Year in Review: 1997


Re-rank the list of top news stories of 1997


Find out more about:

Princess Diana's death stuns the world

Weld steps out -
Cellucci steps forward

Mother Teresa is laid
to rest at age 87

Chinese rule returns
to Hong Kong

Supreme Court strikes
down 'Net decency act

UPS strike disrupts thousands of firms

Heaven's Gate cult commits mass suicide

Mars Pathfinder explores Red Planet

Ellen comes out, marking a first in TV

For the first time, a mammal is cloned

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Ellen's coming out: The inside story

A Q & A with the show's producer on the season's most controversial half hour

By Frederic M. Biddle, Globe Staff, 04/23/97

Ellen with guest star Laura Dern, in the long-anticipated episode in which the show's main character comes out of the closet. Ellen with guest star Laura Dern, in the long-anticipated episode in which the show's main character comes out of the closet.
Since last month's filming of the ''Ellen'' episode in which the title character will make TV history as prime time's first openly gay leading lady, controversy has brewed as star Ellen DeGeneres has herself come out after months of public hinting.

Some mainstream advertisers have pulled their ads from the hourlong show, while gay and lesbian advertisers that range from political groups to a lesbian cruise line have attempted unsuccessfully to buy commercial time on the network during the broadcast. It airs next Wednesday night at 9 on WCVB-Ch. 5.

Despite weeks of media attention, much has been ignored or misreported about ''Ellen.'' How was the decision made to out the character? Why has the show lacked artistic direction amid gyrating ratings? And, most important, how will DeGeneres and the show's staff of 14 writers, half of whom are openly gay, portray Ellen Morgan next season, should ABC renew the show?

In advance of Friday's ''20/20'' interview with Diane Sawyer (Channel 5 at 10 p.m.), DeGeneres has talked only to Time magazine and has declined several interview requests through a publicist. However, executive producer Mark Driscoll, a Boston native, last week spoke in a phone interview about the show:

Q. Why did Ellen Morgan take 3 1/2 seasons to come out of the closet?

A. It's something the show's writers never talked about with Ellen [DeGeneres] until last June. The network and studio [Disney-owned Touchstone Television, which produces the show] didn't talk about it, either. Everyone knew the series was missing something at its core - but certainly it would have been presumptuous of the show's writers to imply anything. The character's sexuality was never discussed.

What was discussed was dating. DeGeneres said she never wanted ''Ellen'' to be a show about dating, but we pushed her character into [heterosexual] dates because then the show was at least about something. But last season, she said she didn't want to do any more shows in which Ellen Morgan dated men. Unfortunately, that left the writing staff with about 25 episodes to fill . . .

Q. . . . which led to more indirection. Last season, ''Ellen'' seemed to be more about the romantic relationship between Paige and Spence [a straight couple played by Joely Fisher and Jeremy Piven] than its title character.

A. Yes. The problem of the show wasn't that writers weren't writing good scripts, it's that there was no center to the show. . . . Ellen [whose character is 35] was an asexual character who hung out with friends, really exhibiting behavior more suited to 20-somethings. Before the controversy, Howard Stern was calling it ''Seinfeld Lite'' - a very fair, if savage, criticism.

Q. But in hindsight, it seems that Ellen's character has been struggling with her sexuality for some time. For over a year, you've dropped hints in every episode. For example, in this season's opener, Ellen is goofing in her bathroom mirror, singing to herself Maria's song from ''West Side Story'': ''I feel pretty, oh so pretty.'' She says ''pretty and witty'' but not ''gay.'' Very funny.

A. Oh, that was just a way for us to all keep our sanity. Remember, the original notion was for us to out Ellen in the season's fourth or fifth episode. But it didn't happen, and then Ellen [DeGeneres] didn't want the show to air in a sweeps month.

I guess Ellen Morgan realized that she was gay a while ago. But she was unable to admit it to herself. Last year, I wrote an episode in which she tried very hard to pursue a platonic friendship with another woman. Some of this will be referenced in future episodes.

Q. DeGeneres told Time that she's not keen on repeating the lesbian kisses as seen in ''Relativity'' this season and ''Roseanne'' in 1995. What sexuality will Ellen Morgan have, if any? And will the current supporting cast be replaced, as has been rumored?

