Boyfriend in training

Five seasons in, everyone’s itching to give Will & Grace’s Will Truman a steady boyfriend. Will Dan Futterman be the lucky guy?

BY Michael Giltz

February 04 2003 12:00 AM ET

Say a little
prayer for actor Dan Futterman—he could be the one to
ring the bell of the eternally single Will on Will
& Grace
. In a current three-episode arc
titled “Fagmalion,” the Emmy-winning NBC
sitcom sends Will (Eric McCormack) on a blind date
with Barry (Futterman), a shlubby cousin of
Karen’s who is just coming out of the closet and in
desperate need of a makeover. If the chemistry works,
Futterman could become the boyfriend the show’s
creators have promised for Will this season.

“We’ll see,” says the 35-year-old
Futterman, laughing. “Keep your fingers crossed
for me!” The paunchy Barry, sporting a Grizzly Adams
beard, at first inspires Will’s pity—but
certainly not his lust, Futterman reports.
“He’s completely styleless,” says the
actor, best known to gay audiences for playing the son
of Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in The
Birdcage
, taking over the lead (after Joe Mantello) of
the Broadway run of Angels in America, and
starring in the indie gay film Urbania.
“I’d say in any venue Barry needs all the help
he can get, but particularly in gay dating.”

Will and Jack
throw themselves into Barry’s “gay
training.” “They take me to the gym; go
through flash cards of gay icons; there’s a dance
sequence, and they take me to a gay bar,” says
Futterman. “Once my character has an Eliza
Doolittle moment, Will sort of changes his mind and
becomes incredibly interested in me, but I want to play the
field.”

Eric
McCormack—who has won an Emmy for playing
Will—has been hit on by Michael Douglas, has
rejected Patrick Dempsey as a boyfriend because he
wouldn’t come out at work, and has even danced with
Kevin Bacon. But Futterman might just be the one to
stick.

“So far I
love Futterman,” says McCormack. “He’s
great, and I love that he’s not George Clooney.
I love that he’s not hugely famous and Access
Hollywood
isn’t reporting every day on if
there’s been a kiss for not. If Will’s
going to find love, I hope it’s over time and that
it’s an actor who is great and multifaceted and
not necessarily a big star. Dan’s just perfect
for it. He doesn’t come in trying to make the line
funny. He tries to make it real first, and so
it’s twice as funny.”

In a very real
way, McCormack and Futterman are testing their
compatibility just as Will and Barry are. Is the chemistry
right? Could this be Mr. Right? Cocreator Max
Mutchnick is hopeful. “They’ve had a
good couple of dates,” says Mutchnick, who now works
day to day on Good Morning, Miami. “If
there’s a good reaction to the episodes and
people respond, there’s no reason why we
wouldn’t bring him back.”

If that happens,
the newly married Grace would be joined by a prime-time
first—a gay male lead who is genuinely in love, on a
major network. After decades of silly sidekicks,
lonely neighbors, broken hearts, and gay
“couples” who never do more than chastely hug,
TV would finally give a gay man a truly happy ending.
For fans and critics alike, it won’t happen a
moment too soon.

Marc Berman, who
analyzes prime-time ratings for the industry magazine
Mediaweek, speaks for many fans when he says, “All I
can say about Will getting a boyfriend is, it’s
about time.”

Washington Post
TV critic Tom Shales is one who thinks Will has been too
lonely for too long. “He doesn’t practice and
he doesn’t preach,” says Shales.
“He just is. The gay characters like pretty things
and have a flair for decorating and all those other
clichés. But they don’t have sex. Or at
least they don’t have sex with someone they
love.”

But while queer
fans of the show have been tapping their toes impatiently
waiting for Will to get a steady beau, is Middle America
ready to see him cuddle up to a lover? Stephen
Tropiano, author of The Prime Time Closet,
thinks so. “I think the issue is ho-hum,” says
Tropiano, who adds that the boundaries of
what’s acceptable have been pushed so far by
cable channels that no one will raise an eyebrow if Will
goes steady. Berman agrees: “It’s not
such a big deal anymore. Even when it premiered it
wasn’t such a big deal.”

Indeed, while the
cast and creators of the show were braced for
controversy and backlash when it launched in 1998, Will
& Grace
has never sparked any meaningful
controversy—just critical acclaim, Emmys, and
top 10 ratings. Shales believes the same will hold
true for Will finding a long-term boyfriend.

“I have a
feeling that it would pass quietly,” says Shales.
“Perhaps more quietly than NBC would want.
There’s a certain marketability to these
things. The audience would accept it. The outer fringes
might be heard from—Jerry Falwell. But it just
seems that nobody protests anything anymore on
television.”

However ready the
public is to make this leap, Tropiano believes Will
won’t have the same freedom as Grace. “I still
have questions whether the network is going to allow
them to do what they do with heterosexual characters
on situation comedies,” says Tropiano. “For
example, I remember a scene where Grace is in bed with
a boyfriend. I really question whether they would
allow a scene where Will is in bed with his
boyfriend.”

