Queers of the Past: On Stage And Screen

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As a follow-up to a column we published in 2014 “Famous Actors Who Never Came Out, And A Few Who Finally Did,” SFGN takes a look back on Queers who made their mark in the film and theater industries of generations past.

Related: Famous Actors Who Never Came Out, And A Few Who Finally Did

Many of these actors were forced to live in the closet or face banishment from their professions--but some did manage to venture out.

 

Ernest Thesiger in Bride of Frankenstein

Ernest Thesiger (1879-1961)

A celebrated star of the stage in his day, Ernest Thesiger also made many film appearances, two of which gave him a cult following which he retains today.

In 1932 Thesiger co-starred in gay director James Whale's "The Old Dark House" opposite horror movie icon Boris Karloff and Gloria Stuart—Stuart would gain late in life fame as Old Rose in "Titanic" (1997) some 65 years later. In the darkly comic chiller Thesiger played Horace Femm, a screaming, effeminate queen who reportedly was not unlike the actor himself.

Thesiger reunited with Karloff and Whale for 1935's "Bride of Frankenstein." Thesiger's portrayed the ghoulishly queenie Dr. Praetorius, who professes a fondness for underground crypts and who gazes "lovingly" at his pupil, Dr. Frankenstein. This role is considered one of the screen's first openly gay characters--of course in 1935 the "g" word could not be uttered.

In real life Thesiger was married to stage actress Janette Ranken, though this is widely believed to have been a marriage of "convenience"--Thesiger was actually in a long term relationship with Ranken's brother, the artist William Ranken. Many of Thesiger's friends were well-known actors, writers and artists of the period, including Whale, Cole Porter, Vita Sackville-West, and others who are now known to have been gay or bisexual.

Thesiger's 1941 book "Adventures in Embroidery" remains available on Amazon--for $113. "Practically True," his 1926 autobiography, is currently unavailable online.

Thesiger was played by Arthur Dignam in "Gods and Monsters" (1998), a biographical film about James Whale.

Alla Nazimova

Alla Nazimova (1879-1945)

Often known to the public by the single name Nazimova, she was a celebrated stage actress, and was a powerful Hollywood figure during the early 1920s. A producer on a number of the films in which she starred, Nazimova's Sunset Blvd mansion, known as the Garden of Allah, became notorious for her wild parties, which were rumored to include orgies. Openly bisexual, Nazimova flaunted her many affairs with men and women alike.

In 1923 Nazimova produced and starred in a film based on gay 19th-century writer Oscar Wilde's "Salome." The film's screenplay was written by Natacha Rambova, who was married to silent film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino--both of whom are believed to have had affairs with Nazimova.

Hollywood lore states that "Salome" was cast entirely with gay or bisexual actors, though this has never been verified. "Salome" was a box office failure and ruined Nazimova's Hollywood career. She returned to the theater, though did make a few film appearances during the 1940s.

In 1977 Nazimova was portrayed by actress Leslie Caron in director Ken Russell's "Valentino".

 

dorothy arzner on set

Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979)

Arzner was reportedly one of Nazimova's many female lovers. Possibly the only working female director in the male dominated Hollywood of the 1930s, Arzner directed many of the era's top female stars, including Clara Bow, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and a pre-I Love Lucy Lucille Ball. She was definitely the first woman to direct a talking picture, and was the first female member of the Director's Guild of America.

Arzner's films were known for their strong, free-spirited female characters. She lived with choreographer Marion Morgan for forty years.

Jonathan Frid on Dark Shadows

Jonathan Frid (1924-2012)

Frid was a classically trained stage actor who studied under theater legend Lord Laurence Olivier and toured with Hollywood star Katharine Hepburn. In 1967, at age 43, he was preparing to retire from acting to become a teacher when his agent called with an offer to appear for 13 weeks on "Dark Shadows," a then struggling daytime drama. Frid's multi-layered portrayal of Barnabas Collins, a guilt-ridden 175-year-old vampire, caused "Dark Shadows" to jump from the bottom to the top of the ratings almost overnight. The three-month gig stretched into four years and Frid, a middle-aged man, found himself an unlikely teen idol.

