As both an actor and a playwright, Harvey Fierstein has smashed barriers for LGBTQ artists both on stage and screen.
Given the breadth of his oeuvre, it’s easy to forget he also made a one-off guest appearance on NBC’s “Cheers” as the sitcom was nearing the end of its 11-season run. In true Fierstein form, his role was more subversive that it may have initially seemed.
On the latest installment of his “Culture Cruise” video series, writer and editor Matt Baume breaks down that Season 10 episode, “Rebecca’s Lover... Not.” In it, Fierstein plays Mark, a high school sweetheart of Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley) who, unbeknownst to his former flame, is gay.
“Rebecca’s Lover... Not,” which aired in 1992, marked a clear progression from a Season 1 episode of “Cheers” that also featured an LGBTQ-themed narrative. Notably, Mark self-identifies as a gay man, which would have been unthinkable when the show first aired in 1982.
The decision to cast Fierstein ― who was openly gay at a time few stars were, and who dramatized queer lives in his plays “Torch Song Trilogy” and “La Cage aux Folles” ― reinforced the rare-for-its-time inclusivity of “Cheers,” Baume finds.
“Harvey was able to use the stage to show people what queer lives are like at a time when a lot of people really had no idea,” he told HuffPost. “It took television and film more than a decade to catch up to the themes that Harvey was writing about in the 1980s: queer self-respect, refusal to be silenced, and a readiness to declare to the world, ‘I am what I am.’”
After “Cheers,” Fierstein continued to defy cultural expectations by creating LGBTQ characters on stage and in film. In 1993, he stole scenes from Robin Williams ― hardly an easy task ― as the gay brother of Williams’ character Daniel/Euphegenia Doubtfire in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” A decade later, he won a Tony Award for the drag role of Edna Turnblad in the musical adaptation of “Hairspray.”
In 2013, he wrote the libretto for the Tony-winning musical “Kinky Boots,” which also featured a drag queen protagonist.
Baume, who is based in Seattle, launched “Culture Cruise” in 2018, revisiting LGBTQ characters and storylines on classic TV shows like “The Golden Girls,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Murphy Brown.” He’s also the author of the 2015 book “Defining Marriage: Voices From a Forty-Year Labor of Love.”
Last year, The New York Times praised “Culture Cruise” as “thoughtful and thorough.”