The questions
about whether they kiss, will be seen in bed, and so on
miss the point as far as McCormack is concerned.
“Will dating doesn’t do anything for
me,” says McCormack. “Will falling in love is
interesting. We’ve had lots of episodes where
Will dates. It’s either funny, or it
doesn’t work out, or the guy’s too short, or
he’s Michael Douglas, or whatever. But we
established Will as a one-man man, as opposed to Jack,
and we have to make sure that that man’s the right
guy. And not just the actor but the character. I
don’t know exactly if this story line will lead
to the ultimate thing. But I do know that Will will probably
find himself falling in love.”

That emphasis on
true love—as opposed to showing Will getting
busy—is fine by Tristan Taormino, the author
and syndicated Pucker Up sex advice columnist.
“I’m more interested in seeing some healthy
levels of affection and honest relating between the
two of them than seeing Will’s naked
ass,” says Taormino. “I can see lots of naked
ass on HBO and Showtime. Besides, I think we need to
put it into context. I’m not one of those
people who think Will & Grace is bad because they
haven’t gone far enough. The truth is, they’ve
made huge strides, because they are on a major
network. Do you remember on Melrose Place how
the gay guy had a boyfriend and all we got to see was this
one hug? And it was really awkward and the antithesis
of sexy. It was just awful! So I think, little baby
steps. I think it’s a big deal to give him a
boyfriend.”

Indeed,
it’s easy to take the show’s mere existence
for granted. It is still the first and only successful
prime-time show with a lead gay male character.
“I very much appreciate that you realize
that,” says Mutchnick. “I don’t
think people fully appreciate what an accomplishment
it’s been to keep him on the air and at the center of
this show for as long as we have. Gay aside, when you
involve anyone at the center of a show with a new
person, it’s a big deal. It’s always going to
be a big deal.”

Mutchnick insists
it was never a reluctant NBC or fear of audience
reaction or even fear about upsetting the balance of a hit
ensemble that has kept Will single for so long. They
simply haven’t found the right guy.

“Every
single year that we’ve done this show, we’ve
gone into the year talking about what kind of
relationship can we put Will in,” says
Mutchnick. “What would be good? What would be fun?
What would be interesting for the actor and the
character? Every year. But it’s really hard to
find an actor who can hold his own with Eric McCormack and
play a gay character with the integrity he plays it
with. So many actors just come in and indicate it in a
way that real gay people don’t usually
do—unless they’re silly queens. We’ve
tried. But actors get very weird in the part.
There’s a lot of men on the cutting-room
floor.”

And they have
tried: Will isn’t the wallflower viewers sometimes
imagine. “In the history of the show,”
says Mutchnick, “Will has kissed more men than
Jack. Will has kissed guys goodbye on the show; Jack never
has. And Will and Jack kissed on an episode recently,
though I haven’t seen the cut of that [so it
may not end up in the show].”

McCormack agrees:
“The thing that frustrates me is that the date
episodes never seem to count. I’ve kissed
people. I’ve talked to [Jack] about guys
I’ve made out with. These things never seem to
register. People say, ‘Will never gets
anything.’ I say, ‘Do you ever watch the
show?’ ‘I watch every episode!’
‘Well, I can name 10 in the last 15 episodes where he
makes some reference to something.’ I think it
doesn’t count because he’s not Jack.
Nobody wants to hear that Will made out with a guy in a
doorway. They want to hear that he fell for someone.”

Taormino thinks
Will is ready. “I think that he has to take it one
step at a time,” says Taormino when asked what
advice she’d give to the lovelorn Will.
“I think he has all the skills to make a good
relationship, which he’s demonstrated through his
friendships. He just needs to take all those skills
and kick it up a notch.”

Mediaweek’s Berman thinks the show needs to take the
risk that introducing another main character will
mean. “This show certainly pushed the
envelope,” says Berman. “But the
comedy’s become very clichéd. It’s
not as cutting-edge as it was, and they need to explore new
territory. Ellen broke down a lot of barriers.
So by giving him a boyfriend, hallelujah! Go for it.
Show them in bed together. Who cares?”

McCormack just
wants it to be romantic. “I think it’s less
about a big kiss or a gay wedding or something
that’s so stunt-y than it is about a character
expressing real love to another man on national
television,” says McCormack. “That would
be just great—because it would be true.”

Mutchnick hopes
Futterman proves to be the one. “I always want it to
work out,” says Mutchnick. “Just like in
my life. I usually give boyfriends a 13-episode
commitment, and they usually don’t make it past
sweeps. I give my boyfriends a little more time than
[NBC president] Jeff Zucker gives his episodes. But
I’m more patient. I don’t have as many people
to please.”

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