It shouldn’t be surprising that the one famously gay episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show would also be an episode that gives us a lot of Phyllis. She should be a gay icon in her own right.
Romy, Michele and gay men everywhere may joke about who’s the Mary and who’s the Rhoda, because it’s a show adored by many a gay man. But I’m guessing that a lot of us are actually the Phyllis: nicely dressed and trying hard to project an image of serenity but, deep down, a swirling storm clouds of neediness, pettiness and insecurity.
In the MTM episode “My Brother’s Keeper,” which originally aired January 13, 1973, Cloris Leachman’s Phyllis is thrilled to tell Mary (Mary Tyler Moore) that her musician brother will be visiting Minneapolis. But true to form, her hopes of romance are dashed when her brother decides instead to spend his time with Rhoda (Valerie Harper). The big shocker that arrives in the literal final moments of the episode, however, is that Phyllis’ brother is interested in neither woman: he’s gay. And the idea that there’s nothing sexual between him and Rhoda is such a relief that the news is met with open arms.
In fact, it treats homosexuality like it’s no big deal at all — and by 1973 standards, that was progressive.
There’s a lot to unpack in this episode, including how sweet the episode comes off despite using surprise homosexuality as a punchline. That’s perhaps thanks in part to two gay men who helped bring this episode about. It was written by Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, a comedy team who would also go on to co-create Mama’s Family and The Facts of Life. And Phyllis’ brother Ben is played by Robert Moore, who’s perhaps better known for directing the original stage production of The Boys in the Band.
It’s worth noting that both Clair and Moore would die of AIDS-related causes the following decade, and they’re just two of the examples of pioneering gay men who got LGBT themes onto the small screen, but wouldn’t live to see what TV would evolve into.
For this installment of my podcast, Gayest Episode Ever, my cohost and I asked Sam Pancake — TV actor and a font of general pop culture knowledge — to share his thoughts on Cloris Leachman’s fabulous outfits, the relative gayness of Gavin MacLeod’s Murray Slaughter and the horrors of ’70s-era polyester.