Hollywood's Ageism and Homophobia Almost Killed Silver Foxes

J. Nathalie Taylor

We all need a little help from our friends — at any age.

This is the inciting incident of Silver Foxes, a comedy being developed by Golden Girls writers Stan Zimmerman and James Berg. The series — recently picked up by Super Deluxe, a division of Turner Broadcasting — begins with a group of gay men who rescue their friend from a homophobic senior living facility, before whisking him back to their home in Palm Springs, Calif.

The premise for the pilot is inspired by real-life tragedy depicted in Gen Silent, a 2010 documentary about LGBT seniors. These folks, after battling a lifetime of discrimination, are forced back into the closet in order to survive in America's health care system.

Instantly, Zimmerman and Berg realized this was a topic worth writing about.

"As gay people, we realized how important friends are to becoming our family. And the fact that after years and years of fighting and working to come out and be accepted — at an advanced age, we would have to go back in the closet? [It] was just a shocking revelation to us," said Berg.

Silver Foxes, which has been described as a "gay male Golden Girls," will certainly be funny. But it will also also use humor as a tool to address many issues that affect the LGBT community and seniors.

The identities of the characters open the door to many possibilities. One is a veteran who was kicked out of the military during "don't ask, don't tell." He also has a child and grandchild from a previous, opposite-sex marriage. Another younger character, who is one half of an intergenerational couple, will open a conversation between queer people of different ages. 

"We'd like to address the different choices gay and lesbian people can make then as opposed to today, and how the different generations see discrimination, and how they feel about being out as opposed to being in the closet," said Berg.

Like The Golden Girls, the groundbreaking NBC sitcom about older women in Miami, the show will be unafraid to show the sex lives of seniors. For example, a plot point in Silver Foxes involves a character finding love through Grindr, a gay hookup app. "That was fun about Golden Girls. People didn't think that a woman like Blanche, someone of that age, or Dorothy would be out there having sex and dating. And they are. And we are!" said Zimmerman.

And it won't just be a boys' club. Next door to this gay Palm Springs oasis, there's a lesbian "weekender couple from L.A. that is dabbling in real estate," confirmed Berg. As a whole, the series will be revolutionary, as it will place people who have been marginalized in mainstream media front and center.

It's a recipe that Berg and Zimmerman have brewed before, to great success. The pair had penned the history-making episode of Roseanne that featured one of the first kisses between women on network television. Overall, that show defied Hollywood's elitist predictions that America had no appetite for a show about a struggling middle-class family — or in The Golden Girls, a show about older women. With Silver Foxes, Berg and Zimmerman hope to prove the bigwigs wrong again by giving voice to a group that is nearly absent from the media landscape.

"They're not represented," Zimmerman said of LGBT seniors in film and television. "That's where we come in. It'll be an interesting new voice to hear. And I think that's why Golden Girls was so successful."

[RELATED: Should LGBT Viewers Watch Roseanne?]

It's also one of the reasons, among many, that The Golden Girls has earned a place of honor in the hearts of LGBT people. "It's the honesty that they spoke," said Zimmerman of Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia. It was also "the fact that they bonded as a group. As gays, I found that ... we predated the idea of marriage and having kids. So we had to create our own kind of family."

"Older women are marginalized in our society, and gay people are too," added Berg. "It gives you that freedom to be able to say anything, and people won't care. So we identified with that point of view."

The journey to create Silver Foxes began about two years ago, when Zimmerman and Berg met with representatives from Logo. The LGBT television network frequently ran reruns of Roseanne and The Golden Girls, and had contacted the gay writers who worked on them to develop a scripted series.

"We knew that this was an important piece and the chance of a lifetime," said Zimmerman. Excited, the pair contacted writer friends for advice and invited actors Leslie Jordan, Bruce Vilanch, George Takei, Todd Sherry, Cheri Oteri, Melissa Peterman, and Daniele Gaither to a table read.

"We didn't know George Takei or Leslie Jordan. We cold-called them and said, 'We don't even have a script. Here's the idea; here's who we are.' And everyone just jumped at the chance," Zimmerman recounted. The reading occurred about a year and a half ago at his home. "It really was a pretty gay epic afternoon."

It all became real when the actors assembled to read their lines. "All of a sudden, they were were sitting there, and I go, 'Oh, my God, I hope the script is good!' The laughs just started pouring out, and it was exhilarating. I just knew we had something. And that's why I can't wait till we actually get to make it and show it to the world," Zimmerman said.

However, the future of Silver Foxes became uncertain after a revelation from the network. "Unfortunately, Logo did not have money to do a scripted show. And then the story changed," said Zimmerman. "We ran into homophobia and ageism in Hollywood, which I know is a shocking revelation to you. But it is true. You know, some — most — networks won't even open the script to read it."

That all changed with Super Deluxe, which "came to the rescue." Previously, the entertainment company developed the drama Chambers for Netflix, and in a sign of its investment in LGBT content, is also adapting My Beautiful Laundrette into a television series. It wanted to do the same with Silver Foxes.

"It's amazing that they're just really pushing for LGBT stories," praised Zimmerman. "We're [part of] the fabric of the world, that doesn't have to be so segregated. I'm glad that they see the potential in all of that."

Where Silver Foxes will live, either on television or streaming, remains to be seen. Currently, the pair are going back and forth on rewrites with Super Deluxe. "They really want to dive into the issues and not gloss over everything with humor," said Berg. "They want us to take a beat and really explore what's going on." Unlike The Golden Girls, the show will be shot on single-cam, rather than multicam, "so we are able to do more locations and be a little bit edgier," said Zimmerman.

The pair are also looking forward to working with groups like SAGE, which supports LGBT seniors, as well as GLAAD, the LGBT media organization, to help bring visibility to real-world issues. "We feel we owe a huge debt to those organizations, and we're very interested in paying back," said Berg.

Mostly, they also excited to see how mainstream audiences will receive Silver Foxes. Zimmerman was pleased to see a crowd cheering for the concept when the news of the show's development was announced on a recent episode of Good Morning America. It gave him hope. "There is an appetite for this kind of show, and we can't wait to get it out there for people to see it, and laugh and grow and learn." 

"You know, we got that agenda thing going," he concluded with a laugh.

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