As a precursor to Tuesday’s Multicultural TV Summit in New York City, which focuses on creating content for specific audience segments defined by age, ethnicity or race, gender, nationality or sexual preference, Daily Brief contributor Marc Berman compiled a timeline of some of TV’s most important moments of diversity.
The list highlights each of the aforementioned defining factors — including two shows featuring TV’s favorite redhead, Lucille Ball; four Norman Lear sitcoms; three current series and, of course, Ellen DeGeneres’ landmark coming-out episode. The list pinpoints some of the pivotal moments that helped turn today’s TV landscape into the melting pot that it is, although there’s always work to be done.
Along with compiling the extensive list below, Berman spoke to PromaxBDA Editorial Director Paige Albiniak about his findings on today’s episode of The Daily Brief Podcast.
July 3, 1950: The Hazel Scott Show (DuMont)
The common perception is The Nat King Cole Show in 1956 was the first variety series hosted by an African American performer. But it was actually this 15-minute summer series six years earlier, hosted by Trinidad-born singer and pianist Hazel Scott that owns that distinction.
June 28, 1951: Amos ‘N’ Andy (CBS)
Based on the radio of the same name, where two white actors originated the two lead characters, an all-black ensemble cast populated the Harlem, New York-based sitcom version (led by Alvin Childress as Amos and Spencer Williams, Jr. as Andy). An early hit by the ratings, Amos ‘N’ Andy was cut short just two years after premiering, in large part due to fierce protests by the NCAA, who accused the series of fostering racial stereotypes.
October 15, 1951: I Love Lucy (CBS)
A timeless classic, I Love Lucy is also revolutionary in depicting the first interracial couple to appear on television – Lucille Ball and her Cuban-born husband Desi Arnaz. During the show’s development, CBS felt the traditional television audience, then in its infancy, would not accept an average housewife being married to a foreign man with…egads!…an accent. But when Ball threatened to abandon the project, CBS gave in and history was born.
September 15, 1957: Bachelor Father (CBS, NBC and ABC)
More than 20 years prior to Dynasty, John Forsythe portrayed bachelor Bentley Gregg, an attorney who lived with his niece Kelly (Noreen Corcoran) and his houseboy Peter (Sammee Tong) in Beverly Hills. Unlike the portrayal of most Asian actors at the time as traditional house servants (think Victor Sen Yung as Hop Sing on Bonanza), Tong was central to the storylines. According to Sammee Tong: “Houseboys in movies and the theater always bow low, mutter a few sing song words and disappear, but not on this show. I get dialogue and laughs.”
October 1, 1962: The Lucy Show (CBS)
Most people assume Bonnie Franklin as Ann Romano on the original One Day at a Time, from Norman Lear, was the first divorced TV character. But it was actually second banana Vivian Vance as Vivian Bagley on The Lucy Show, Lucille Ball’s second hit sitcom, who was first in this role.
September 15, 1965: I Spy (NBC)
As the first U.S. television drama to feature a black actor (Bill Cosby) in a leading role, NBC secret agent drama I Spy immediately broke ground. And, in another first, an episode of I Spy titled “The Tiger” (originally telecast on January 5, 1966) featured an interracial kiss between Eurasian actress France Nuyen and series star Robert Culp.
December 11, 1967: Movin’ with Nancy (NBC)
Star Trek is cited as the first regularly scheduled television series to feature a kiss between a mixed-race couple. But this one-hour special, headlined by Nancy Sinatra, featured a smooch between real-life Sinatra and her guest Sammy Davis, Jr. Five years later – on Feb. 19, 1972 – Davis planted a kiss on the right cheek of Carroll O’Connor as beloved bigot Archie Bunker at the end of the episode of All in the Family titled “Sammy’s Visit.”
September 17, 1968: Julia (NBC)
Known as the first sitcom to depict an African-American woman in a non-stereotypical role, Diahann Carroll was Julia Baker, a widowed mother raising a young son (Marc Coppage) and working as a nurse. Then, in 1984, Carroll made her debut on ABC’s Dynasty as Dominique Deveraux, who she refers to as the “first black bitch.”
