After starring in the 1996 queer classic, The Birdcage, star Nathan Lane says his on-screen partner Robin Williams helped him avoid the pressures of coming out as gay following the film’s release, even when the heat was coming from Oprah Winfrey.
Lane, then known largely for his Broadway performances, co-starred in The Birdcage as Albert, the more feminine, sensitive counterpart to Williams’ Armand. When their son (Dan Futterman) brings home the woman he wants to marry, the two put on a ruse to earn the approval of her conservative parents (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest).
While Lane had been out to friends and family since he was 21, he understandably admits he was not prepared to make this public intel for ‘90s audiences.
“I certainly wasn’t ready to go from table-to-table and tell them all I was gay,” Lane says, but understands the general conversation was “sort of unavoidable because of the nature of the film and the character.”
After sharing his concerns with Williams ahead of their press appearance on Oprah, his co-star assured Lane he would not have to take this step on the show.
“He said, ‘Oh, it’s alright, don’t worry about—we don’t have to talk about it,” Lane tells Today. “We won’t talk about it.’”
But sure enough, when the two sat down for the show, Oprah was ready to talk about Lane’s personal life in relation to the role (the whole episode is here, with the referenced bit picking up at around minute sixteen). Lane says Williams “sort of swoops in and diverts Oprah, goes off on a tangent and protects me because he was a saint.”
“Are you or are you not? Is he?” Oprah asks. “Is he, honey? I don’t know.”
Williams lunges into the conversation, mimicking the stereotypical accent Oprah began to use when questioning Lane about his sexuality and fear of being typecast. After some neck rolling and back-and-forth between Williams and Oprah, she eventually turns the convo back to Lane, who had just enough time to come up with a neutral answer.
“I just wasn’t ready to do that,” Lane says of coming out on national television. “It’s great that everyone now feels comfortable but homophobia is alive and well and there are plenty of gay people who are still hiding.”
Lane gives Oprah the benefit of the doubt, saying she probably did not intend to put Lane in the hot seat. The next year, the daytime TV giant would help a peer, Ellen, publicly come out on her show in 1997.