When Ryan Phillippe had One Gay Life to Live

Nowadays, gay characters on daytime soap operas fall in and out of love, and even–can you imagine such a thing–kiss! Roughly twenty years ago, such was not the case. In 1992, One Life to Live dared to tell what is still the biggest “gay” storyline in the history of daytime television. At the center of that story was a young gay teenager, played by a 17-year-old newcomer named Ryan Phillippe.

Below is a reprint of my article, “One Gay Life to Live,” which originally appeared in the August 28, 1992, issue of Frontiers Magazine.

One Gay Life to Live

With little fanfare and even less protest, this has been the summer of gays on television … relatively speaking. One the non-entertainment side, there was the entertaining Democratic National Convention, where the presence of gays reverberated throughout the week and Bob Hattoy told the world, “Yes, I am gay and I have AIDS.”

Elsewhere, the Fox network included a gay man in the mix on Melrose Place, its new Beverly Hills 90210 clone. So far, the character of Matt (played by Doug Savant) is underdeveloped, but he is gay and he is present.

Over on MTV’s The Real World, one of the seven people picked to live in a Manhattan loft for three months and have their lives taped, bad hair days and all, turned out to be gay. Norman talked about his sexuality, fell in and out of love with another man and pursued his painting, all to the acceptance by his loft-mates.

“It was a really emotionally charged day,” says Ryan Phillippe, the 17-year-old actor.

But the most ground-breaking experience for gays on entertainment TV this summer might be what’s going on weekday afternoons on ABC’s daytime drama, One Life to Live. For it is here, in the fictional town of Llanview, that gay issues are taking center stage.

Soapdom has featured gay characters twice in the past–a lesbian on All My Children in 1983 and a gay man on As the World Turns in 1988–but those plots were minor in scope compared to One Life’s all encompassing tale.

Almost daily for the last few months, the show has featured such scenes as a teenage boy wrestling with coming out; a worried mother letting her guard down long enough to ask her minister if homosexuality is a sickness; an upstanding matron (who has been the rock of the show for over 20 years) informing others that gays are not automatically child molesters; and a straight teenager sticking up for his gay best friend when his homophobic father orders them not to see each other again.

“Billy Douglas (Ryan Phillippe) found he could no longer contain his gay feelings.”

“I want to change people’s minds,” says Linda Gottlieb, the executive producer of One Life to Live who came on board a year ago to revive the New York show’s sagging ratings.

Frontiers magazine cover
Cover of Frontiers Magazine

Change people’s minds? Well, at the very least, Gottlieb’s making them think.

The story began in late spring when the Rev. Andrew Carpenter (Wortham Krimmer) received a permanent visit from his father, Gen. Sloan Carpenter (Roy Thinnes). Instantly the two were at odds, especially over the general’s denial that his other son, William, was gay and died of AIDS.

At the same time, 16-year-old Billy Douglas (Ryan Phillippe) found he could no longer contain his gay feelings and went to Rev. Carpenter seeking guidance. Carpenter–whom the audience knows as straight–was supportive, but their friendship ignited a rumor that he had made sexual advances to Billy.

“The town’s new police commissioner is trying to root out gay and lesbian cops.”

From there, a wave of hysteria engulfed the denizens of Llanview. Billy’s ultra-conservative parents went after Rev. Carpenter, who denied the seduction charges but refused to declare his sexuality on the grounds of privacy.

At first Billy was traumatized into silence; eventually, he found the courage to clear the reverend (without coming out himself), but it was too late to stop the town’s homophobic witch hunt.

Now, rocks are being hurled through windows, “fag” has been spray-painted on the reverend’s door, and petitions and protests for and against gay rights are the norm in Llanview.

Most of the town’s “good” characters have been decidedly pro-gay, but the show is not without its share of realistic, anti-gay sentiment from the general, Billy’s parents, and others. For example, the town’s new police commissioner is trying to root out gay and lesbian cops by getting fellow officers to name names and firing those who won’t cooperate.

