Mar 8, 2018

My Boyfriend Ed Asner and I Make Gay History

Hi, Boomer,

I'm Michael, from the gay synagogue in L.A.  Here's my gay celebrity romance story:

The episode "My Brother's Keeper" of The Mary Tyler Moore Show  (January 13, 1973) is an icon of gay history, the first time that the word "gay" was ever used on the air to mean a gay person.

The plot  is simple: When her brother Ben (Robert Moore) visits, the snooty Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) tries to fix him up with Mary, but instead he hits it off with working-class Rhoda (Valerie Harper).  Phyllis is horrified at the idea of Rhoda as a sister-in-law, until Rhoda says that it won't work out: "He's not my type."

"Why not?" Phyllis asks.  "He's witty, he's attractive, he's successful..."

"He's gay."  90 seconds of uproarious laughter from the studio audience, Phyllis looks confused, then relieved.  And blackout.

The original script didn't have a big reveal: Rhoda and Ben just weren't going to date.  But why not?  Various ideas were bantered about: he was married, he was a priest -- but they all raised too many questions.   Why hadn't he told Phyllis?  Was his relationship with Rhoda cheating?  Finally someone suggested "He's gay."

There's a dispute over who made the suggestion.  Some say Robert Moore.   After all, he was gay in real life, and had directed the gay-themed Boys in the Band in 1968.

Some say writer Dick Clair.  He was gay in real life, too.

Some say Valerie Harper.

They're all wrong.  It was my idea.

I was still in high school, a tall, slim twink with a smooth chest and a big cock, a drama club geek, a good little Jewish boy, the class clown, and o-u-t, out!

Well, not at school -- I had a "girlfriend," who turned out to be a big ol' lesbian later on.

Out to my parents, who were sending me to a shrink to "cure" me but otherwise were relatively accepting for the 1970s.

Out to myself -- Gay Liberation, baby!

And of course, out to my boyfriend, Ed Asner.

Ed Asner, who played gruff boss Lou Grant on Mary Tyler Moore, was 40 years old, a former football star, a big, burly Daddy, with a hard hairy chest, thick biceps, and a thick...well, you get the idea.

Ed was married -- 13 years, three kids.  But it was a marriage full of temptations and recriminations, infidelities, separations, suppressed traumas, and screaming matches.  They were both seeing psychiatrists.

And when the heartache grew too much for him, he drove out to Van Nuys and picked me up.  We went out to dinner, we went to ballgames -- when a reporter turned up, he introduced me as his "nephew." We checked into a cheap hotel and...

Yeah, I was a little bit in love with him.

Ok, a lot in love with him.

My parents were fine with our relationship -- they didn't know that we were boyfriends, of course.  They thought that having a big, macho man around would be a good influence on me, that is, turn me straight.

So, getting back to the story:

One night we were at a burger place, and Ed told me that they were having problems with a script:

"This guy, Phyllis's brother, starts spending time with Rhoda, but he's not interested in her romantically.  Why not?  Just not having chemistry won't work -- there has to be a big reveal at the end."

"Seems obvious to me," I said.  "He's gay."

Ed looked around to see if anyone heard.  "Are you kidding?  You can't have a gay guy on tv.  The censors would be down our throat!"

"It's the 1970s -- just don't show him making out with a dude, and it will be fine.  They had a gay guy on All in the Family last year."

"But they didn't use the word 'gay.'  It's the word that will get people up in arms."

"They just have to get used to it.  Watch -- gay!"  I exclaimed.  People looked around.  "Gay!  Gay!"

"Shut up!"  Ed muttered.  "My nephew is quite the kidder!", he told the couple at the next table with a fake laugh.

"You ever hear of Gay Liberation?  We're coming out of the closet, baby!  Better to deal with it  now than later, and better Mary Tyler Moore than The Partridge Family."  I grabbed his hand under the table.  He brushed me away.  "You could at least ask."

He shrugged.  "Ok, I'll ask, but I can't make any promises."

But everybody loved the idea of making Ben gay -- it was hip, it was edgy, it was "now." It went right into the script, and the rest is history.

Our relationship ended not with a bang, but a whimper: eventually Ed just stopped calling me -- I guess he decided to "work things out" with the wife.

But I'll always have great memories of my romance with a Hollywood legend.  And the knowledge that I was part of gay history.

The uncensored story, with nude photos and explicit sexual situations, is on Tales of West Hollywood.

See also: Hip Sitcoms of the 1970s

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I buy this story. I can see Ed Asner being bisexual, but I can't see them casting an open gay guy to play Ben and never considering that the big reveal could be his character being gay.


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