PASADENA, Calif. (KGET) – Ellen DeGeneres is given the lion’s share of credit for opening the door for gay characters on television with her 1994 comedy “Ellen.” It is a major moment in television history for the LGBTQ community but the actual unlocking of the closet door came months before the revelation by DeGeneres.
Wilson Cruz was the first openly gay actor to play a gay character on television with the short-lived – but highly touted – ABC series “My So Called Life.” The impact actors like DeGeneres and Cruz have had on television is explored in “Visible: Out on Television” debut Feb. 14 on the streaming service of Apple TV+.
The five-part documentary combines archival footage with interviews with key players from the movement to explore themes such as invisibility, homophobia, the evolution of the LGBTQ character and coming out in the television industry.
It is narrated by Janet Mock, Margaret Cho, Asia Kate Dillon, Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Waithe. Cruz, who is one of the executive producers, has been working on the project for more than seven years.
Cruz was a trailblazer in more than one way. When he was cast in “My So Called Life,” he was only the second actor on primetime television of Hispanic descent (“L.A. Law” star Jimmy Smits was the other). He still calls the journey by DeGeneres as being “more perilous” than his own.
“She had to carry that entire show and I was part of an ensemble,” Cruz says. “Ellen was the first lead LGBTQ character on a television show. She carried the weight of that entire show on her shoulders.
“The way she talks about that in this documentary is very illuminating. I don’t think anyone really understands what it cost her. It all took a resilience and a courage that moves me every time I think about it.”
He adds that courage is a recurring theme in the documentary as it focuses on those who took a risk with stories that at the time were completely taboo. That ranges from Raymond Burr who hid being homosexual because the “Perry Mason” star feared what coming out would do to his career to straight actors like Hal Holbrook who dared to portray gay characters.
While making the documentary series, Cruz got a real sense of just how far the LGBTQ community has come in regards to television. They have gone from being invisible in the 1950s to being a regular part of TV programming.
“Today you can turn on almost any television show and see a member of the LGBTQ community depicted and that didn’t just happen. That happened because there were people who risked their lives and their livelihoods in order to tell those stories. And so now, really what the next step and the next level that we need to reach is allowing LGBTQ filmmakers to be behind the camera, writing those stories, directing those stories, producing those stories, and telling our own stories,” Cruz says.
Cruz is proud of how his work had an impact on television but his work as Enrique ‘Rickie’ Vasquez on “My So Called Life” was even more important to him on a personal level.
“I came out to my parents because I knew the show was about to air,” Cruz says. “When we made the pilot of the series, I wasn’t out to my parents. The catalyst for my coming out to my parents was that I knew I was going to be coming out publicly because of the show.”
The reaction from his father was to throw a teenage Cruz out of the house. Cruz lived with friends and in his car for months until production of “My So Called Life” started.
Ten minutes after the episode of “My So Called Life” aired where his character was made to leave the family home after coming out, Cruz got a telephone call from his father. They had not spoken in over a year. His father told Cruz him he finally understood what he had done by seeing the story on television. That was the start of a reconciliation between father and son.
Cruz wants to continue to produce programming featuring LGBTQ actors and stories. Until then, he continues to boldly go where other LGBTQ characters have not gone before playing the first openly gay series regular on the CBS All Access series, “Star Trek: Discovery,” with Dr. Hugh Culber. Being part of the “Star Trek” franchise is a pure joy for Cruz.
“I literally every morning jump out of bed to head to the set,” Cruz says with a huge smile. “I need people to know it is the most creative and supportive set I have ever been on.
“It’s the most comfortable I have ever been but maybe that’s because of where I am in my life.”
As for the Apple TV+ documentary, Cruz says, “I hope people will understand the responsibility and power that comes with making television. It doesn’t have to be this frivolous thing. It can really be a tool for change.”
Apple TV+ is available on the Apple TV app on iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iPod touch, Mac, select Samsung and LG smart TVs, Amazon Fire TV and Roku devices, as well as at tv.apple.com.