Coming Out in 1977: Viewing the Family Series Episode "Rites of Friendship"

posted by Madame Bubby

Family cast

I am surprised I did not remember this episode, as this series was approved viewing in our family (but then, maybe this particular episode was censored by the parents, as was the now legendary Maude obtains an abortion episode).

Family began as a six-part miniseries, and then it expanded to several full seasons, running from 1976-1980, corresponding perfectly timewise to my puberty. The Lawrences, an upper-middle class family in Pasadena, California, endures many joys and sorrows.

The central focus of the show is the inimitable Sada Thompson, who captures the unique combination of reserve and empathy of the family’s matriarch, Kate Lawrence (and she is always impeccably coiffed, definitely a throwback to June Cleaver). James Broderick, the father of Matthew Broderick, plays Kate’s husband, Doug. Meredith Baxter Birney plays their “troubled divorcee single mother” daughter Nancy; the hot Gary Frank (an early crush of mine) plays their nonconforming (mostly, you will see) son Willie; and Kristy McNichol plays their energetic tomboyish younger daughter, Letitia (aka Buddy).

Sada Thompson
Sada Thompson

Though one might claim the overall WASP social class of this family limits the show really serving as an accurate lens for many of the more troubling social issues of the time, the show dared to address in a realistic, often unflinching manner alcoholism, adopted children looking for birth parents, extramarital affairs, and in this groundbreaking episode, homosexuality.

The main plot of this episode is actually quite straightforward: Willie’s best friend from elementary and high school, Zeke Remsen (played by the hunky Brian Byers), returns home from college. He gets arrested in a gay bar for fighting with a cop (genteel shades of Stonewall, perhaps). Doug, a lawyer, manages to bail him out, and eventually get the sentence waived. Of course the incident forces a coming out for Zeke, an extremely attractive “straight-acting” basketball jock. (Note that the character doesn’t fit the gay stereotype of the period, and that fact shows overall genteel social milieu of the show.) Doug and Kate are sympathetic in perhaps a rather noblesse oblige way, but, most significantly, Willie starts to shun, at first coldly and then angrily, his childhood best friend.

Brian Byers

However, Zeke’s father coldly, even casually, disowns him after Doug shows up with Zeke to obtain some needed information for the court case. Doug and Kate, I think, would make excellent candidates for PFLAG. Kate reveals, in a particularly touching scene, that Zeke is a person who needs love, a mother’s love, and not in a sentimental way. Her moral imperative here is striking, even more so after her rather sardonic comment to Nancy, “at this point I can’t think of worse things.” She is a product of her generation, but the concern is genuine, even though she feels powerless and disoriented.

But rather than rejecting or concealing, she opens up in the only way she can do, she must do: love. And food and shelter, too. For her, one can’t separate these basic human needs. And she’s not afraid, because of this imperative, to call out Willie on his behavior toward Zeke. She really cuts to the heart of the matter in her indomitably classy way when she claims Willy will suffer a “meagre existence” because of his refusal to just accept Zeke as a person.

Yet the main relationship here is that between the renegade Willie and Zeke. Willie resents that Zeke had not told him, but now he knows, Zeke rightly accuses him of treating him like he suffers from a “social disease.” During that period, in the throes of all types of sexual liberation, the Eisenhower era social norms were really starting to crumble, and with crisis more overt scapegoating tends to occur.

Now, one could easily argue that Willie’s reaction is his discomfort with his own orientation, and in one of the episode’s final scenes, Doug picks up on this, claiming, and unfortunately this idea represents one of the common psychological views of the time, that all boys experience these “feelings,” but grow out of them, that is, normal boys, a “rite of passage.” A rather cringeworthy statement in hindsight, but Doug admitting to his son that he crushed on one of his classmates one could claim is rather groundbreaking.

But the ultimate lesson here is that heterosexual boys grow up to get married to girls. Gay males don’t and thus they tend to get into all sorts of personal and social troubles. (And the token confirmed bachelor the family knows, Emory Pope, we find at the end gets married. To a woman. Oh well. It’s 1977.)

But ironically, Zeke ends up being the mature one (and Buddy too, in a tear-jerking moment which I think shows one needs to be carefully taught bigotry, it is not innate), rather than Willie, trying to reach out to him, but failing miserably. Only after the conversation with Doug does Willie realize not just how selfish and immature his behavior has been, but that the real issue here is friendship.

Willie and Zeke
Willie and Zeke

And friendship here is not a double entendre for anything else. It’s a series of passages that acknowledge the past, embrace the present, and hope for the future. Willie knows he will not be able to get back the friendship of his childhood, but the show ends with a hope that his childhood friendship can grow into the friendship of his adulthood.

