May 05, 1997 12:00 PM

WHEN PATRICK BRISTOW WAS hired in 1994 to do a one-shot gig on ABC’s Ellen as a young man named Peter, the character was written “straight.” But Bristow, 34, played the part with such giddy charm that Peter was kept on as a homosexual friend of the show’s centerpiece, chatteringly neurotic bookshop manager Ellen Morgan. Behind the scenes, though, Bristow, who has been openly gay throughout his career, played another supporting role—in the private drama of the star, Ellen DeGeneres. Last spring, he says, they were seated on a couch during a taping break. She leaned over and whispered, “I’m thinking of doing what you did.”

Now, as only the media-deprived can fail to know, DeGeneres, 39, has done just that, announcing, “Yep, I’m gay” on the cover of TIME. And in a special hour-long episode on April 30, Ellen Morgan also realizes that she is not Lebanese—as DeGeneres has been joking since last fall—but lesbian.

Yet DeGeneres saved one revelation. Although in TIME she admitted to being in a serious relationship (yep, with a woman), “something I want to last forever,” she didn’t tell us with whom. That female significant other is 27-year-old actress Anne Heche. “Ellen and I are very much in a relationship,” Heche revealed exclusively to Mitchell Fink of PEOPLE, “and we are looking forward to a long future together.” Adds DeGeneres: “Yes, we are together, and I am happier than I’ve ever been.” A source for Heche (pronounced “haytch”) says the couple—who have turned up lately at Miramax’s post-Oscar party, the VH1 Honors benefit and the premiere of Heche’s new film, Volcano—have known each other for some time but “fell in love only recently.”

By coming out, DeGeneres and Heche, who once dated Steve Martin, are the first Hollywood stars to engage in an openly gay romance. Heche’s move is particularly bold. In addition to Volcano, in which she costars with Tommy Lee Jones, she has just been cast as a romantic lead opposite Harrison Ford in 6 Days/7 Nights. While there have been more than a dozen openly gay actors in prime time, no rising film actress has ever acknowledged being lesbian. “There has always been the fear that it would be career suicide,” says L.A. talent and literary agent Larry Kennar. “People go to the movies to escape. If the man onscreen is having a love scene with a woman, and everyone knows the actors are really gay, will anyone buy it?”

Heche, who well knows the pain that living a lie can cause, seems determined to find out. When she was 12, Heche, who grew up in Ohio and Atlantic City, learned that her father was dying of AIDS after a life of concealed gay sex. “I put a very high premium on honesty,” she recently told Cosmopolitan. “What I learned from his death is that if you don’t accept your sexuality, it will kill you. Truth is love. Period.”

As for DeGeneres’s sexuality, in Hollywood at least, it was no secret. “The [TIME] headline should have been, ‘Duh, hello,'” says one publicist. “Who didn’t know DeGeneres was gay?” asks lesbian comic Lea DeLaria.

The same could be said for Ellen Morgan. The character hadn’t had a date in two years, rolled her eyes when her therapist asked her how she felt about men and said things like, “I feel pretty and witty and—hey.” But with this week’s revelations, Morgan becomes the most prominent of TV’s gay characters, who range from the glibly one-dimensional waiter (Tim Maculan) on CBS’s Cybill to Michael Boatman’s fully human Carter Heywood, the mayoral aide on ABC’s Spin City.

Public acceptance—of both Ellens—may be another matter. The cast of the April 30 Ellen (Laura Dern, k.d. lang and Oprah Winfrey) is high-level showbiz support. It is also unlikely that an openly lesbian DeGeneres will suffer the fate of Sheila Kuehl, who played bookish Zelda on the 1960s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Kuehl saw her spin-off pilot (and career) snuffed out when a CBS executive described her as “a little too butch.” DeGeneres can thank actors like Amanda Bearse, 38 (hormonally charged heterosexual Marcy D’Arcy on Fox’s Married…With Children), who came out in 1993 after adopting a daughter. When she started out in the early ’80s, Bearse says, her then manager told her, “If you’re under 12 and a tomboy, you’re cute. After that you’re nothing but a dyke.” For a while she tried to flaunt her femininity, but, she says, “it made my blood boil. I felt they were saying, ‘If this is who you are, don’t show it.'”

Those attitudes may be changing. Bill Brochtrup, who was gay precinct secretary John Irvin on NYPD Blue, hasn’t spoken openly before about being homosexual. Still, he says, “casting directors have known for years,” and it has had no adverse effect on his career. “People are typecast in Hollywood,” says Brochtrup, who adds that he wouldn’t expect to be cast as a mobster or trucker regardless of sexuality. “It’s a given.” As for straight actors playing gay roles, the stigma began fading years ago, helped by William Hurt’s role in Kiss of the Spider Woman and Tom Hanks’s in Philadelphia, both Oscar winners. Boatman, 32, was apprehensive when offered the role of Spin City‘s Heywood but only because, he says, “I didn’t want to play a stereotype.” When he realized the part was written as a complex guy who just happened to be gay, he says, “I thought, ‘Wow, what an opportunity.'”