A. Ellen [DeGeneres] has no desire to break any physical taboos. She's grateful it was already done on ''Roseanne.''

And Ellen Morgan is a very shy, very private character, so she certainly won't be suddenly promiscuous, or even dating very frequently. She'll still have a hard time meeting people. She certainly won't unload her friends suddenly. I spoke with [DeGeneres] and she's firm on that point.

Barrett and Peter [a gay male couple, friends of Ellen's played by Jack Plotnick and Patrick Bristow] will become more prominent. But I don't think you'll turn on the TV next season and see Ellen surrounded by only gay friends. That would be too off-putting. But there will be some.

Q. Some lesbians and gays seem pleased by the show but also anxious that for better or worse, Ellen Morgan will define Middle America's concept of lesbianism. How do you, writers, and star respond to that pressure?

A. Ellen was so in awe of pressure from the gay community and realizing that it is only one character's story, one woman's story, that all we could do to fulfill the vision is to make sure the story had integrity for Ellen. For example, in one scene in next week's episode, a scene in a lesbian coffeehouse, she was very concerned about what people looked like. She didn't want to give in to any stereotypes. Likewise, there's the unrequited crush she feels for the character played by Laura Dern. We saw to it that that woman is in an eight-year monogamous relationship, so as not to suggest that gay relationships cannot hold together.

Q. Sexuality aside, what about how Ellen's character interacts with the rest of her world? What about discrimination issues?

A. Once you let this tiger out you really have to deal with it. The only danger is, none of us want this to become an issue-oriented show. Ellen will face discrimination, from her boss [Ed Billik, played by Bruce Campbell], but we've also portrayed him fairly. We wanted him to represent Middle America, not some spouting fundamentalist. We're very sensitive to the fact that this is a sitcom. Consider that this year we wanted Audrey [a heterosexual sidekick of Ellen's, played by Clea Lewis] to get pregnant. Ellen was going to attend Lamaze classes with Audrey. But we thought that adding the plot element of an unwed mother would be too much controversy for one season . . .

Q. Why did DeGeneres tease the public for months, in media interviews and even a guest spot on HBO's ''The Larry Sanders Show,'' about whether her character would come out? Did ABC or Disney muzzle her?

A. She was so afraid that people would accuse her of using this as a ratings ploy. She was in a really embarrassing position. Actually, she was extremely unhappy having to make those jokes about being ''Lebanese'' [on the Rosie O'Donnell Show] . . . she looked silly and we all looked silly.

Q. The guest cast of next week's show seems like an A-list casting call: Laura Dern, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, and k.d. lang, among others. But the most symbolic seems Oprah Winfrey, who plays Ellen's therapist.

A. That's right. There was a sense this is such a hot issue for the rest of the country. . .. Certainly Oprah provides the calm voice of reason. She's holding America's hand. Anyway, Oprah and Ellen are friends.

Advertisers continue to battle over the commercial soul of the April 30 ''Ellen'' episode, which ABC has rated TV-14 after rating the sitcom TV-PG all season. Chrysler has pulled an ad from the episode, Wendy's is dropping the show entirely, and J. C. Penney is considering pulling out should controversy over the lesbian theme continue.

Yesterday the Human Rights Campaign, a gay political advocacy group, released a copy of an ad that ABC rejected and local affiliate WCVB-Ch. 5 has tentatively agreed to air.

The ad dramatizes a job situation in which a woman is fired after being recognized as lesbian. Co-workers discuss the fact that the firing, although unfair, doesn't violate federal law. (Firing employees for being gay remains legal in 41 states, although not in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, or Vermont.) ABC earlier this month declined to run the commercial, saying it doesn't air political advocacy ads. But WCVB yesterday reiterated that ''based on a storyboard they've submitted, we've accepted the ad, with a final decision to be made when the commercial arrives,'' said programming director Elizabeth Cheng. Still unknown is the fate of a commercial for Olivia, the lesbian-oriented cruise line that sought unsuccessfully to air an ad on ABC. Although the network rejected it on grounds that it represented lifestyle advocacy, at Channel 5 ''we're open to any issue-oriented ads as long as they meet our standards,'' Cheng said. But Olivia, which couldn't be reached for comment, has yet to approach Channel 5 about airing the ad independently of ABC, the station said.

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