Will & Grace: Goodbye and Thank You!
By Alexander Rodriguez
After 11 seasons, over two decades of episodes and reruns, hundreds of martinis and snappy one-liners, multiple relationship fails, dozens of Trump jokes, fabulous guest stars from the LGBT community and beyond, numerous job fails (courtesy of Jack) and even more questionable cabarets (also courtesy of Jack), it’s time to say goodbye to Will & Grace – goodbye and thank you. Despite criticisms for highlighting gay stereotypes and for featuring less than substantial LGBT minded content, it has certainly changed the way mainstream America views the gay culture; these characters were welcomed in households across the nation, even the most conservative ones. Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden commented that the show “did more to educate the American public (on LGBT issues) than almost anything anybody has ever done. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.” We are now in a culture where we can see members of the LGBT community featured in several programs on network TV, not just cable.
Will & Grace, based on the real-life of co-creator Max Mutchnick (who had his own “Grace” from the age of 13, whom he also briefly dated before coming out), premiered about one year after Ellen was canceled due to a huge ratings drop from her coming out episode. The Will & Grace relationship aspect was pitched as part of a replacement for the just exited NBC hit Mad About You and actually featured three couples (two of which were straight), with the network finding that only the relationship between the gay man and his straight friend was of any interest (we are pretty interesting, aren’t we?) The lead cast, each winning an Emmy for their work on the show, knew that it was going to be a long time hit as soon as they finished filming the pilot. The show’s popularity moved the sitcom into NBC’s highly coveted Must-See TV lineup and remained in the top twenty rated shows for four out of the initial eight seasons and was rated #1 in audiences 18–49, an advertiser’s dream. The show earned 83 Primetime Emmy nominations, record-setting SAG wins, and several GLAAD Media Awards. By the time the finale aired, other shows like Queer As Folk, Six Feet Under, The L Word, Modern Family, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Oz, Noah’s Arc, Buffy, and even soap operas like As the World Turns, were featuring LGBT characters as prominent leads. Whether it was your Republican neighbor reciting Karen Walker’s sassy digs, or your gay bestie doing the “Just Jack” pose, people were watching. TV watching families that had no intro into discussing gay themes now had humor as a way to break the ice and start the conversation, it was ok – and even fabulous – to be gay, just make sure you were funny.
FUN FACT: Karen: The Musical was a thing! NBC was behind it; the project had a Broadway production team including a director and composer and would feature Karen Walker and her rivalry with Beverley Leslie (to be played by Leslie Jordan). At the last moment, the character rights were withdrawn and the musical never happened.
Before Will & Grace:
We probably know the characters of Will & Grace better than we know the actors themselves, but what were Debra Messing, Eric McCormick, Meghan Mullaly, and Sean Hayes up to before they dominated the sitcom circuit?
Eric McCormack was the first actor to be cast in Will & Grace and was no stranger to playing gay characters. His only trepidation in taking on the role was committing himself to years on a certain project, as he was that confident in the show’s strength. Born and raised in Toronto, he was inspired to become an actor in his youth from watching Get Smart and studied acting extensively in school as well as taking part in Canada’s Stratford Festival for five years, playing leads in Midsummer’s Night Dream and Henry V. He is also a singer and performed in Godspell and Pippin during his education, later, on Broadway, as the lead in The Music Man. His early career was playing guest roles on such shows as Silk Stalkings, The Commish, Diagnosis Murder, and Ally McBeal. He had a long-standing relationship with The Lonesome Dove series which attracted the attention of the producers of Highlander who wrote a guest role specifically for him. He might not have been Will – he was hired as a series regular on Jenny but was fired after his character was cut from the pilot episode, which left him free for Will & Grace.
FUN FACT: Eric McCormack auditioned a few times for the role of Ross Geller (ultimately filled by David Schwimmer) in Friends.
Brooklyn born Messing studied acting and singing from a very early age and played the leads in Annie and Fiddler on the Roof. In 1986, she earned the title of Rhode Island’s Junior Miss and went on to compete for the America’s Junior Miss scholarship. With the support of her parents, she devoted herself to acting after graduating summa cum laude from Brandeis University. She was accepted to the highly competitive Graduate Acting Program at New York University and received her Master’s in Fine Arts in only three years. Her professional acting work started with her role as Harper in the pre-Broadway production of Angels in America: Perestroika. She appeared in episodes of NYPD Blue, two seasons of Ned & Stacey, popular episodes of Seinfeld, and the lead in the series Prey – during which time she received the script for Will & Grace. She made her film debut in A Walk in the Clouds opposite Keanu Reeves (lucky girl!) and appeared in the film version of McHale’s Navy pre-Will & Grace. She almost didn’t read for Will & Grace as she wanted to take some time off, but the script sparked her interest enough that she couldn’t say no.
FUN FACT: Debra Messing was neck in neck with actress Nicollette Sheridan for the casting of Grace Adler. Wow, that would have been a whole different take.