And an ironic P.S.: Both Meredith (now just Baxter) and Kristy McNichol are lesbians. Baxter came out late in life, while McNichol has been open for some time.

The entire episode is currently here on YouTube.

Rate this blog entry:
49 Hits

She Turned the World on With Her Smile


Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards, smiling

Now, by turned on, I mean something more wholistic than sexual, but I think you know, if you grew up in the seventies and stayed home on Saturday night to watch CBS' awesome line-up, to whom I am referring. 

Mary Tyler Moore, whom I remember especially in her television incarnation as the character Mary Richards, that midwestern, Presbyterian, single, associate producer of WJM News in Minneapolis, passed away on Wednesday, January 25, 2017. I join the multitudes of mourners (I feel like I lost a best friend), but I also rejoice that she will always be an iconic presence in the lives of so many people. 

Yes, the character Moore created is a true feminist icon, but I think there's so many other facets not just to the character, but the show as a whole. The situation comedy, I argue, was just as much about people as about issues of equal pay, gender roles, sexual freedom, journalistic freedom, and even, in one episode, anti-Semitism. 

And these were people we all to hang with, to laugh with, and in the case of the admittedly boorish Ted Baxter, to laugh at, but recognizing that beneath his bluster, as his wife on the show Georgette said, “Someone has to love him.” 

Mary and Ted

The phrase in the show's theme song, “Love is All Around You,” became in the show not a sentimental cliché, but a dynamic emerging out of relationships where the characters, following the lead of Mary Richards, accepted each other's human foibles with grace and subtle humor but also knew when and where to assert their own self-respect and human worth. 

As I mentioned above in the case of Ted, even characters like Phyllis and Sue Ann Nivens which could have become caricatures of narcissism and nymphomania, were not, because they were ultimately viewed from the perspective of Mary, and the brilliant actresses who played them understood the show's unique dynamic. 

So many moments on this show exemplify what I am trying to say. One episode that stands out include the first episode where Sue Ann appears, “The Lars Affair.” This predatory “other woman” whose public persona is the Happy Homemaker has an affair with the unseen husband of Phyllis. What makes this episode so interesting is that it's clear Phyllis is the wronged woman, but both Mary and even Rhoda (Phyllis' enemy), actually find an interesting, humorous insight into the situation: Phyllis, who is always trying some newfangled, ephemeral scheme (even encouraging Ted to run for public office at one point), seems to be, because of her quirkiness, more the “other woman,” while Sue Ann with her mom, apple pie, frilly apron persona, looks more like the cliché of the wronged wife. 

Phyllis and Sue Ann

At one crisis point in the episode, Phyllis tries to emulate Sue Ann by baking an apple pie (with disastrously funny results), bemoans her husband's clothes are cleaner after his nights with Sue Ann. We see Phyllis' combination of narcissism and vulnerability here, and also, the show's emphasis on a community of friends that transcend conventional views of family to whom she can turn in a time of personal crisis. 
Rhoda, Mary, and Phillis

Phyllis gets her revenge (a brilliant move using food), but only after Mary intervenes. Mary, always tactful, tried to stay out of it, but she finally took action, telling Sue Ann that Ted knows about the affair, and thus everyone knows, and that an extramarital affair would not exactly be the best image for the Happy Homemaker. Mary does this on the spur of the moment, and her intentions are not vicious (she does not spread the rumor), but she knows that it is time to hopefully do something to preserve everyone's self respect. 

I could go on even more, emphasizing what so many others have done the evolution in Mary's relationship with Mr. Grant (I just knew on the next to last episode when they dated that they would never finish that kiss without laughing), and the show's brilliant use of belly laugh humor in the Chuckles the Clown episode to wrestle with the usually unfunny death and mortality. Ah, that scene at the funeral. Young lady … askes the minister. Young lady … Mary looks back. And then her most perfect Mary Richards (so consistent to the character when she was torn between not making a scene or saying her mind) flustered, plaintive moan. 

Funeral scene from Chuckles the Clown

I mentioned earlier the unique sense of community that the show revealed, in the interactions of Mary with her her neighbors who were also her friends and with her coworkers who were also her friends. I always envied that dynamic, especially later in life when, like many other LGBTQ persons, I had to create my own family, when, like Mary, I moved to the big city to be on my own and hoped to find love all around me. 

Mary Tyler Moore cast embracing

Yes, Mary Tyler Moore and her character of Mary Richards, you made it after all with an amazing combination of strength and sweetness (and intuitively knowing when to use either one or both), and you gave hope to so many that they could do the same. 

Rate this blog entry:
611 Hits

Contact Us | 800-932-7111 | Join our email list

Go to top