When Leading Men Prefer Men

Some say Americans want leading men to be handsome, virile, sexy, and straight.

May 16, 2007— -- People in dark movie theaters will believe just about anything. A boy magically becoming "Big" overnight, the Terminator recast as a pregnant woman…and "Bennifer" in an unconventional romantic comedy. Okay, that last one didn't quite work out, but at least Hollywood took a shot.

But some people say that one thing Hollywood, and audiences, won't believe in, is an openly gay actor playing a leading man.

Chad Allen, former child star of shows such as "Our House" and "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" believes that Hollywood is still not accepting of actors "coming out" and then playing lead romantic roles. "I think it's the last great hurdle that we have to overcome," said Allen.

"Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" was a top-ten television hit, and Allen's face was on the cover of teen magazines worldwide. But he now says he was living a lie, keeping secret the fact that he was gay. "Everywhere I went, teenage girls followed me around screaming. And inside, I'm going, 'You have no idea,'" Allen said.

Alienating the Audience?

In 1996, Allen was outed by a tabloid, and his team of publicists, agents, and managers shifted into crisis mode.

"Everybody sat around with me in the middle, saying, 'You're gay? What are you going to do? What are we going to do?'" he recalled.

While openly gay actors can still get work, there is almost an unwritten rule in Hollywood that romantic roles go to straight actors or those who hide their sexual orientation. Jess Cagle, People Magazine's assistant managing editor, says, "Hollywood is terrified of alienating the audience."

Cagle says that although there are openly gay writers, producers, and executives in Hollywood, they "probably would not hire a gay actor."

And Allen says that his talent team told him they could "get [him] a girlfriend" if he wanted to cover up his sexuality. Allen ultimately decided not to keep his lifestyle a secret from the public and he feels he's paid a price.

"You know, you're talking to a guy who never stopped working from the time he was five years old. I came out, and it stopped," he said. "The year after Dr. Quinn was over, I couldn't get an audition for a pilot for the same network I worked six years in a top ten television series for."

Nails in the 'Career Coffin'

Rupert Everett has starred in dozens of movies, and is perhaps best-known for his scene-stealing performance in "My Best Friend's Wedding." He agrees that being openly gay in Hollywood is something people focus on.

"I felt really pissed off," he said. "I was dying not to talk about being gay -- it was like, you know, hammering one nail after another into a career coffin. The thing is, it was the only thing that really interested people."

"My Best Friend's Wedding" was a particularly challenging role for Everett to move on from because, he says, "the thing of having got successful playing the gay best friend of a movie star -- I think it was a very difficult thing to follow up."

Cagle says being openly gay when you're a film actor is particularly hard. "I think it would be really tough for a gay actor to become a movie star," she said, "because being a movie star has nothing to do with acting, really, it has to do with being the object of romantic fantasy. If you're a male movie star, men want to be you, and women want to be with you. And the fact of the matter is, the audience is really hung up on homosexuality."

Recently, two successful television actors, Neil Patrick Harris of CBS's "How I Met Your Mother" and T.R. Knight of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" have both been outed via the Internet and the tabloids. Both continue to play heterosexual men on hit shows and their careers appear not to have suffered.

Perhaps times have changed, at least on television. But an "A" list movie star coming out of the closet is what Chad Allen says it might take, to force Hollywood to write a new ending to this taboo.

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