TV star recalls pain, liberation

By Lynn Elber

AP Television Writer


Ellen DeGeneres can measure her career and personal success by several impressive yardsticks, including a popular daytime talk show and eight-year marriage to Portia de Rossi.

But two decades ago, as star of the ABC sitcom “Ellen,” she put herself and her career on the line when she came out as gay and her character followed suit in “The Puppy Episode” that aired April 30, 1997.

The title itself is a clue to how difficult it was to get it made. When the show’s writers raised the unprecedented prime-time broadcast story line with Michael Eisner, then-CEO of ABC’s parent Walt Disney Co., he suggested the character instead get a puppy, DeGeneres recalled.

As she prepared to mark the culture-changing event recently on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” she looked back at what she faced in creating the episode and what came after.

Q. How difficult was it to decide to come out both personally and in character, and do it simultaneously?

A. I was doing just fine. The show was a success, my career was a success and there was no real reason for me to do it other than I did some work on myself, some deep soul-searching, and realized I was really carrying around a lot of shame. ... No matter how many times I tried to rationalize that I didn’t need anyone to know, I knew that it was a secret. And I knew that there was a possibility that people would hate me for the simple fact that no matter how much they loved my comedy or my show, but they might hate me if they knew I was gay.

It became more important to me than my career. I suddenly said, “Why am I being, you know, ashamed of who I am just to be successful and famous in society’s eyes?”

Q. How were the studio and network to work with during the script development and production?

A. They really didn’t give us the OK (at first). We were trying to convince them to do it, and there were closed-door meetings. And the scripts were written on red paper so you couldn’t see the black ink. They were shredded at the end of every single day and locked in a safe. It was crazy. It was like we were spies or something.

Q. “Ellen” cast member Joely Fisher recalled that you held back from saying the line “I’m gay” in pre-taping rehearsals. Why?

A. Because the first time we were blocking it and rehearsing it (the scene), I started to say it and I would tear up. And I realized how charged that sentence was because, you know, when you’re gay, the only time you say “I’m gay” is when you’re revealing it to someone, when you’re telling your parents or when you’re telling someone close to you. Because most people never have to say, “I’m straight.”

Q. How were you affected by the criticism that you, the show and your co-stars received?

A. I knew I was risking hurting my career. ... But to know that Laura Dern was punished for it just because she played my love interest in that show is crazy. I mean, she’s a brilliant actress, she’s heterosexual and yet she was punished. And Oprah (Winfrey) got hate mail just for being a part of it.

But I had no idea the amount of hate. I had no idea that there would be death threats or a bomb scare. It was a really scary time.

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