PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — A producer for ABC's new sitcom "The Real O'Neals" wanted a gay actor for the role of a teenager who comes out to his shocked Catholic family but was prevented by a law designed to protect gays and lesbians from asking those auditioning about their sexual orientation.
"It was very important to me and I was in a panic," said Todd Holland, an executive producer for the series that debuts March 2 before settling into a regular Tuesday time slot a week later.
Holland got his wish. Noah Galvin, the 21-year-old actor selected to play the Kenny character, is not only gay but eager to be an advocate for gay rights and defender of a show that took political heat even before ABC decided to pick up the pilot to make a series.
The story is loosely based on the upbringing of Dan Savage, author of the "Savage Love" sex advice column. His very involvement infuriated conservative groups, who regard Savage as an anti-religious bigot. They launched an unsuccessful campaign last spring to convince ABC executives not to pick up the show.
"As a gay man, this is a landmark role on network television," Holland said. "It should not be played by a straight man pretending to be gay."
The law that forbade Holland from asking actors about their sexual orientation is in place to prevent casting agents from discriminating against gays and lesbians. Holland said he had a sense that Galvin was gay, and also overheard him talking to someone about coming out to his own family.
Galvin, a New York theater kid who's taking his first regular TV role, said his own mother asked him several times whether he was gay before he told her he was at age 14. He had no acceptance issues personally, and said he noticed an age divide when he talks to people about his character: many of his young friends don't understand why it's an issue. He's happy to talk about to anyone who wants to listen.
"It was important to me that they have someone who is gay and is out and is willing to be a spokesman for it," he said.
Those involved in the show take pains to note that it's about a lot more than a gay character. The family is also involved in a divorce and their religious faith is more than a punch line.
Viewers "are going to see it as a really beautifully-made show, a show very much like all the shows that we do that is full of family and faith and joy and humor," said Paul Lee, ABC Entertainment president.
Like in Savage's real life, the family patriarch is a Chicago policeman. While Savage's story was a launching pad, "once we hired our writers, we pulled in their lives and just started exploring our own family miseries," said David Windsor, another executive producer. Savage is listed as an executive producer. He's kept in the loop about how the stories are going but doesn't take an active role in the creative process, Holland said.
Windsor said he looks forward to a day when a family member coming out isn't much of an issue at all.
"At the end of the day, you are going to realize that (the show) is about this family that just loves each other," he said. "And faith is an important part of their lives."