November 22, 1968: Star Trek (NBC)
Considered a breakthrough role for the African-American community, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was the force behind Nichelle Nichols’ decision not to exit Star Trek as Uhura after one season. Her prominence was front and center when she and William Shatner as Capt. Kirk locked lips in the first interracial kiss between two characters in a TV series in the episode titled “Plato’s Stepchildren.”
June 21, 1972: The Corner Bar (ABC)
Billy Crystal as Jodie Dallas on 1977-81 ABC sitcom Soap is often considered to be the first portrayal of a gay character in a regularly scheduled television series. But that recognition actually goes to Vincent Schiavelli as flamboyant set designer Peter Panama in a little-known ABC comedy called The Corner Bar.
September 16, 1972: Bridget Loves Bernie (CBS)
Sitcom Loves Bernie depicted the first interfaith marriage between a Catholic woman (Meredith Baxter) and a Jewish man (David Bernie). Airing out of All in the Family, it holds the record as the highest-rated series – ranked fifth overall for the season – that was canceled after just one season. But ongoing protests of the fictional marriage, including a boycott of advertisers organized by a conservative rabbi, led to its early demise.
November 1, 1972: That Certain Summer (ABC)
Considered the first sympathetic depiction of gay people on television, this made-for television movie featured a divorced father (Hal Holbrook) hiding his relationship with a man (Martin Sheen) from his son (Scott Jacoby), and ultimately admitting he is homosexual.
November 14, 1972: Maude (CBS)
In this first of a two-part episode of the All in the Family spin-off, 47-year old grandmother Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur) faced an unexpected pregnancy. Described as a watershed moment that “brought the battle over choice into the prime-time arena,” a reported 7,000 letters of protest resulted. By the time the episodes were repeated in August 1973, an estimated 40 stations chose not to run them, and the United States Catholic Conference had organized a campaign against them.
January 18, 1975: The Jeffersons (CBS)
George (Sherman Hemsley) and “Weezie” (Isabel Sanford) may have been “movin’ on up” in producer Norman Lear’s longest-running comedy,” but it was neighbors – and future in-laws—Tom (Franklin Cover) and Helen Willis (Roxie Roker) who made television history. They were the first interracial couple to be prominently featured in a regularly scheduled series.
January 24, 1975: The Hot L Baltimore (ABC)
Just 13 episodes were produced and it was the first TV series to regularly feature a warning at its opening. But Norman Lear sitcom The Hot L Baltimore is also recognized for depicting the first gay couple in a recurring TV show, in the shape of 50-something George and Gordon, played by Lee Bergere and Henry Calvert, respectively.
April 18, 1977: All the Glitters (syndication)
Linda Gray has a place in TV history as long-suffering Sue Ellen Ewing on serialized drama Dallas. But prior to her lengthy stint opposite Larry Hagman, Gray portrayed fashion model Linda Murkland, the first transgender TV character on a regularly scheduled television series. Sitcom All that Glitters was producer Norman Lear’s attempt to duplicate his success with syndicated soap opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, but it only aired for three months.
March 15, 1979: Harris and Company
Family dramas such as The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie and Eight Is Enough are synonymous with television in the 1970s. But Harris and Company, the tale of a recently widowed father of five (Bernie Casey), who relocates his family from Detroit to Los Angeles after the death of his wife, was television’s first scripted drama centered on an African American family.
January 23, 1977: Roots (ABC)
Miniseries Roots is remembered, of course, for its 37 Emmy Award nominations, nine wins, a Peabody award, and its mammoth audience. But, the height of its relevance was the awareness of the importance of racially diverse casting that reached beyond stereotypes.
December 24, 1980: The Facts of Life (NBC)
The arrival of Geri Jewell as Blair’s (Lisa Whelchel) cousin Geri marked the first actor with cerebral palsy to be featured on a TV series. Jewell ultimately appeared in 12 episodes of sitcom The Facts of Life from 1980 to 1984. It wasn’t until Sept. 21, 2016, that another actor with cerebral palsy, Micah Fowler on current ABC comedy Speechless, was cast in a regularly scheduled series.
