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Straight Talk on a Gay Role

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In tonight’s episode of “Will & Grace,” Will Truman, the confident and elegant attorney played by Eric McCormack, is at odds with his best friend and roommate, the charmingly emotional Grace (Debra Messing), over the prospect of adding a puppy to their already chaotic household. Grace, as usual, prevails and Will soon finds himself hopelessly in puppy love. At his real home in the Hollywood Hills, McCormack’s two German shepherd puppies provide a noisy backdrop for his life--a gift from his wife of 15 months, Janet Holden, whose acting assignments keep her primarily in Vancouver for now. Like Will, McCormack resisted the puppy idea and now finds himself smitten.

Actually there is little that separates McCormack from Will, a role that he describes as “truer” and “freer” than any he’s ever done. Except, of course, for the NBC comedy’s central conceit. In the ‘90s Tracy-Hepburn world that co-creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick have built for Will and Grace, he’s gay, she’s not.

Much has been made of casting McCormack, a straight man, in the first prime-time lead gay role after “Ellen’s” much-publicized coming-out arc on ABC last season. When McCormack was considering taking the part, he worried as much about success as he did failure.

Would he be typecast? Not solely because of Will’s sexual orientation but in the way Carroll O’Connor was as Archie Bunker, or Ted Danson as Sam Malone on “Cheers.” That will likely be put to the test as the show settles into a much stronger time slot tonight, signaling a clear vote of confidence from the network.

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Scott Sassa, president of NBC Entertainment, believes that by putting “Will & Grace” after the better-established “Just Shoot Me,” the show will have a chance at finding “an audience that is probably much more compatible. Younger people, more urban people,” says Sassa.

Ironically, “Will & Grace” began life as an ensemble comedy exploring the dynamics of couple-hood in a post-feminist era. Will and Grace were supporting players. On paper it sounded a bit like you’d be catching up with “Friends” in 10 years.

But the chemistry between the two actors caught the attention of Warren Littlefield, then-NBC entertainment chief, and David Nevins, who heads prime-time series for the network. Suddenly Kohan and Mutchnick (“Boston Common” and “Dream On”), who serve as the series’ executive producers, found themselves reshaping things to focus on Will and Grace. The partners had written the couple as funny, supportive and very close--in love, but with no “will they, or won’t they get together” lurking in the shadows to provide the dramatic tension.

Lean and intense, a cowlick of black hair brushing his forehead, McCormack says that from the moment he read for Will last year, “I thought, ‘This is me.’

“He was me in every other way except sexuality,” says McCormack. “I can be controlling, but I’m a great host. I’m a good friend. I’m a really good listener. Many of my closest friends are women.”

And also gay men. “I spent years in theater,” says McCormack. “I’ve lived with them. I know gay men, and I know there’s as much variety in that community as there is in anybody else.”

Indeed “Will & Grace” presents some of that variety in the deliciously outlandish character of Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes). His foil as supporting player is ditzy socialite Karen Walker (Megan Mullally), Grace’s assistant. As McCormack explains: “We show two different gay men, polar opposites, but they are still only two. They cannot carry the weight of all homosexuality on their back.”

It’s an easy assumption that the 33-year-old Mutchnick and Kohan, 34, close friends since Beverly Hills High, parallel Will and Grace. But the producers say their real model is Mutchnick, who is gay, and his close friend Janet Eisenberg, who heads a voice-over casting agency in New York. The two met at age 13.

“We were always a couple in every single way except the bedroom,” says Mutchnick. “These relationships always have the crisis point, ‘I’m gay, and I’m not going to be the man you’re going to spend the rest of your life with’ . . . but once the sexual tension has been removed, you become best friends.”

In a recent lighthearted episode involving the keeping of secrets, there is a momentary shadow of that as Grace reminds Will of his old secret, when during Christmas break he told her he was gay, and “everything changed.”

The feedback from the gay community and elsewhere has been positive, according to the producers. And Scott Seomin, entertainment media director for GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) staunchly supports it, calling it “a great show. First of all, it’s funny, and that’s what a sitcom is supposed to be. What’s refreshing about ‘Will & Grace’ is that it’s a show about being out rather than coming out.”

Sassa echoes that assessment: “These guys [Kohan and Mutchnick] have come out with a fresh idea, really funny characters. It’s a different voice than you normally see on television.”

So when will Will date? “When we feel we have a good story to tell,” says Mutchnick. “Will has come out of a seven-year relationship” and needs “recovery time.”

And in tonight’s puppy episode, Grace suggests to Will that he’s substituting love of a puppy for real love. “You need to be giving all this love and affection to something that’s, I don’t know, paper-trained. Go on a date, Will. It’s time.”


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