But a series star with her name in the title? “It’s a courageous move,” says Dobie Gillis’s Kuehl, 56, who came out in 1977 and today is speaker pro tern of the California State Assembly. “Advertisers, networks, producers and fans have to haul out their prejudices and say, ‘Does this make a difference in how I feel about this woman?'”

The answer will come this week. According to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), gay parties are planned in seven major cities the night the Ellen episode airs. “A lot of people are going to come out after they watch the show,” predicts Judy Carter, a lesbian comic. On the other hand, a TV Guide poll found that 63 percent of viewers weren’t interested in watching at all. (The show has been stuck in the middle of the ratings ladder.) Conservative minister Jerry Falwell threatened to boycott the show’s sponsors. Anticipating a controversy, Chrysler, which advertises often on Ellen, steered clear. Wendy’s pulled ads scheduled after the episode. One ABC affiliate, in Birmingham, Ala., announced it will not air the episode. (And ABC refused to carry a spot for a gay cruise line that showed two women kissing.)

For her part, DeGeneres is on an emotional high—and has been ever since last June, when, during a party at her home, she raised a champagne toast to the staff’s writers and asked: “What do you think if the character came out?” Greeted with a standing ovation after wrapping the hour-long coming-out episode in mid-March, “Ellen said she “felt her soul leave her body,” recalls Ellen co-executive producer Dava Savel.

Until now, DeGeneres has managed to say a lot—she even wrote a bestseller, My Point…and I Do Have One—without revealing much. She grew up in Louisiana and Texas, the daughter of Christian Scientists Elliott, 71, an insurance agent, and Betty, 66, a speech therapist. (Her sole sibling, Vance, 42, is an Ellen writer.) After her parents divorced in 1971, she lived with her mother in Atlanta, Texas, graduating from high school in 1976. Moving to New Orleans, she began turning up at comedy clubs and at lesbian bars. “She was a clown, always kidding around,” says club owner Rosemary Pino. DeGeneres was out, but not emphatically. (She didn’t rule out men until she was in her 30s, she told TIME, but stopped dating them by 20.) Her parents knew, but to others “there was no hint,” says a cousin, Lan DeGeneres. “It never came up.”

What was possibly DeGeneres’s first “serious love,” according to Charlene, the owner of Charlene’s, a New Orleans lesbian bar, was a tragic one. Kathy “Kat” Perkoff, a poet, was 23 when she died in a car accident in 1980. She and DeGeneres met in the late ’70s, says Perkoff’s sister Rachel, an actress in New York City, and were friends before they were lovers. “They were two very creative people, crazy and young and very much in love,” says Perkoff. “My sister was a passionate, charismatic person. Ellen had a good influence on her—she was stabilizing and helped her focus on her art.”

DeGeneres was “devastated by Kat’s death,” says Perkoff, who still speaks with the actress. “She told me she was on the interstate the day before—she drove by the accident—but she didn’t know who it was. When she found out, you can imagine how shocked she was.”

The tragedy was the inspiration for DeGeneres’s “phone call to God” routine, a monologue about mortality that won her Showtime’s Funniest Person in America award in 1982. DeGeneres, who by then had moved to San Francisco, handled the attention with ease. She also seems to have escaped the sort of trap Chastity Bono, Sonny and Cher’s daughter, fell into when she was trying to launch a career as a rock singer. Out-ed by one tabloid in 1990, she agreed to an interview with its rival, during which she claimed she was straight. Lying about her sexuality “was not a high point in my life,” Bono told PEOPLE in 1995. “I felt like I did a deal with the devil.” Bono, 28, is now entertainment media director for GLAAD.

But if DeGeneres didn’t sell her soul, she may have pawned it. “Many comics reveal something about themselves,” says Tom Sawyer, a San Francisco club owner. “Ellen’s humor was impersonal—there was no connection between her act and her life. She was going through the motions.”

That turned out to be the problem with Ellen. When the show premiered in 1994, DeGeneres was regarded as a distaff Jerry Seinfeld. But its star never seemed to take command of her vehicle. The series drifted, and no amount of tinkering by its producers managed to lick the problem. Even they wondered whether the character shouldn’t be gay. But the policy toward DeGeneres was don’t ask, don’t tell. “We would never have approached Ellen,” says co-executive producer Mark Driscoll.

But after DeGeneres floated the notion herself last June and found support, “she was beaming,” says Jeremy Piven, who plays Ellen’s cousin Spence. Yet if the hour-long episode was the biggest hurdle, it is by no means the last. By the end of the season, the character will have come out to her parents and been told by her boss that he doesn’t like her lifestyle. If viewers don’t rally to her in the last few shows, DeGeneres herself may be out of a job: ABC has not yet renewed the series.

DeGeneres has set her sights on the future. The day after the taping, says Savel, “She called up, crying and saying, ‘Thank you. It was fabulous.’ Then Monday came around, and it was back to, ‘I can’t do this script. I can’t stand it.’ That’s Ellen.” Still, nothing can detract from the strides she has already made. “The ice has been broken,” says Bearse. “We are in every job, we’re every color. We’re not out to take over the world. We just want to live in it.”



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