50 Years Ago Today, ‘The Corner Bar’ Made History With TV’s First Out Gay Character (Guest Blog)

Character actor Vincent Schiavelli played the ascot-wearing set designer Peter Panama in a small but bold sign of changing times, writes TV historian Jim McKairnes

corner bar
Vincent Schiavelli in the ABC's "The Corner Bar" (Photo by Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

Few remember the short-lived 1970s sitcom “The Corner Bar” and fewer still can recall one of its characters. But those who do celebrate both. Because the series, which premiered 50 years ago this week, introduced the first out gay person seen on a regular basis on an American TV show. With the two came the (slow) linking at last of a largely until-then dismissed part of culture with the business of entertainment media. 

A tavern-set ensemble sitcom along the lines of “Cheers,” to come a decade later, “The Corner Bar” was one of a pair of summer replacement shows that ABC introduced back-to-back on June 21, 1972. (The other was blue-collar comedy “The Super,” co-created and co-produced by Rob Reiner, then co-starring on “All in the Family.”) Its premise was as simple as its title, focusing on the nightly life at Grant’s Toomb, a New York City bar run by Harry Grant (Gabriel Dell). Less simple for the time was that one of its barflies was out gay set-designer Peter Panama (played by the veteran character actor Vincent Schiavelli) — a small but bold sign of changing times.

Prior to “The Corner Bar,” gay characters on the primetime landscape — the few there were – mostly fell into two camps. In sitcoms, they were (typically men) either presumed or played as gay, in one-off appearances heavy on of course he is mannerisms. In dramas, they showed up in crime or legal series, the (offscreen) homosexuality serving as fulcrum for the week’s plot – blackmail, revenge over unrequited-love, mental instability – with a correlation seemingly drawn between gay and aberrant.

But then TV began to become more real in the 1970s, in large part due to the arrival of “All in the Family” in 1971. In fact, against a backdrop of a growing gay-rights movement sparked by 1969’s Stonewall Rebellion, the fifth episode of the groundbreaking sitcom dared to make homosexuality the subject of an entire episode. “Judging Books by Covers,” airing in February 1971, featured a visit to the Bunker house by Mike and Gloria Stivic’s flamboyant neckerchief-wearing friend Roger, whom Archie Bunker dismisses as a “fairy.” (Roger’s sexuality is never made official.) But Archie’s intolerance is put to the test later in the episode at favorite-watering-hole Kelsey’s when he’s faced with the possibility that macho bar-pal Steve is himself gay. 

A year later came “The Corner Bar.”

Produced by TV-and-nightclub comedian Alan King, the comedy was mediocre summertime viewing at best, featuring a low-wattage cast. (Dell, the show’s best known star, was one of the original Dead End Kids on Broadway and in the subsequent 1940s film series, leading to a successful stage and TV guest-star career.) Panama, seen only occasionally, was the series’ chief calling card, if any, given the novelty of his appearance. But with the character’s fashion flair, Broadway career and generally odd demeanor, some didn’t hail the breakthrough. Rich Wandel, then-president of the New York-based Gay Activists Alliance, called it “the worst stereotype of a gay person I’ve ever seen.”

If so, “The Corner Bar” was in good company. Since television’s infancy, underrepresented groups had to settle for stereotypical scraps at the primetime table on the way to meatier roles, from “The Jack Benny Show”’s wisecracking valet Rochester (Eddie Anderson) to “Bonanza”‘s comic-relief cook Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung). Even the 1970s landmark sitcom “Soap,” which made history five years after “Corner Bar” as the first series to feature a gay character in a leading role, introduced Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas as limp-wristed and suicidal in early episodes before he was recalibrated away from caricature. (A season earlier, the failed Norman Lear sitcom “The Nancy Walker Show” featured Ken Olfson as prime-time’s first gay character in a supporting role, though not much was made of his personal life.)

Still, ascot-wearing Peter Panama’s bellying up to “The Corner Bar” was representation, seen by millions, at a critical time. The increasingly loud national conversation about homosexuality now included a weekly TV series. A closet door had opened for gay people on camera and for gay creatives behind it. From there, primetime progress continued in fits and starts. Later in 1972, ABC aired “That Certain Summer,” a movie-of-the-week that marked TV’s first depiction of an adult gay relationship, but it was blacked out by some nervous network affiliates.

In January 1973, an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” featured upstairs neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern in a new friendship with an out gay man, though his was a singular appearance, servicing a larger story. In February, ABC’s top-rated family-friendly drama “Marcus Welby, M.D.” aired a gay-themed episode that was the subject of bitter pushback from gay-rights activists for equating homosexuality with illness. And in May, PBS aired an adaptation of Bruce Jay Friedman’s controversial Off Broadway play “Steambath,” which featured an elderly show-tune-belting gay couple — and which also was blacked out by a wide swath of its network’s affiliates.

By the end of the year, however, the fits and starts of progress – the closer looks at and examinations of being gay in America, on TV and in society — seemed to have helped make a difference: That December, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. A linking of gay culture with mainstream America picked up steam en route to the relative no-big-deal immersion of today.

Despite neither ratings nor reviews that would seem to support renewal, “The Corner Bar” was picked up for a second summer season after it finished its 1972 run. When it returned to ABC’s schedule in August 1973, however, the tavern had a new name (The Corner Bar), new management (Eugene Roche and Anne Meara) and an all-new cast of patrons. 

Peter Panama didn’t make the cut.