition to male and be a contestant on ABC's Dancing With The Stars as Chaz Bono?
Or that a gold medal winner in the 1976 Olympics....
There you have it -- a few observations on a Robert Reed TV performance that's worth remembering nowadays. Especially this month.