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“You have to work your base,” Bragman notes. “You can’t just come out in Time or People. You have to be there for the gay press. You really want them to be on your side.”
Bragman also likes to use just one media outlet to tell the initial story. In the case of golfer Rosie Jones, the publicist worked with The New York Times so she could write an opinion piece in her own words in the Sunday Sports section. Jones, who was still playing on the LPGA tour in 2004 and didn’t want to be enmeshed in gay politics, thought it worked perfectly: The sporting press and fans received her with open arms.
“Howard took a unique interest in where I was in my career,” says Jones from her home in Atlanta. “He didn’t have his own agenda.”
For Mitchell Anderson, a regular on the Fox hit show Party of Five, things were very different. In 1996, Anderson was onstage at a Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) awards dinner. Party of Five was at the height of its popularity, and Anderson played violin teacher Ross Werkman, instructing the precocious Claudia Salinger, played by Lacey Chabert. The handsome Anderson was considered a potential leading man in Hollywood, and friends often suggested that he be a kind of pioneer and come out. Anderson, who had previously been a regular on the show that made Neil Patrick Harris famous, Doogie Howser, M.D., was tired of the common wisdom in Hollywood. “I didn’t buy into the idea that an openly gay actor couldn’t play a straight role,” he says. Anderson, who lives with his longtime partner, Richie Arpino, in Atlanta, where he owns a restaurant called MetroFresh, recalls: “I was trying to bust those myths a little bit.”
It was 1996, the year before Ellen DeGeneres came out. Yet, as he stood up on that stage at the GLAAD ceremony, Anderson suddenly announced he is gay. “It was spontaneous,” he says. “I was onstage and thought it was a good forum.” But it generated media coverage he wasn’t ready for. “After it happened,” the actor notes, “there were a lot of congratulations, but there wasn’t a lot of help, except for Howard.”
Bragman called Anderson, offered to work pro bono, and helped him to fine-tune his public image. “The message I was trying to send was that I was a good actor, and I was a better actor because I wasn’t hiding anymore,” Anderson explains. “[Bragman] shepherded me through the situation.”
Bragman has a darker memory of what occurred once the unprepared young actor went public: “Mitchell Anderson was okay in the end, but in retrospect, he probably should’ve thought about it a little more.”
That all happened 13 years ago. Now, while much of the world has begun to move on, with even Middle America warming to gay rights and gay culture, the old, closeted approach still reigns in the entertainment industry.
Greg Hernandez, a former Los Angeles Daily News columnist who is openly gay, and who covers gay Hollywood as a blogger at GreginHollywood.com, says the entertainment industry still fears that American audiences will be turned off. And no one — not studio heads at 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal or MGM — wants to take a perceived risk in order to be proved wrong.
“Casting directors, many of whom are gay,” Hernandez says, “don’t want to rock the boat for a project, and the higher-ups [studio heads] don’t want to hurt their bottom line.”
Actor Dale Reynolds, who didn’t have a big-time publicist like Bragman representing him, came out to his agent in the mid-1980s, after he had founded a gay actors support group, Alliance for Gay and Lesbian Artists, a few years earlier. “We had actors come to us all the time and said the same three or four casting directors would never hire them,” he says.
With his dark features and manly good looks, Reynolds was considered a leading-man type and says coming out “hurt” his acting career. Gay friends who were casting directors, for example, refused to hire him. “For me, that was truly shocking,” he says, “that kind of betrayal.” He managed to land small, one-time roles on such TV shows as Knots Landing, Eight Is Enough and Remington Steele, but only a few casting directors, straight women not bothered by his sexual orientation, would regularly call him for work.
The dichotomy between Hollywood’s claimed social benevolence and its actual practices was seen starkly in July, when prominent gay TV director Todd Holland publicly revealed a practice of his own, which is probably common in the L.A. and New York film and TV industries: He advises gay actors who want to succeed to “stay in the closet.”