Throughout his life, old school gentleman Frid remained "discreet" about his private life, but he was hardly in the closet. He frequently enjoyed cocktails at Julius', a gay bar in the West Village, then the center of New York City's LGBT community. He was also photographed with "Dark Shadows" co-star Louis Edmonds on Fire Island, a popular gay resort--though good friends, the two men were not a couple. They remained close, with Frid attending Edmonds' funeral in 2001.

Though Frid's homosexuality has been common knowledge for decades, a small circle of "Dark Shadows" fans continue to insist that the actor was straight.

Louis Edmonds and Jonathan Frid on Fire Island

Louis Edmonds (1923-2001)

Though popular for his five-year run on "Dark Shadows," Edmonds achieved star status for his 16-year portrayal of comical con artist Langley Wallingford on the classic daytime drama "All My Children." He received several Emmy nominations for his work on "AMC." Edmonds' fans included TV legend Carol Burnett, who asked to be written into the show specifically so she could work with Edmonds. For one week in 1983, Burnett appeared as Verla Grubbs--the actress played the role occasionally for the rest of "AMC's" run and was eventually revealed to be Langley's long-lost daughter.

Throughout his career, which included dozens of stage appearances, Edmonds remained semi-closeted to the public but was always openly gay to his friends and colleagues. He was the subject of "Big Lou," a 2004 biography from the late gay writer Craig Hamrick. In the book Edmonds spoke openly of his life as a gay man in the theater and of his two long term relationships. "Big Lou" remains available at Amazon for $13.61

Kerwin Mathews

Kerwin Mathews (1926-2007)

Handsome and virile, Mathews achieved popularity during the 1960s after starring in a series of fantasy/adventure films, including "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" (1958) and "The Three Worlds of Gulliver" (1960). His twenty-plus year acting career included a wide variety of roles in film and on television.

In 1978 Mathews retired from acting and moved to San Francisco, where he owned and operated a men's clothing and antique shop. Though he remained "discreet" during his acting career, Mathews and Tom Nicoll, his partner of 46 years, lived as an openly gay couple in San Francisco. Mathews' 2007 obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle acknowledged the couple's relationship.

Paul Winfield

Paul Winfield (1941-2004)

In 1972 Winfield was only a small handful of African American actors to have garnered an Academy Award nomination up to that time. Winfield was acknowledged for his work in the acclaimed drama "Sounder," in which he played a sharecropper who was unjustly sent to prison during the Great Depression.

Winfield developed a fan following for his appearances in popular science fiction films such as "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan" (1982), "The Terminator" (1984) and Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks" (1996).

In 1978 Winfield was nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance as Dr. Martin Luther King in "King," a three hour TV movie--Coretta Scott King was played by Cicely Tyson, his co-star from "Sounder," He won the Emmy Award for an appearance he made on the popular TV series "Picket Fences" in 1995.

In 1998 Winfield appeared as "Auntie Mahalia", a gay role, in "Relax, It's Just Sex!" a gay romantic comedy. Prior to this film, Winfield was "discreet" about his private life. He and Charles Gillian, his partner of thirty years, are interred together at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood.

Lenny Baker in Next Stop Greenwich Village

Lenny Baker (1945-1982)

Baker, a regular performer on and off-Broadway, attracted a great deal of attention for his only starring role in a film: "Next Stop Greenwich Village" (1976), director Paul Mazursky's autobiographical tale of his years as a struggling actor in early 1950s New York City. The well-received film garnered Baker a Golden Globe nomination and put him on a clear path to stardom.

The following year Baker won a Tony Award for his work in the Broadway musical "I Love My Wife." Appearances on popular TV shows such as "Starsky and Hutch," "Taxi" and "The Rockford Files" soon followed.

