Oct 3, 2012

Billy Gray

Of the teenage boys who populated 1950s sitcoms -- Jeff (Paul Petersen) on The Donna Reed Show, Wally (Tony Dow) on Leave It to Beaver, and so on, Bud (Billy Gray) on Father Knows Best (1954-1960) was the most assiduously coded as gay.  He was shy, quiet, frequently called a "sissy", and full of secrets; he spent a lot of time hiding in the basement or even in "the closet."  He had no interest in sports, and his mother overprotected him (a 1950s signifier of gayness).  He had a series of best buddies, but not a girl -- he recorded a song with the line "I'd rather have a pal than a gal -- anytime."

His parents didn't try to jump-start his girl-craziness, but told him to play the game, to pretend to be heterosexual regardless of what he may feel.

In "Bud The Snob" (1955), the family learns that Bud never talks to girls at school.  This "problem" could have two explanations: he may like girls so much that he gets tongue-tied around them, or he may not like girls.  The family's solution is to force him.  Sister Betty tries to get him to talk to a girl on the telephone, but he runs for the closet. "You can't keep running away!" she yells.

In "The Matchmaker" (1955), Bud declares that he never intends to marry, arguing that he will be perfectly happy living with his buddies.  Dad scoffs: "You haven't got a chance!  If a man wanders around unmarried, every woman in the world takes it as a personal insult!"  That is, you don't need to experience heterosexual desire; you will marry a woman, regardless.

In "Bud the Wallflower" (1956), the 18-year old declares that he doesn't like girls, and plans a camping trip with his buddies to avoid a Sadie Hawkins dance.  But one by one his friends get dates and drop out.  When his best friend Kippy (Paul Wallace) accepts a date right in front of him, Bud is heartbroken.

But he can't hold out forever; he has to learn to play the game.  By the fourth season, Bud has become adept at ogling girls, pretending to have crushes, going out on dates.  By the time of "Bud the Romeo" (1959), he has become so effective at wooing girls that he must turn down dates, and they get even by going on an "anti-Bud" strike.  He has become heterosexually adept.  He has arrived.

Years later, Billy Gray revealed that he knew it was all a hoax, that Father Knows Best was misleading people into imprisoning themselves and lying to their children, but he could hardly state his concerns at the time: he was a teenager, and an outsider.  About a year after the show ended, he spent three months in jail for marijuana possession, and no one from the show came to visit except the prop man.  Today, after a long career in music and motorcycling, and many starring roles in movies (including The Explosive Generation), Billy Gray barely mentions Father Knows Best on his website.

See also: Beefcake Dads of 1950s Sitcoms