Apr 22, 2015

Peter Panama: The First Gay Character on TV

Everybody knows that the first regular gay character on tv was Peter Panama (Vincent Schiavelli) on The Corner Bar (1972-73). . But how many people have actually seen it?

It starred Gabriel Dell (right, early photo) as Harry Grant, owner of a Manhattan bar called Grant's Tomb.

Ten episodes aired on Wednesday nights in the summer of 1972, nine with gay fashion designer Peter Panama.  Six more aired on Friday nights in the summer of 1973, but with a different cast.

And that was it. No reruns, no DVDs, no youtube uploads. It's gone.

I've seen it -- one episode, anyway: "Cook's Night Out," on July 19, 1972., the summer before junior high. The cook at the bar has quit, so the regulars work together to take his place.  Peter prepares an "omelette a la Panama."

Peter (top right) was tall and gaunt, with frizzy hair, limp wrist gestures, and a weird nasal voice.  No one mentioned that he was gay --  I wouldn't have known what "gay" meant, anyway -- so I thought he was just a hippie.

The other cast members pictured are Gabriel Dell (top left), regular Bill Fiore (bottom right), and a waiter I can't identify.

Everyone was old, craggy, and unpleasant-looking.  They all had greasy hair.  They were sweating, as if the air conditioner in the bar wasn't working. I remember a palpable feeling of discomfort.


According to the Alternative Channels website, Peter wasn't exactly one of the gang.  Many of the jokes were homophobic.

The Gay Activists Alliance, an early gay rights organization, protested, and producer Allen King agreed to "redirect" the show.  He changed the cast, and sent Peter Panama packing.

This was the first tv performance of renowned character actor Vincent Schiavelli.  He never played a gay character again.