Monday, July 6, 2015

Tony Randall on LOVE, SIDNEY

A recent Variety entertainment news article, "TV's Acceptance of Gay Storylines Has Been a Long Time Coming," detailed how television gradually grew to embrace sexual diversity.  It was written by Brian Lowry.  The article took us back to the fine, groundbreaking ABC Movie of the Week presentation, 1972's That Certain Summer.  Hal Holbrook starred as a divorced dad now living in San Francisco with his partner, played by Martin Sheen.  His son lives in L.A. with his mother.  She knows why she and his father really divorced.  The young teen son doesn't and he wants to visit his father.  She gently prepares her ex-husband for the visit.  He will have to "come out" to his son.  I don't know if you've ever seen the new Netflix sitcom, Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.  They play two longtime rivals whose business partner husbands seek divorces because they've fallen in love.  With each other.  Martin Sheen is a gay senior in this funny show.  Talk about a full circle role.  Columnist Brian Lowry mentions TV shows that addressed gay issues -- shows such as All in the Family, My So-Called Life, Friends and, of course, Will & Grace and Glee.  This article was printed on June 26th during Gay Pride Month.  Last month also marked the historic marriage equality ruling from the Supreme Court.  Same sex couples now can legally wed all across the U.S.A.

When I've read other good articles on that same topic or have seen specials on TV about gay broadcast images, there is one actor in one sitcom who is always overlooked.  And he shouldn't be.  He played a gay middle-aged character on NBC years before Will & Grace and Modern Family came along.  He was not a supporting character like in Friends or My So-Called Life.  Tony Randall starred as the lead character on Love, Sidney.  The series ran on NBC from 1981 to 1983.  Tony Randall was a pioneer.
He did Love, Sidney after five years of success on the ABC sitcom version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple (1970-1975).                                                                                                                              
That hit sitcom came after he'd had years of success on the big screen in films such as Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961), two hit comedies starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, and Let's Make Love with Marilyn Monroe in 1961.  Randall was gutsy enough to play a gay character on a weekly series at a time when Hollywood actors were reluctant to play gay lead characters for fear it would cripple their careers.  As for TV, you must remember that network executives were still timid.  As I've written previous blogs, NBC executives didn't want to book Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Martin Luther King on The Tonight Show with guest host Harry Belafonte in 1968.  NBC brass thought they'd lose sponsors.  They felt Dr. King was "too radical" as one former Tonight Show producer told me live on CNBC.  Belafonte challenged them, booked Dr. King and not one sponsor was lost.  Soon after Dr. King's appearance with Belafonte in 1968, the singer/Civil Rights activist was a guest on Petula Clark's NBC music variety special.  The British recording star was at the peak of her pop music fame.  She and Belafonte sang an anti-war song during those days of the Vietnam war.  "On the Path of Glory" was her composition.  Chrysler was one of the show's sponsors.  A Chrysler executive, according to print reports, did not want them to touch during the duet.  He opposed "interracial touching" and felt that, if they did touch, they'd lose the Southern states.  Clark's husband was the show's executive producer.  The singer owned the rights to the show.  She and Belafonte felt that the Chrysler executive's opinions were rubbish.  They taped the song.  Petula Clark held Harry Belafonte's arm during the number.  The Southern states did not disappear into a giant sinkhole.  The Chrysler executive, a World War II veteran who'd been a fighter pilot, was relieved of his duties.  In 1975, when Mitzi Gaynor was taping her CBS  music variety special, Mitzi and a Hundred Guys, an exec must have issued an order that she could kiss the other 99 but could not kiss black actor Greg Morris from the CBS hit series, Mission: Impossible.

If network executives were this narrow-minded about race, think how nervous they must have been with a lead character being gay.  Sidney never said openly "I'm gay" like Ellen DeGeneres historically did on her 1997 ABC sitcom episode.  Let's be real:  In the 1990s, you could not have been an openly gay actor with a boyfriend and book the lead role as a hetero bachelor in a network sitcom like Neil Patrick Harris did on How I Met Your Mother.  In the early 80s, Tony Randall's Sidney deeply missed his longtime male friend who'd died.  His framed photograph was visible in Sidney's apartment.  I lived and worked in Milwaukee when Love, Sidney aired.  He may not have said, "I'm gay" but we in the Midwest all knew he was.  Sidney was lonely and longed for a sense of family.  Today, same-sex couples all over the nation adopt children.  Mitch and Cam are gay dads on Modern Family.  Tony Randall's Sidney has the opportunity to be a father figure to a sweet little girl.  Look at the clip of the show's opening credits.
I was new to New York City in 1985 and worked on Channel 11/WPIX TV.  I had the absolutely fabulous opportunity to interview Mr. Randall on our weekday local morning magazine show.  He came in the studio and he was everything we hoped he would be.   Impish, witty, wise, generous with advice if you wanted any and willing to talk, Tony Randall charmed our entire crew.  During the interview, I asked him about Love, Sidney.  He was quite enthusiastic about the show and was sad when it was cancelled.  He felt that NBC executives wimped out and caved in to conservative Moral Majority groups.  Here's Tony Randall talking about Love, Sidney for TV history archives.
Wow.  Look at TV today.  We've got openly gay network news anchors, TV talk show hosts, straight actors play gay men on TV, a gay actor played a straight ladies' man on a hit sitcom, there are gay characters in sitcoms and dramas -- and now gay people all across America can get married and be parents.

In the talk about groundbreaking gay characters on TV, the late Tony Randall should be included for his bravery and his commitment to playing a gay middle-aged and man who becomes a father figure on NBC's Love, Sidney in the early 1980s.

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