Jeff Baker: The Private Life of Jodie Dallas

Thanks Jeff for this thought-provoking article about an early portrayal of a gay character on US daytime television, at a time when this was kept very much in the nearest closet. It’s certainly an era I knew very little about – and a surprise role, perhaps, for actor Billy Crystal? Over to Jeff to explain…

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Pic credit: IMDB

            “This is the story of two sisters…”

            That opening line of the 1977 TV comedy “Soap” sets up the premise of the weekly sitcom spoof of daytime dramas (called “Soap operas” back then.) A show that was controversial even before its premiere. Religious groups in particular organized so many protests that the network could promote it with the line: “If you miss the premiere of Soap, you’ll be the only one.”

            Created and mostly written by Susan Harris, the show dealt frankly (for the time) with (among other things) sex and the fact that people enjoy sex, especially when the two sisters get together to talk.

            JESSICA: “Our mother never told us that it would be pleasant.”

            MARY: “What Mother said was that it was required, like going to school had been and the best thing to do was to lay back and make out your grocery list.”

            One of the show’s biggest controversies was the presence of openly Gay character Jodie Dallas, younger of two sons of Mary Dallas-Campbell (one of the aforementioned two sisters.) And Jodie remains controversial to this day in some circles.

            Played by Billy Crystal (yes, THAT Billy Crystal in one of his first breakout roles) Jodie was initially written as being a nelly, cross-dressing caricature who hatched the extreme plan of having a sex change operation so he can be with his football-player boyfriend. But neither Crystal nor the writers wanted Jodie to remain a stereotype and they worked to change how he was depicted making Jodie a well-rounded character, albeit one who was living in a soap opera. “It felt like we had the chance to do something special and important,” the actor recalled years later. The nelly aspects were dropped in favor of more human moments such as when Jodie is dumped by his boyfriend on the eve of hospital treatments and swallows a load of pills in an effort to end it all. Jodie lives and gets his act together.

            Jodie is pretty revolutionary for TV of the time: he has apparently been “out” all his life and makes no apologies for who he is and is one of the first regular Gay characters to love sports.

            And, like everyone else on the show, Jodie can be very funny. Witness the scene where he tells his mother and stepfather Burt that he’s going to be a father and stepdad Burt (the magnificent Richard Mulligan) gleefully freaks out. And then there’s his conversation with his dippy Aunt Jessica explaining that there have been Gays throughout history.

            JODIE: “Alexander the Great was Gay. Plato was Gay…”

            JESSICA: “Plato? Mickey Mouse’s dog was Gay?!?!”

            The controversies in later years come from the fact that Jodie has a one-night-fling with a woman that produces a child. Was Jodie really Bi all along? Or was the network pressuring the show to make him straight? LGBT fans today are leery of the idea that Jodie was anything but totally Gay and claim that his character was watered down due to pressure from network sponsors.

            Nonetheless, Jodie fights in court for the right to raise his daughter and is an excellent father. Watch the tender and funny scene where Jodie and his infant daughter Wendy are together for the first time.

            Of course, there are soap opera-style complications to their lives.. Like a kidnapping, the court case and Jodie’s accidental regression through hypnosis to a previous life as an elderly Jewish man.

            Looking back today with what we know about the complexities of sexuality and its fluidity, Jodie’s seeming indecision about his sexual preference makes sense and that he was most likely Pansexual instead of Gay or possibly Bi.

            “Soap” is still playing in reruns and is on DVD and is a very well-done series especially in its first three seasons. It can be hilarious one moment (Jodie and his brother trying to gross each other out) and heart wrenching the next, as in the scene where Jodie finally convinces his brother Danny that he really is Gay after years of his being in denial.

            “I’m still the Jodie who plays tennis with you, I’m still the Jodie who bowls with you, I’m still the Jodie who laughs with you, I’m still the Jodie who counts on you.”

            Jodie Dallas is still among the Gay characters in the pre-Will and Grace era who was a touchstone to LGBT youth who didn’t see themselves depicted in any positive way on screen. And the show still holds up and is entertaining generations who weren’t born during “Soap’s” four-year run forty-plus years ago. When my twenty-something niece saw the show recently she laughed her head off and pointed at Jodie and asked “Who’s that guy who looks like Billy Crystal?”

            For more information on Crystal’s portrayal of Jodie, check out Billy Crystal’s autobiography “Still Foolin’ ‘Em,” published by Henry Holt and Company, 2013.

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4 thoughts on “Jeff Baker: The Private Life of Jodie Dallas

  1. If it ever came to UK I never saw it, but it sounds interesting. However, I rarely watch contemporary ongoing dramas so I will probably continue to miss it! It’s always good when writers, directors, etc. decide they can do their bit towards changing attitudes. Think Star Trek! Each effort can be minuscule but the drip drip effect on audiences can lead to a total shift in ‘public’ perspectives.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve never seen the show either, but Jeff’s description of Jodie reminds me so much of Stephen from Dynasty, who was probably one of the first openly gay characters I ever saw in mainstream TV. Sadly Stephen went the way of all non-standard characters in sponsored TV… got marginalised, turned straight, died. But as you say, at least every step inches forward.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I never know what to call the ongoing series. Soap Opera was the original term, whether they were comedies or just long involved stories, I believe because of the soap ads that were shown to fund them. Now I just think of them all as dramas!! I assume from its title that this was intended as a spoof or similar aimed at ‘soap operas’.

    Like

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