Decades before Anderson Cooper became a CNN fixture, openly gay men had to be creative about getting time behind the anchor desk. Sometimes it meant breaking the law. Footage of activist Mark Segal storming the set of “The CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite” on Dec. 11, 1973 — and the surprising aftermath of his live protest — is just one of the many freeze-frame moments in Apple TV’s “Visible: Out on Television,” a new docuseries that chronicles milestones in gay rights on the small screen.
There are plenty of opportunities in the five-hour project to celebrate just how far we’ve come. But viewers will also have to do a lot of wincing.
Among the most heartbreaking moments: Sheila James talking about how her breakout character, Zelda, on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” was denied her own spinoff because she was too butch; “American Idol” standout Adam Lambert recalling the backlash he received after planting a kiss on his keyboardist during a performance on “The American Music Awards”; and a disturbing look back at the career of Paul Lynde, the closeted comic whose private torture was anything but funny.
Clips from a 1974 episode of “Police Woman,” in which Pepper hunts down killer lesbians at a nursing home, and a tone-deaf 1967 Mike Wallace documentary, “The Homosexuals,” are excruciating to watch.
Household names share the impact programs like those had on them when they were growing up.
Ryan White, who directed all five parts, said “Project Runway” judge Tim Gunn was grateful for the opportunity to participate.
“He left our interview saying, ‘That was like a therapy session,’ ” White said last month during the Television Critics Association press tour. “He had never talked about what his background was like and how negatively television impacted him and his family in the ’50s and ’60s.”
“Visible” eventually gets around to honoring progress, from Ryan Phillippe’s portrayal of TV’s first openly gay teenager on “One Live to Live” to Ellen DeGeneres conquering America through her daytime talk show.
There are also lighthearted moments, like when Jane Alexander shares how she and Gena Rowlands maneuvered around censors’ silly rules while playing a gay couple in the 1978 TV movie “A Question of Love.”
“It’s a love letter to all the people — straight, allies, LGBTQ people — who took it upon themselves to take the risks to tell the story of the LGBTQ community,” said executive producer Wilson Cruz. “They did that so people would actually understand who we are, as opposed to the false narratives that are given by people who don’t necessarily understand who we are. And because of that honesty and authenticity, we were able to move the needle to acceptance.”
Cruz should know. His roles as openly gay men in “My So-Called Life” and “Star Trek: Discovery” have influenced an entire generation for the better.
“Oprah [Winfrey] talks at one point in her interview about how debilitating it is to someone when they’re not a part of the storytelling on our televisions. You just feel like your life doesn’t matter until your stories are being told,” Cruz said. “I got to see firsthand the power of television and how it has helped people see themselves a bit and find comfort in being visible.”
Njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin