Colman Domingo
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Recalling Willie Garson and the Ultimate Gay BFF, Stanford Blatch

Stanford 2

Perhaps the most indelible gay best friend to a woman portrayed on television was the character of Stanford Blatch on Sex and the City, brilliantly played by the late Willie Garson, whose recent death left the cast, and most of us, stunned and saddened.

Ironically, the day before he died, I saw a paparazzi photo of him with Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie that touted his return to Just Like That, the reboot of the hit HBO series. I remember thinking out loud, “Oh great, Stanford is coming back.”

Garson was straight, but his character was out and proud, starting in 1998, when the show premiered. Fashionistas, reporters and critics constantly fawned over what Carrie was wearing. But looking back, Blatch was always equally and supremely decked out. His clothes matched his personality, outrageous and flamboyant, in a chic and tasteful way.

With their stunning attire, and playful personalities, Stanford and Carrie were a perfect match for each other. Stanford was loyal to a fault. He had no problem telling Carrie what he thought, parlaying his whimsical wisdom in ways that enlightened and entertained. What will Carrie do without him?

Sure, there was Karen’s Jack on Will & Grace, Jen’s Jack on Dawson’s Creek, Rachel’s Kurt on Glee, and Hannah’s Elijah on Girls. However, none of them had the panache, style, and humor of Carrie’s Stanford. He was omnipresent. He was unique. And he was unorthodox.

And perhaps his most unconventional relationship was with a Radio City Music Hall dancer, and head-turner Marcus Adant, played by the actor Sean Palmer.

Briefly, Marcus and Stanford start dating in season five. They broke up at one point because Stanford found out that Marcus used to be an escort named “Paul.” Stanford wasn’t so much upset by the fact that Marcus was a boy for hire. He just lamented that Marcus didn’t tell him about his past. Their break-up was short-lived, and Marcus briefly became a cast regular, as Stanford took great pride in showing off his hunky arm candy.

I reached out to Palmer for some insight about what it was like working with Garson, and the relationship between the two men’s characters.

The first question was the obvious one. What was it like to work with Garson? “I remember thinking at the time that he was incredibly nice and helpful. That is not a given in this business. Looking back, I realize he was on another level. He never asked me if I was gay (Palmer is).  He was a consummate professional. That kind of stuff never came up. He wanted Pat Field (the show’s costume designer) to show him what I would be wearing.  He was excited for his storyline and he wanted me to be comfortable.”

“When cameras stopped Willie was still in the work, improving things, discussing the plot lines, or he was keeping the mood light. The guy really knew his shit.”

I agreed that Garson really brought that character to life, particularly during a time when television was introducing more gay characters and exploring more same-sex relationships. I asked Palmer, from his perspective, what the relationship was like between Stanford and Marcus?

“I think the more interesting story is that Michael Patrick King was feeling optimistic in his own pursuit of love and decided to make the example of Stanford and Marcus as a successful loving relationship. It was pretty progressive at the time to portray a gay person that was not in some way or other the butt of a joke. One thing Willie was never without on- or off-screen was dignity. And I benefited, as Marcus did, from his noble pursuit of dignity for himself and Stanford.”

In the show, Blatch was a successful man, and Marcus an up-and-coming dancer who was just making ends meet. I wondered, who benefited more from the relationship, Marcus or Stanford? “I think it was transformational for Stanford. The character of Marcus was actually based on me. And I can say with certainty that I landed in another galaxy from the kind of partner Stanford ends up with. We were a seasonal love, or two seasonal love in television speak. It was meaningful but it comes with an expiration date.”

The show was a huge cultural touchpoint and influence, and the actresses created iconic characters. Groups of women (and men) around the world would get dressed up to hit the town, and would discuss among themselves which one was Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, or Miranda. I asked Palmer what it was like to be part of television history.

“This was a fun job. So, my sense of being out of my orbit was a quality that they were looking for on the set. Marcus handled everything in his stride, and I like to think I did as well. I was a relatively obscure theater actor put onto the world’s most popular show. It was a trip. I just tried to observe it all, take it all in. 

Looking back at that period, what did all that excitement mean for Palmer and perhaps for Garson? “It was a very special time for me, and for him for sure. Post 9/11 the show took a turn for the better, in my opinion. The love affair with the city was polished and faceted. We were all learning to move forward out of a profound change in our world. The show simply took on a mission of healing and I will always be proud to have been a tiny part of it, especially being Garson’s sidekick, and having been able to see these incredibly influential people working, up close and personal.”

Finally, I asked Palmer what his reaction was when he learned of Garson’s death. “I was in rehearsal and my manager called me, so it was particularly shocking and unexpected because my head was in my work all day. I am saddened but also the outpouring of love for him was really encouraging. He lives very brightly in everyone who knew him. So many wonderful people have recounted stories to me of Willie personally or how his character impacted them. I am just one tiny sliver of this man’s experience, I can’t imagine the total impact of his life, but I feel it greatly.” 

John Casey is editor at large of The Advocate.

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