LA-born Megan Mullally studied ballet at the age of six and later became a soloist with the Oklahoma City’s Ballet Oklahoma, she also studied at the School of American Ballet in New York City. Her mother was a model and her father was an actor with Paramount. A musical girl at heart, she performed in college musicals and shortly after dropping out of school, she appeared opposite Rosie O’Donnell in Grease on Broadway, followed up with How to Succeed in Business with Matthew Broderick. She appeared in the film Blue Velvet, but all her scenes were cut. Her earliest TV appearance was in a McDonald’s commercial with John Goodman. Earlier TV guests spots included appearances on Frasier, Wings, Mad About You, Just Shoot Me!, Third Rock From the Sun, and a fun role as Jessica Fletcher’s former protegee in Murder She Wrote (a role that a very broke Megan Mullally desperately needed).
FUN FACTS: Megan auditioned for the role of Elaine on Seinfeld. Also, she was fired from Disney’s Finding Nemo when she wouldn’t do the Karen Walker voice. ALSO, she auditioned for Elsa in Frozen.
Just Jack, the youngest of the Will & Grace cast, hails from Illinois and was raised, along with his four siblings, by a single mom. While attending college, he worked as a classical pianist and was a member of a pop band. After college, he worked as a musical director and later as an actor in the productions. He became a member of the Second City comedy group (home to many of our comedic actors) and even did stand-up at The Comedy Club in LA. His first real on-screen gigs were in the film Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss and a Super Bowl Dorito commercial. Sean initially threw away the script to the pilot and almost didn’t audition. He was going to have to pay the airfare to LA for his audition while attending the Sundance festival and thought there would be plenty of opportunities. He didn’t really discuss his sexuality at the start of the show, but later started to share details about his lifestyle and partner during interviews.
FUN FACT: Sean appeared as an extra in Winona Ryder’s first movie, Lucas, which was filmed at Sean’s High School in Illinois.
When Will & Grace came back for its successful reboot, it was announced that actress Shelley Morrison (who played Karen’s sassy maid Rosario) would not be returning to the show. Her character was given an emotional send-off during an episode where we see a rarely emotional Karen say her goodbyes. Shelley was a spitfire from day one, being raised in a Spanish Jewish home, she moved to LA at age 10 and attended Los Angeles City College. Until her death, she resided in the same family home for over six decades. Her early roles included a popular run on The Flying Nun with Sally Field, appearing with Gregory Peck in MacKenna’s Gold and later played roles in Troop Beverly Hills, Fools Rush In, and in TV shows like Murder, She Wrote, Sisters, Columbo, Home Improvement and LA Law. She was an early pioneer in the Los Angeles theatre circuit world and was one of the first female theatre producers in the community. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her work in the theatre at the Twelfth Annual Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival. She used her career resurgence in Will & Grace to volunteer her time to several cancer and LGBT non-profits. Being totally honest, I have used her Will & Grace lines in real life many times.
FUN FACT: Shelley made 25 film appearances and 200 television appearances and played a maid for a number of those roles. She had just told her agent that she would not play any more maid roles when the Will & Grace episode came along. Her character was originally only included in one episode.
FABULOUS Guest List
The show featured a grab bag of big names from music, pop culture and screen, as guests and recurring characters. Some of our favorites included Cher, Madonna, Alec Baldwin, John Cleese, Bernadette Peters, Ellen DeGeneres, Britney Spears, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, Elton John, Mullally’s husband Nick Offerman, Gene Wilder, Edie Falco, Chloe Sevigny, James Earl Jones, Glenn Close, Barry Manilow, Kevin Bacon, Mira Sorvino, Michael Douglas, Candice Bergen, Jennifer Lopez, Joan Collins, Rosie O’Donnell, Luke Perry, Wanda Sykes, Macaulay Culkin, Janet Jackson, and my personal favorites, Matt Damon competing against Jack in a choir, and a wildly fabulous appearance by Patti LuPone. The gay cherry to top them all (yes, I said top) is, of course, Leslie Jordan, as Beverley Leslie. There are also a handful of guest appearances that didn’t quite click – to quote Karen, “Honey, what’s going on here?” But we won’t mention any names.
More than ten years after the show aired its finale to over 18 million viewers, the cast was reunited for a ten-minute online skit to promote voting for the 2016 election. The skit was such a hit that NBC ordered a reboot of sorts, ignoring the finale and where the characters ended up (Will & Grace ended their friendship, Karen was poor, Jack was rich). The conversation started immediately from critics from the LGBT world and beyond as to whether we needed the show again and how good was it really? Early episodes are cringeworthy (as they are in any long-running show – except for Golden Girls) and what was once cute and funny – Jack not working a real job and mooching off of Will, Will & Grace still being single and living together, Karen still drinking and spouting off politically incorrect one-liners – might have lost its charm. The world in which Will & Grace debuted no longer needed a pioneer or a way into conservative television programming – LGBT characters were rampant in mainstream programming, even the Disney channel was featuring gay characters, and other gay show creators like Ryan Murphy and Alan Ball were creating quality content with some bite to it. The biggest complaint about Will & Grace has been that the gay characters were over the top, stereotypical, pretty “white boy” versions of the reality of the LGBT community. BUT – it was a sitcom, the first of its kind, starting the conversation and showcasing the friendships of the community rather than the sex. Reruns and the reboot have inspired a new generation to embrace their sexuality as well as differences in each other. True, we didn’t see love scenes, nor did it deal with heavy issues affecting the LGBT community, but it opened the door and we had more than a few laughs during its run. And to be honest, we all know a Jack, Will, Grace, and Karen. So, we say goodbye, and thank you!
Last modified: May 12, 2020