In 1979 Baker seemed to suddenly disappear. Three years later his death from cancer at age 37 was reported in the New York Times, though many of his friends and colleagues have since come forward to say that Baker was gay and was an early casualty of AIDS.

As a follow-up to a column we published in 2014 “Famous Actors Who Never Came Out, And A Few Who Finally Did,” SFGN takes a look back on Queers who made their mark in the film and theater industries of generations past.

Many of these actors were forced to live in the closet or face banishment from their professions--but some did manage to venture out.

Ernest Thesiger (1879-1961)

A celebrated star of the stage in his day, Ernest Thesiger also made many film appearances, two of which gave him a cult following which he retains today.

In 1932 Thesiger co-starred in gay director James Whale's "The Old Dark House" opposite horror movie icon Boris Karloff and Gloria Stuart—Stuart would gain late in life fame as Old Rose in "Titanic" (1997) some 65 years later. In the darkly comic chiller Thesiger played Horace Femm, a screaming, effeminate queen who reportedly was not unlike the actor himself.

Thesiger reunited with Karloff and Whale for 1935's "Bride of Frankenstein." Thesiger's portrayed the ghoulishly queenie Dr. Praetorius, who professes a fondness for underground crypts and who gazes "lovingly" at his pupil, Dr. Frankenstein. This role is considered one of the screen's first openly gay characters--of course in 1935 the "g" word could not be uttered.

In real life Thesiger was married to stage actress Janette Ranken, though this is widely believed to have been a marriage of "convenience"--Thesiger was actually in a long term relationship with Ranken's brother, the artist William Ranken. Many of Thesiger's friends were well-known actors, writers and artists of the period, including Whale, Cole Porter, Vita Sackville-West, and others who are now known to have been gay or bisexual.

Thesiger's 1941 book "Adventures in Embroidery" remains available on Amazon--for $113. "Practically True," his 1926 autobiography, is currently unavailable online.

Thesiger was played by Arthur Dignam in "Gods and Monsters" (1998), a biographical film about James Whale.

Alla Nazimova (1879-1945)

Often known to the public by the single name Nazimova, she was a celebrated stage actress, and was a powerful Hollywood figure during the early 1920s. A producer on a number of the films in which she starred, Nazimova's Sunset Blvd mansion, known as the Garden of Allah, became notorious for her wild parties, which were rumored to include orgies. Openly bisexual, Nazimova flaunted her many affairs with men and women alike.

In 1923 Nazimova produced and starred in a film based on gay 19th-century writer Oscar Wilde's "Salome." The film's screenplay was written by Natacha Rambova, who was married to silent film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino--both of whom are believed to have had affairs with Nazimova.

Hollywood lore states that "Salome" was cast entirely with gay or bisexual actors, though this has never been verified. "Salome" was a box office failure and ruined Nazimova's Hollywood career. She returned to the theater, though did make a few film appearances during the 1940s.

In 1977 Nazimova was portrayed by actress Leslie Caron in director Ken Russell's "Valentino".

Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979)

Arzner was reportedly one of Nazimova's many female lovers. Possibly the only working female director in the male dominated Hollywood of the 1930s, Arzner directed many of the era's top female stars, including Clara Bow, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and a pre-I Love Lucy Lucille Ball. She was definitely the first woman to direct a talking picture, and was the first female member of the Director's Guild of America.

Arzner's films were known for their strong, free-spirited female characters. She lived with choreographer Marion Morgan for forty years.

Jonathan Frid (1924-2012)

Frid was a classically trained stage actor who studied under theater legend Lord Laurence Olivier and toured with Hollywood star Katharine Hepburn. In 1967, at age 43, he was preparing to retire from acting to become a teacher when his agent called with an offer to appear for 13 weeks on "Dark Shadows," a then struggling daytime drama. Frid's multi-layered portrayal of Barnabas Collins, a guilt-ridden 175-year-old vampire, caused "Dark Shadows" to jump from the bottom to the top of the ratings almost overnight. The three-month gig stretched into four years and Frid, a middle-aged man, found himself an unlikely teen idol.

