The Booming Business of Ellen DeGeneres: From Broke and Banished to Daytime's Top Earner
Friendly, funny and yep, she’s gay -- the pain and the glory in creating her top-earning syndicated series. Says Oprah: "Being truthful ... allowed the audience to fall in love with her."
DeGeneres' popularity among those Middle America viewers (many of whom likely voted for McCain) is not without irony. In fact, this is precisely the viewership affiliates feared a homosexual comedian would offend, if not altogether alienate, when Warner Bros. executives pitched Ellen 10 years ago. To persuade those skittish station managers, DeGeneres crisscrossed the country, making stops in each of their markets with Jim Paratore, the late president of Telepictures Productions. "They were always shocked. They'd be like, 'She didn't curse,' as though cursing were a characteristic of gay people," says DeGeneres, reflecting on the draining process of schmoozing a cadre of people fearful of who she was and, worse, what she might do with it on air.
"These stations really thought she'd have a gay agenda. It was the hardest show we've ever had to launch in the history of our company," says McLoughlin, recalling the subsequent test interviews she did prelaunch with stars including Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt and singer Alanis Morissette to show affiliates she was capable of having compelling conversations with those outside of the gay community. "I had to show them that I know how to talk to people -- like how hard is it to talk to people? -- and still a lot of them didn't want to hire me," adds DeGeneres, who confesses over iced teas at West Hollywood's Soho House in August that being on this end of an interview is the only time she is uncomfortable talking. (It is for that reason that DeGeneres, more serious in person than she is on her show, gives them so infrequently.)
Today, to the degree that celebrities such as The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons, Star Trek's Zachary Quinto and White Collar's Matt Bomer can identify themselves as gay without the fear of tarnishing their brands, comedian Wanda Sykes credits DeGeneres. "Ellen took the bullet for everyone else," she says, having come out at a rally for same-sex marriage in 2008. "When you come out now, it's a celebration, not a kiss of death, and we have her to thank for that."
DeGeneres came out to her own mother when she was 20 years old. The words, "Mom, I'm gay," were accompanied by sobs from her and a degree of denial from her mother. In time, Betty DeGeneres would not only come to accept her daughter's sexual orientation but also become the first nongay spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign's Coming Out Project. Her father and his new wife were less accommodating. Upon hearing the news, they asked that she move out of their house to avoid influencing their two younger children.
She had no intention of coming out publicly, much less having her character do so, when she took the gig on ABC's Ellen in 1993. But the incongruity between who DeGeneres was onscreen and who she was off made her increasingly uncomfortable, until one evening when she had a dream that would change the course of the series -- and her career. DeGeneres was holding a pet finch in her hands, and as she put it back into its beautiful, multitiered cage by the window, she became the bird. "I suddenly notice that the bars against the window, which was open, were wide enough to fly out, and that they'd always been wide enough to fly out," she says, before waking up and thinking to herself: "Jesus Christ, do I have to have it spelled out? You're in a beautiful cage. You have a great view. You have an amazing life. But you don't need to be here." The next day, she went to the show's executive producers and told them that she wanted her character to come out.
The show's executive producers loved the idea, but Disney balked. "It's a public company … and creating something that's sure to be controversial is not something the Walt Disney Co. takes lightly," says former Walt Disney Television president Dean Valentine, who acknowledges that then-CEO Michael Eisner was resistant at first. "All he could think of were all of the battles that he'd have to fight and all of the grief he was going to get for it." After several conversations, the company finally acquiesced. "It was clear that this wasn't a situation where the genie could go back in the bottle," adds Valentine. "She phrased it as a 'May I,' but it was not a 'May I'; it was a, 'This is what I'm going to do,' and the only other choice was to cancel the show."
