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

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 cliches. 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 cliched. 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."

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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Michael Giltz