September 14, 1985: The Golden Girls (NBC)
Showcasing viewers over the age of 50 has never been common, with the networks and the sponsors under the unfounded impression that members of this demographic are not of value. But NBC sitcom The Golden Girls, featuring Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty as four older women sharing a home in Miami was an immediate top 10 hit, proving that characters of a certain age are active and indeed necessary.
Interesting tidbit: The Golden Girls is only one of three sitcoms historically where each of the lead actors took home an Emmy Award. The other were All in the Family and Will & Grace.
November 11, 1985: An Early Frost (NBC)
In this first TV movie that tackled AIDS, a Chicago lawyer (Aidan Quinn) returns home to reveal to his parents that he is gay and has the disease. Unprecedented, An Early Frost led to feature films like Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, featuring Tom Hanks in his first Oscar winning role.
September 12, 1989: Life Goes On (ABC)
This ABC family drama was the first television series to feature a major character with Down syndrome (played by Chris Burke, who has Down syndrome himself). And it is also remembered for exploring the relationship between younger daughter Becca (Kellie Martin) and her boyfriend Jesse (Chad Lowe), who had HIV, in the fourth – and final – season.
November 7, 1989: thirtysomething (ABC)
In this episode titled “Strangers,” the implication of two men (Peter Frechette and David Marshall Grant) in bed together after having sex reportedly cost ABC over one million dollars when sponsors pulled their ads. Ultimately, the network never aired this episode of the relationship drama again.
June 19, 1994: The Real World (MTV)
Pedro Zamora, the MTV reality show’s first HIV-positive cast member brought awareness to the illness in season three of the groundbreaking docuseries franchise. Zamora also married his boyfriend, Sean Sasser, in the first same-sex ceremony on television. He passed away on Nov. 11, 1994 at the age of 22.
April 30, 1997: Ellen (ABC)
Ellen DeGeneres as Ellen Morgan came out on season four “The Puppy Episode” on her self-titled sitcom – a first for a lead character in a TV series—to an audience of a staggering 42 million viewers. But a noticeable shift in focus to the character’s sexuality led to the show’s demise one season later.
September 21, 1998: Will & Grace (NBC)
As the first primetime series to have an openly gay male lead character, Will & Grace opened the door to storytelling about characters who happen to be homosexual, leading then Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on “Meet the Press” to proclaim that Will & Grace “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.” Following a successful return last fall, the series is confirmed for at least another two seasons.
December 3, 2000: Queer as Folk (Showtime)
Queer As Folk was the first hour-long scripted drama focused on gay men and women (including one character who was HIV positive). Three years later (beginning on Jan. 18, 2004, to be exact) Showtime then showcased the lesbian community in drama The L Word, giving this segment of our society more visibility than it has ever had before.
October 8, 2000 Ed (NBC)
Raymond Burr as Det. Robert Ironside is remembered for portraying a character in a wheel chair on 1967-75 NBC crime drama Ironside. But it was Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident in 2001, that was the first actor in a wheelchair to featured in a regular series on NBC dramedy Ed.
April 24, 2015: 20/20: Bruce Jenner: The Interview (ABC)
After endless speculation, Olympic great and reality star Bruce Jenner opened up about his pending transition from male to female in an interview with Diane Sawyer in a special edition of ABC’s 20/20. This was the last interview he gave before transitioning to Caitlyn Jenner, and it led to two season docuseries I Am Cait on E!.
September 23, 2015: black-ish (ABC)
Four decades after the heyday of the issue-oriented Norman Lear sitcoms, current ABC comedy black-ish sparked debate – and accolades – for tackling one of the English language’s most controversial words. In this second season premiere, eight-year old son Jack (Miles Brown) performs the explicitly worded Kanye West song “Golddigger” at a school talent show, which leads to potential expulsion and sparks a debate about all kinds of words, including the n-word itself.
April 12, 2017: Survivor (CBS)
Zeke Smith was not the first transgender individual to appear on a reality series. But when competing contestant Jeff Varner outed him at Tribal Council in an ill-conceived bid to save himself from being voted out, Zeke inadvertently became the poster child of sorts for the transgender community. At the end of that tribal discussion, Smith told his tribe – and the millions of viewers watching—that he would rather be known as “Zeke the Survivor player” rather than as the first transgender Survivor player.
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