The "puppy" episode, as it was code-named, aired April 30, 1997, timed to coincide with the Time magazine cover titled "Yep, I'm Gay" and a small cadre of sit-down interviews in which she, like Ellen Morgan, announced she was gay. In the episode, Morgan would realize that she had fallen for a woman, played by Laura Dern, prompting her to come out to her therapist (Winfrey). "I did it because she asked me to do it, and I wanted to support her," says Winfrey. Other celebrities, including Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton and Melissa Etheridge, also had cameos to show their support.
The episode garnered a Peabody Award and a record 42 million viewers -- as well as the wrath of advertisers (Chrysler was among the brands to pull ads) and affiliates. Rev. Jerry Falwell famously called her "Ellen DeGenerate," religious groups staged protests and execs like Valentine were on the receiving end of death threats that required security at their homes. "It was the worst backlash I had ever received," recalls Winfrey. "And it always turns to race. I got all of the, "N-----, go back to Africa. Who do you think you are?' I'd never experienced anything that bad before."
Ellen's ratings quickly plummeted -- to this day, she blames a lack of promotion -- and the series was yanked from ABC's schedule the following season. "I assumed there would be some fallout, but I didn't realize the amount," she says, her cornfield-blue eyes welling up. "I was that person before, and I thought, 'How did I lose my entire fan base?' It's not like all of a sudden I ripped some mask off."
Within months, DeGeneres' disappointment had turned to outrage; she retreated with then-girlfriend Anne Heche to Ojai, Calif. "I was heartbroken. I thought, 'I don't want to be a part of this business. It's shallow and superficial. I work my ass off and do something that I think is important and this is how I'm rewarded?' " she allows, acknowledging now that she has some regrets about the way in which she handled the news, including publicly blasting Disney and threatening to quit on more than one occasion. (She insists she no longer holds a grudge against ABC, where she had a comedy pilot starring her wife in contention last season.)
After about three years without work, DeGeneres came dangerously close to broke -- unlike other sitcom stars of the era, including Tim Allen and Jerry Seinfeld, she had no backend on Ellen. "It felt like it was the end of the world, like nothing was ever going to change, and I was never going to work again," she says. With stand-up her only shot at reviving her career, she began writing material on a series of legal pads for what would become The Beginning tour. Slowly, fans started to re-emerge. She lent her voice to Finding Nemo (she's in negotiations for the sequel), booked a short-lived sitcom on CBS, The Ellen Show, and agreed to host the 2001 Emmy Awards, which were pushed back twice following the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I feel like I'm in a unique position as host," she said at the time. "Think about it: What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?" The joke, like much of what she delivered from the Emmys stage, went over brilliantly. She earned a standing ovation at the show's end. Soon after, Lorne Michaels' team asked her to host Saturday Night Live's Christmas episode and then again months later to do a daytime talk show. (Her reps were more interested in late-night and pushed ABC to consider DeGeneres for the slot that ultimately went to her friend Jimmy Kimmel, whose show she watches nightly and considers an inspiration.)
But it was Paratore who ultimately won her over by sending her a pricey bottle of Petrus wine and a tongue-in-cheek note saying how happy he was that The Ellen Show was canceled. Until his death earlier this year, the former Warner Bros. exec continued sending bottles of Petrus to commemorate other big moments in DeGeneres' career, of which there have been many. Before Paratore left for France, where his life was cut tragically short by a heart attack, he visited DeGeneres. "It was our last week of shows before summer hiatus," she recalls of his mid-May visit, fighting back tears, "and he said: 'You're starting your 10th season. Can you believe there was a time when nobody wanted to buy you?' "
Born in New Orleans, DeGeneres was raised by her insurance-agent father and speech-therapist mother before moving to east Texas as a teen. Although Johnny Carson was a hero of hers early on, she envisioned a career as a veterinarian or home designer. "I will do it someday," she says of the latter, noting that friends often ask her to design their homes. (She has a knack for finding them, too, says music manager Scooter Braun. When he was looking to move to Los Angeles, she sent him "at least eight houses a day with full property descriptions like she was the broker," he says. "I'm talking finds! It blew my mind.")