Sometimes America’s most hetero characters were played by actors who were really, really acting.
Meredith Baxter’s announcement that she is a lesbian has put a — you should excuse the expression — kink in the long line of all-American TV moms.
It’s not June Cleaver or Harriet Nelson who has come out, but as Elyse Keaton on "Family Ties," Baxter was a loving mother and wife, a maternal anchor on a hugely popular show that ran during most of the 1980s.
Now Baxter isn’t just a member of the TV-mom sorority. She’s also one of those LGBT actors who played iconic straight roles.
Sometimes America’s favorite, most heterosexual characters were played by actors who, well, were really, really acting.
Baxter says only relatively recently did she figure out she’s gay, so she wasn’t consciously hiding anything. From the television audience, anyway. Whether she was hiding anything from herself is between her, her therapist and, this being L.A., her other therapist.
Elyse Keaton, a liberal former hippie, had what so many TV moms had over the decades preceding her: maternal warmth, patience, wisdom. She also had what a TV mom needed by the 1980s: a job (although I admit I couldn’t remember she was an architect).
You could argue that handling her conservative son Alex, famously played by Michael J. Fox, was work enough.
During the ’80s Elyse Keaton was — and she remains still — one of America’s best-known mothers. Now we know one of America’s famous mommies was a lesbian. Life is good.
I had no idea back in the ’70s that Grandpa Walton was anything other than straight as a board from the Walton family sawmill. In fact, Will Geer was more like the curly shavings.
Grandpa, patriarch of "The Waltons," was a good-natured character. Hard-working, dedicated to his family, wise, mischievous and fond of visiting the Baldwin sisters for a nip of upscale moonshine, he was still in love with his wife of a zillion years.
I’d guess that regardless of class, race, religion or anything, many Americans would’ve loved to have Zeb Walton as their grandfather. He was the definition of endearing. Sort of a walrus meets a panda.
I can’t think of any other grandfather on TV more appealing. Actually, I can hardly think of any other grandfather.
Grandpa Munster? He was more all-Transylvanian than all-American.
When Will Geer took the role of Zeb Walton, he’d already had a long career on the stage and in film and television. He was attracted to radical politics; actress Helen Hayes once called him "the world’s oldest hippie."
In 1933, Geer met Harry Hay, who would later be one of the founders of gay liberation. The two men became lovers.
Geer was married for 20 years, and it seems the most accurate label for him is bisexual. America’s ultimate grandfather dug both men and women.
On Walton’s Mountain, things weren’t quite what they seemed.
Things weren’t at all what they seemed in the case of one of America’s foremost TV dads. Robert Reed — Mike Brady in "The Brady Bunch" — was gay. That secret was hidden even better than whatever happened to Tiger the dog.
According to greginhollywood.com, Florence Henderson, who played Carol Brady, spoke of her TV husband during her recent one-woman show: "I always felt so sad for him because in the early ’70s you couldn’t come out because you wouldn’t work. And here he was playing the father of America, and he was gay."
Reed spent more time in the closet than Alice spent in the kitchen.
Speaking of Ann B. Davis, I’ve heard the rumors, but I’ve no idea what her orientation is. Perhaps she’s straight, perhaps not.
If not, then in addition to an iconic TV mother, grandfather and father, we could even claim a housekeeper, too. •
Leslie Robinson is a freelance columnist focusing on LGBT issues. She lives in Seattle.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 11, 2009.