Throughout his life, old school gentleman Frid remained "discreet" about his private life, but he was hardly in the closet. He frequently enjoyed cocktails at Julius', a gay bar in the West Village, then the center of New York City's LGBT community. He was also photographed with "Dark Shadows" co-star Louis Edmonds on Fire Island, a popular gay resort--though good friends, the two men were not a couple. They remained close, with Frid attending Edmonds' funeral in 2001.

Though Frid's homosexuality has been common knowledge for decades, a small circle of "Dark Shadows" fans continue to insist that the actor was straight.

Louis Edmonds (1923-2001)

Though popular for his five-year run on "Dark Shadows," Edmonds achieved star status for his 16-year portrayal of comical con artist Langley Wallingford on the classic daytime drama "All My Children." He received several Emmy nominations for his work on "AMC." Edmonds' fans included TV legend Carol Burnett, who asked to be written into the show specifically so she could work with Edmonds. For one week in 1983, Burnett appeared as Verla Grubbs--the actress played the role occasionally for the rest of "AMC's" run and was eventually revealed to be Langley's long-lost daughter.

Throughout his career, which included dozens of stage appearances, Edmonds remained semi-closeted to the public but was always openly gay to his friends and colleagues. He was the subject of "Big Lou," a 2004 biography from the late gay writer Craig Hamrick. In the book Edmonds spoke openly of his life as a gay man in the theater and of his two long term relationships. "Big Lou" remains available at Amazon for $13.61

Kerwin Mathews (1926-2007)

Handsome and virile, Mathews achieved popularity during the 1960s after starring in a series of fantasy/adventure films, including "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" (1958) and "The Three Worlds of Gulliver" (1960). His twenty-plus year acting career included a wide variety of roles in film and on television.

In 1978 Mathews retired from acting and moved to San Francisco, where he owned and operated a men's clothing and antique shop. Though he remained "discreet" during his acting career, Mathews and Tom Nicoll, his partner of 46 years, lived as an openly gay couple in San Francisco. Mathews' 2007 obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle acknowledged the couple's relationship.

Paul Winfield (1941-2004)

In 1972 Winfield was only a small handful of African American actors to have garnered an Academy Award nomination up to that time. Winfield was acknowledged for his work in the acclaimed drama "Sounder," in which he played a sharecropper who was unjustly sent to prison during the Great Depression.

Winfield developed a fan following for his appearances in popular science fiction films such as "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan" (1982), "The Terminator" (1984) and Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks" (1996).

In 1978 Winfield was nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance as Dr. Martin Luther King in "King," a three hour TV movie--Coretta Scott King was played by Cicely Tyson, his co-star from "Sounder," He won the Emmy Award for an appearance he made on the popular TV series "Picket Fences" in 1995.

In 1998 Winfield appeared as "Auntie Mahalia", a gay role, in "Relax, It's Just Sex!" a gay romantic comedy. Prior to this film, Winfield was "discreet" about his private life. He and Charles Gillian, his partner of thirty years, are interred together at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood.

Lenny Baker (1945-1982)

Baker, a regular performer on and off-Broadway, attracted a great deal of attention for his only starring role in a film: "Next Stop Greenwich Village" (1976), director Paul Mazursky's autobiographical tale of his years as a struggling actor in early 1950s New York City. The well-received film garnered Baker a Golden Globe nomination and put him on a clear path to stardom.

The following year Baker won a Tony Award for his work in the Broadway musical "I Love My Wife." Appearances on popular TV shows such as "Starsky and Hutch," "Taxi" and "The Rockford Files" soon followed.

In 1979 Baker seemed to suddenly disappear. Three years later his death from cancer at age 37 was reported in the New York Times, though many of his friends and colleagues have since come forward to say that Baker was gay and was an early casualty of AIDS.

 


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