Third Time's the Charm

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com July 12 2009 11:00 PM ET

Once an actress has gone sapphic on-screen, it's tough to go back. And now that Swoosie Kurtz has stepped into the now-familiar -- and comfortable -- shoes of playing lesbian for a third time with her turn as her friend Blythe Danner's longtime girlfriend in Showtime's breakout hit Nurse Jackie, Kurtz is pretty much an honorary lesbian.

A Broadway veteran in acclaimed plays such as Fifth of July and T he House of Blue Leaves, Kurtz, now 64, made television history in 1981 starring opposite Tony Randall in Love, Sidney, which boasted television's first openly gay main character -- that is, until advertisers got wind of it and pulled out, forcing the network to de-gay the show.

Recently, Kurtz has donned an eye patch to portray a bitter but lovable washed-up synchronized swimmer in Pushing Daisies, played a sadistic judge on Law & Order: SVU, and nabbed a recurring role on Heroes. But it's Kurtz's gay roles that have really caught the attention of her lesbian fans.

From her memorable portrayal of an undercover lesbian infiltrating the right-to-life movement in 1996's Citizen Ruth to playing a teacher who kissed -- and attempted to seduce -- Teri Hatcher's Susan on Desperate Housewives, Kurtz has the sapphic thing nailed. But playing Coop's (Peter Facinelli) lesbian mom opposite Danner on Nurse Jackie offers Kurtz a shot at a recurring gay role -- that is, with a little help and enthusiasm from the fans.

Advocate.com chatted with Kurtz about how she became the go-to gal for playing lesbian in Hollywood, making television history in Love, Sidney, and how she's always wanted to kiss Danner on-screen.

Advocate.com:It's casting genius that you're playing a lesbian on Nurse Jackie, with the amazing Blythe Danner, no less. How many times have you gone sapphic on-screen at this point?Swoosie Kurtz: I don't know. I was trying to figure it out when I was offered Desperate Housewives because my agent called and he said, "I don't know how to tell you this. We're going to call this Swoosie Kurtz, the Lesbian Years, Volume II or something." Let's see, there was Citizen Ruth, there was Desperate Housewives ...

And I read that you are playing a lesbian character in the Quentin Crisp biopic An Englishman in New York.I saw that too, Tracy, and I don't know where that came from. She was a real person. I read a book about her, but I don't remember reading that. [ Laughs ] Maybe it was something to do with the way I played it.

Perhaps they thought if Swoosie Kurtz is playing the role, then she must be a lesbian.[ Laughs ] I know! But as far as I know that was not a part of the character.

Even without that character, by my count that makes three times you've played lesbian, at least.We're up to three, and who knows about some of the other characters. The judge that I just played on Law & Order: SVU ... who knows?

BLYTHE DANNER SWOOSIE KURTZ X390 (KEN REGAN/SHOWTIME) | ADVOCATE.COM

I forgot you did that stint as the corrupt judge sending helpless adolescents off to juvie prison. That was frightening. You were so scary.That was totally frightening. She was some crazy, whacko whackjob, wasn't she?

Was it fun for you to dive into that type of role?God, it was so fun. I never played a character like that in my life. I said, "Oh my God, I've got to do this." I've never played anybody so irredeemably bad.

That character's sexual orientation aside, how do you think you became the go-to girl for playing lesbian?I don't really think I am. You've got to look at the whole picture. This is a small percentage and I think they just all happen to be close together, except for Citizen Ruth . I think it's less to do with me than it is to do with the surge of lesbian roles that have come up in the past two years. In mainstream television it's been pretty sparse, I would say… the lesbian landscape. I think it's just that there are more characters written that way now, which is great. I was in a piece of television history, which was Love, Sidney with Tony Randall, which was the first gay character in television. It didn't really pan out that way because all the affiliates started pulling out the minute they heard.

If I recall correctly, the show was finally really coded gay but not played openly.Yeah. He almost became just a happy bachelor, but at least Tony tried.

I'd love to hear a bit about being on the set of Nurse Jackie .It was just great. They shoot in Queens, which was heaven for me just to be in New York. It was one of those beautiful snowy days in New York. You know, Blythe and I have been friends for years…

You guest-starred on Huff with her.We worked together on Huff and long before that we knew each other. We had worked together. We're seen about town together. In New York we go to the theater together when we're both there. We work out together.

