Nathan Lane Recalls How Robin Williams Supported Him When He Didn't Want to Publicly Come Out

Nathan Lane recalled a 1996 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show during which Robin Williams deflected a question about his sexuality

Nathan Lane is recalling how the late Robin Williams supported him on a press tour for their 1996 movie The Birdcage when the actor was still "not prepared at all" to come out as gay.

In a clip from an upcoming episode of Sunday TODAY on NBC shared exclusively with PEOPLE, Lane, 67, tells host Willie Geist that he "certainly wasn't ready to go from table to table to tell them all that I was gay," when he and Williams, who died by suicide at age 63 in 2014, embarked on a press tour for their beloved comedy directed by the late Mike Nichols (The Graduate).

"I just wanted to talk about [how] I finally got a big part in a movie and I didn't want to make it about my sexuality," Lane adds in the video. "Although it was sort of unavoidable because of the nature of the film and the character."

The actor, who received a Golden Globe nomination in 1997 for his role in The Birdcage, went on to recall "this famous moment when we had to do Oprah" and he approached Williams before the appearance, worried that Oprah Winfrey might prompt him to discuss his sexuality on television.

"I don't think Oprah was trying to out me, but I said to Robin beforehand: 'I'm not prepared. I'm so scared of going out there and talking to Oprah. I'm not prepared to discuss that I'm gay on national television, I'm not ready,' " Lane recalls in the clip. "And he said, 'Oh, it's alright, don't worry about it, we don't have to talk about it, we won't talk about it.' "

Nathan Lane and Robin Williams standing in pajamas on the porch in a scene from the film 'The Birdcage', 1996.
United Artists/Getty

Sure enough, Lane describes how Williams "sort of swoops in and diverts Oprah and goes off on a tangent and protects me, because he was a saint," when the talk show host asked Lane about being "typecast" after playing a drag performer in the film.

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Video of Lane and Williams' 1996 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, available on YouTube, shows Winfrey, now 69, asking Lane whether he was "afraid of taking that role and being like typecast and people forever saying, 'Are you? Are you not?' " before Williams interjects and does his own impression of the host's question, allowing Lane time to form an answer.

"I just wasn't ready to do that, to make this whole thing… the public side of it, the celebrity side," Lane recalls to Geist in the Sunday TODAY clip. "'Oh, now you're a public figure and you have to make some sort of public statement about it.' I was terrified. I wasn't ready to do that."

Nathan Lane and Robin Williams pose backstage at the hit play "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" at The Richard Rogers Theater on April 2, 2011 in New York City.
Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

"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," he adds.

Lane publicly came out as gay in a 1999 interview with The Advocate, in which he referenced The Oprah Winfrey Show appearance in question and said that Williams "jumped in and protected me." The actor later married husband Devlin Elliott in Nov. 2015.

Sunday TODAY airs live on NBC at 8 a.m. ET. Check your local listings.

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