If you watched the Halloween Episode of The Office, you witnessed yet another example of TV going gay all the way. Senator Robert Lipton (Jack Coleman) and Oscar Martinez (Oscar Nunez) were caught kissing at a costume party bash—one of them donning a Reagan mask, no less. The scene, thankfully, is no big deal in today’s world, and for former Heroes star Coleman, just another day at the gay-acting office. If you know anything about the actor’s Hollywood history, it’s also another couple of decades on the job—with lots of time off for heterosexual behavior.
Coleman, 54, who is straight and married, played the second Steven Carrington on the smash ABC nighttime soap opera Dynasty, from 1982 to the show’s ending in 1989. For anyone over 40, or anyone who’s kept track of a series so iconic it made its way into the classic Prince song “Kiss,” Steven was the son of Blake and Alexis Carrington (John Forsythe and Joan Collins), and the husband of Sammie Jo (Heather Locklear). Oh yeah, and he was also gay.
“If I had a career to protect I might have been more circumspect,” says Coleman on any reluctance to take the role. “Everyone in my circle of representatives just saw it as an opportunity. It was a hit show and everyone knew it was going to be on a long time.”
While worrying about playing gay might sound passé now, this was the Reagan Eighties, Coleman was 24, just out of a year on Days of Our Lives, and leading-man material. 1982 was also the year of the gay-relationship film Making Love, which to this day is accredited with doing serious career damage to male leads Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin. It would take another generation for Will to meet Grace and Brokeback Mountain to come riding into Hollywood town.
“I’m sure lots of people assumed I was gay,” says Coleman on reflection. “If I said ‘no,’ I would sound defensive. I would say ‘Is Alan Alda a surgeon in the Korean War?’ I got lots of fan mail from young gay men who were wrestling with it, and who thought it was great to see someone who didn’t hide and who wasn’t afraid.”
Still puzzled at the fuss? Steven Carrington was only the second leading gay man on a hit prime-time show (Soap’s Billy Crystal played the first), and the first in a drama. And, as Coleman points out, “It was conservative. It wasn’t Queer as Folk.” While Crystal has talked a lot about his misgivings on doing Soap, Coleman only says he wasn’t ready for the outside challenges.
“I was not psychologically prepared to be some kind of icon and feel some sort of responsibility to write back to someone and be an authority on what they were going through,” says Coleman, who also received mail from gay men dying of AIDS. “I knew nothing about that. The only way I could respond is the way an actor responds to fans. I knew my limits.
The more the world changes, the more it stays the same, as the one constant between 1982 and 2012 is the push to demonize gay people.
“I think there was backlash,” says Coleman, “but I don’t remember anything organized or staged. There are so many outraged groups now, like Focus on Family or the Westboro Church. There didn’t seem to be the same conspiracy thing out there, that there was an agenda. That wasn’t really in the ether back then.”
Coleman adds, ironically, “If there was anyone recruiting gay men on the show, it was Joan Collins. She made me look like Hulk Hogan.”
In an odd case of art imitating the times, Rock Hudson took his final role on Dynasty, before succumbing to AIDS in 1985. “It was thought that he had cancer,” says Coleman. “It wasn’t until after the show that he came out. He was incredibly gracious and funny and affable. What a tough position to be in; growing up as a matinee idol. He couldn’t have been a nicer guy.”
In 2012, actors aren’t quite in the same closeted position as Hudson, and, as Coleman knows as well as anyone, playing gay is a no-brainer if the script is good—and you’re straight. In addition to his current work on The Office, last year had him cast as gay on The Vampire Diaries. Before Diaries, Coleman starred as the very straight Noah Bennet on Heroes (2006—2010), opposite, among others, a not-officially-out Zachary Quinto (the actor came out gay in 2011).
“It’s easy for me to say there’s no homophobia in Hollywood, because I’m not gay,” says Coleman on changing times. “I didn’t have anything to lose. Gay actors have plenty to lose. Is it much easier for a Zach Quinto to be out now then it would be back then? Unquestionably. Does it affect him playing a romantic lead? I don’t know.”
Coleman says he loved doing Dynasty, and wouldn’t rule out a reunion (“It would all depend on the script”), but he’s also aware of the trappings of taking on such a character. “After Dynasty, I felt I was typecast as soft and sensitive. After Heroes, the parts I’m up for are conniving bad-asses and hard-assess. It took about twenty-five years to make the adjustment.”
No working actor can predict how a role will affect their career, but it’s a good sign that playing gay is no longer a lifestyle career choice. For Coleman, it never factored in the grand scheme of things, no matter which way social mores were headed. As an actor, “I don’t know what world you would have to live in not to be surrounded by gay people,” says Coleman. “My representatives were gay; I had a lot of gay friends from doing theater.”
As an audience, we’re starting to get a clue too. “The fact that Modern Family is so popular, that Will & Grace was so popular, it speaks well of America as an audience,” says Coleman. “All these characters are acceptable. Funny is funny, compelling is compelling, gay or straight. It has to stand on its own.”
Coleman’s quick to add that he knows we’ve got a long way to go. “It’s kind of like saying now that we have a black President we have no racism,” he says. “Just because we’ve come a long way doesn’t mean homophobia has been eradicated. It’s become less virulent. You talk to people in their twenties and their teens, you ask them about gay marriage, most of them don’t even know what the issue is, what the problem is. Most of them know gay people.”
On camera, as in life, it’s how you act that matters. Coleman learned that script a long time ago.
David Toussaint is the Senior Editor of GuySpy and the Brother-in-Law of Jack Coleman.