And now you're playing lesbian moms . We giggle about it all the time. Whose last name are we going to take? Is it going to be Mrs. Danner or Mr. Kurtz?

Have you tried hyphenating your names yet? That might be the way to go.Oh, we could hyphenate. That's an idea. I never thought of that.

That's when it helps to talk to a lesbian like me…[ Laughs ] Well, we decided that this couple on Nurse Jackie had many years ago picked out dining room furniture together. It's been a long relationship.

So when you stepped on the set, you and Blythe must have had a shorthand even in your characters.Totally. When they told her I was doing it they said, "She's in if you're in." I said, "Count me in." When I first signed up, I didn't know who my partner was going to be. I just shrieked when I heard it was Blythe and she shrieked when she heard it was me.

As I haven't seen the episode yet, did you work with Edie Falco?We didn't get to. We worked with Eve Best, who's just a doll. She's just a dream. And Coop -- Peter Facinelli, he's just an angel. Our relationship has to do with me bringing Blythe into the hospital. We didn't have any big love scene or anything.

Perhaps that will be in the next episode.Down the line… exactly.

Since you mentioned love scenes, of Kelly Preston in Citizen Ruth , Teri Hatcher in Desperate Housewives, and now Blythe -- who have been the objects of your affection --That's right. Pretty good company.

Do you have a favorite paramour? Obviously Blythe is your friend…Well, I've always said if I had to kiss a woman it would probably be Blythe. I've always idolized her as an actress too. I would watch her read takeout menus. I would watch an entire show built around her reading takeout menus. And Edie Falco…

Speaking of outstanding acting.Oh my God, Edie. The writing is astonishing, but her performance… it's one of the best performances I've ever seen in any medium. She is so real and it's scary, alarming, and hilarious. She's something.

How are you with Pushing Daisies being canceled?It's too bad that a beautiful piece of creation had to go away, but then you have to look at the glass half-full... that a show like this ever got a shot to begin with is miraculous. It's a beautiful thing and I think a lot of people will treasure and cherish the memory. It was a fantastic group of people to work with.

On the subject of actresses playing lesbian, your Daisies costar Kristin Chenoweth is up to star as Dusty Springfield in a film. If Kristin's people called and asked if you'd play her lover on the big screen, would you do it?Oh my God, are you kidding? In a second! We'll just keep this thing going forever. The lesbian loop.

So many actors are heading back to the theater. Is there any chance you'll return to the stage soon?Well, fortunately they keep after me. They keep asking. To show up eight times a week and basically live like a nun for however long, it has to be something so compelling for me because the rest of my life basically just gets put on hold. It's like an athletic event. I love it. It's like my life's blood to me, but it has to be Oh my God, I have to do this. But I'm doing other stuff. My Heroes character is recurring and I'm filming that right now. So I'm keeping off the streets for the moment.

Well good, because we worry about that.I know you do.

Since you are widely loved by gay fans, I wonder if you might weigh in on the marriage issue. The wins and the loss in California and Prop. 8.Well, why does anyone care what anyone else does? It's astonishing. It's the narrow-mindedness we've encountered in this country with race, with abortion. It is so nobody else's business. This whole thing of marriage being between a man and a woman… I think it's making progress. It's just that these things always take so much time. Again, look back at Love, Sidney … 1981. The affiliates simply heard the word and they all pulled out. They hadn't read it. They hadn't seen it. And look at how far we've come. Step by step. Changing one mind at a time.

With all of these roles you've tackled you're an icon to lesbians and to gay men, which is great when you straddle both communities. There is hopeful speculation -- and it might just be me -- that you might actually be one of us.Hopeful speculation! I love that. I hate to disappoint you, but I'm actually not. But that's a real tribute to my acting.

We gay girls like to fantasize.I love it. I am truly, truly flattered.

We are very much looking forward to you and Blythe on Nurse Jackie . We'll petition to make the characters recurring.I love the idea of a campaign to bring us back. I know they want to and they intend to.

Lesbian fans are really devoted, so you're in good hands.I'm so happy to be a part of such an amazing show.