“What happens if my son or daughter were gay? Do I have enough love in my heart to deal with it?”

The story and most of its ripples will culminate at the end of August when several characters, including Rev. Carpenter and Billy, visit the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. The outdoor scenes were shot on location in New Vernon, N.J., using over 250 real panels from the Quilt along with a fictional panel for the character of the reverend’s brother.

“It was a really emotionally charged day,” says Ryan Phillippe, the 17-year-old actor who portrays Billy Douglas. “You couldn’t turn around without seeing someone with tears in their eyes.”

In an age where protests against positive gay roles on television are heard louder than the roles themselves, it’s somewhat shocking that One Life to Live has decided to go this far out on a limb.

But Linda Gottlieb, who hired gay psychiatrist Richard Isay as a consultant, never wavered from her intent. “We wanted to make people understand that gays are people just like their own children, that they come in all shapes and sizes,” she says.

Ryan Phillippe in Frontiers Magazine

Thus the character of Billy was introduced as the captain of the swim team before the audience learned he was gay.

“I hope people will also begin to understand it from the point of view of the parents,” adds Gottlieb. “What happens if my son or daughter were gay? How would I react, do I have enough love in my heart to deal with it?”

Much to Gottlieb’s surprise, ABC has been very supportive. “We were all sort of girding our loins to do battle with the network and sponsors and they’ve been quite superb. Our ratings are up and fan mail was up 500 percent last month.”

The content of the mail? “Overwhelming pro.”

Phillippe himself has received in the neighborhood of 600 letters (40 percent from gays and lesbians) and all but one has been positive. The numbers are encouraging, if not necessarily the content.

“A lot of kids write and say things like they’re giving themselves to the end of the summer to figure out whether they want to live or die,” says Phillippe. “I’m talking some really heavy stuff. They’re contemplating suicide and they’re asking me how they should deal with it.”

“I don’t think many people understand the power of what ‘One Life to Live’ is doing right now.”

Phillippe seeks out professional advice on how to write back, often sending along information and hotline numbers. If there’s a bright side to the letters, it’s that their authors now have someone to reach out to; many of his older gay fans say they wish they’d had Billy as a role model when they were young.

It’s what makes Phillippe glad he accepted the role earlier this year, just as he was graduating high school in New Castle, Delaware.

“It’s been nothing but a positive experience,” says the straight actor, who admits he hesitated about taking on a gay role. “I grew up in a Baptist school so I led a fairly sheltered life and I didn’t know exactly how to deal with homosexuals ’cause I never had to. I never had any as friends and I couldn’t understand how somebody could feel like that.”

But that’s all changed in a few short months, thanks in part to the show. Phillippe says he now has gay friends and a lot more compassion for those different than him. “I’ve learned that humankind as a whole needs to have more understanding for others’ needs and if you can’t understand someone, that shouldn’t give you reason to ridicule them. That’s what I hope our audience gets out of the show because that’s what I’ve gotten out of playing the role.”

“I don’t think many people understand the power of what One Life to Live is doing right now,” says Chris Fowler, acting executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in Los Angeles. “It’s a tremendously innovative storyline for daytime television. Gay and lesbian teens are seeing someone just like them coming to grips with his sexuality.

“Linda Gottlieb deserves quite a bit of support from the gay and lesbian community,” adds Fowler, citing inside reports of network nervousness and the usual barrage of anti-gay phone calls, which is why, he stresses, the gay community needs to write to ABC in support of the show.

At least until the storyline reaches its upcoming climax, One Life to Live will continue to bring gay issues every weekday afternoon to over five million viewers. As for the future, Linda Gottlieb says the character of Billy is so successful, he’ll remain on the show as “a teenager who happens to be gay.”

But what about giving him a love interest? “That’ll really rock ’em,” she jokes. Gottlieb will make no promises, but adds, “You never know. If you have only one life to live in the media, you might as well do it on an important story.”