Will gay actors coming out hurt ratings and box office?

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In the 29 years since Billy Crystal outraged -- and later won over -- critics with his mostly sympathetic portrayal of a gay man on the sitcom "Soap," prime-time audiences have come to accept straight actors playing gay parts, in everything from groundbreaking hits (Eric McCormack in "Will & Grace") to all-but-forgotten flops (John Goodman in "Normal, Ohio").

CREDIT, Post-Gazette
Neil Patrick Harris -- "I am a very content gay man living my life to the fullest."
Click photo for larger image.

But will viewers prove as welcoming toward gay actors in straight roles, especially -- and this is the heart of the issue -- as romantic leads? Several high-profile cases in the news lately suggest that we may be about to find out, as Americans continue to grapple with their conflicted views on gays and lesbians.

Last month, T.R. Knight, who plays the romantically yearning and unquestionably heterosexual Dr. O'Malley on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," came out as gay with a statement to People magazine, adding somewhat forlornly, "I hope the fact that I'm gay isn't the most interesting part of me."

Then, two weeks ago, another coming-out message landed on the editor's desk at People, this one from Neil Patrick Harris, who plays the womanizing cad Barney on CBS's comedy "How I Met Your Mother."

"I am a very content gay man living my life to the fullest," Harris wrote, after his publicist initially denied Internet rumors that Harris is gay.

Last week, The Advocate, a gay and lesbian magazine, published an interview with Kristanna Loken of "Terminator 3" and newly of Showtime's "The L Word." In it, she talked playfully of her relationship with another actress.

Television industry insiders agree that in just the past few weeks, gay actors in Hollywood have reached a critical new turning point, one that will reveal what restrictions may or may not be placed on their careers if they brave coming out of the closet. Ultimately, what happens next is up to prime-time viewers.

"This is new territory," said Damon Romine, entertainment media director at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, an advocacy group. Harris and Knight in particular, he said, "are doing something that's not been done before: Come out when being on a TV series."

T.R. Knight -- "I hope the fact that I'm gay isn't the most interesting part of me."
Click photo for larger image.
Kristanna Loken -- In an interview, she talked about her relationship with another actress.
Click photo for larger image.

Ron Cowen, executive producer of Showtime's drama "Queer as Folk," said Harris, known to millions from his years on "Doogie Howser, M.D.," is furnishing "a test case" for other gay performers.

"If not a big deal is made out of it, Hollywood will adapt to it," Cowen said. "But if it turns out it's not a good thing -- if the ratings for 'How I Met Your Mother' drop, for instance -- people will say, 'That hurts shows, that hurts the business.' "

While top straight-identified actors have for years received praise and prizes for playing gay characters -- Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia," for example -- executives, casting directors and maybe mass audiences still seem to have a block when it comes to gay people in straight parts.

Rupert Everett, who's been out since 1989 and has played both gay and straight characters in major films, admitted in one interview that viewers may wonder "if a queen like me can butch it up enough to play a convincing straight man." But several factors are conspiring to change things, albeit more slowly than some activists hoping for A-list gay role models might like.

The legislative and court battles over gay marriage have increased general popular awareness, if not acceptance, of gays and lesbians, much as the initial AIDS crisis did 20 years ago. Then, too, entertainers such as Rosie O'Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres have come out and watched their careers soar, which may help embolden younger performers.

"You can use it to your advantage in a lot of ways," said Howard Bragman, an openly gay man and veteran Hollywood publicist who helped former sitcom stars Dick Sargent and Sheila Kuehl when they came out of the closet.

Meanwhile, Internet gossips such as Perez Hilton -- whose notoriety depends largely on outing celebrities -- have made it tougher for stars such as Harris to keep private lives under wraps.

All that leads some to believe that a renaissance in attitudes is under way. When it comes to stars' sexuality, Bragman said, "It's a generational thing. Kids do not care." He predicted that in another decade, gays playing straight characters won't be an issue.

Others aren't so optimistic. Cowen pointed out that in Hollywood, no issue can be separated for long from the core concerns of ratings and box office.

"The question is, how liberal can Hollywood afford to be?" he said.


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