Nathan Lane Recalls "Terrifying" Moment Oprah Tried to Out Him: "I Wasn't Ready"

Nathan Lane - Publicity - H 2019
Luke Fontana

The comedy great reveals to the 'It Happened in Hollywood' podcast that fame post-'The Birdcage' wasn't all it was cracked up to be: "It was all so intimidating."

Nathan Lane is opening up about the difficult path to coming out as gay, something he did in the late 1990s after achieving worldwide fame in the blockbuster hit The Birdcage.

The comedy great, 64, told The Hollywood Reporter's It Happened in Hollywood podcast that he had long been out to close friends and relatives when director Mike Nichols cast him opposite Robin Williams as Albert, aka the drag queen Starina, in Nichols' big-budget adaptation of the 1978 Italian-French farce La Cage aux Folles

"I came out when I was 21 to my mother and to my family," says Lane. "Everyone knew. And certainly everyone in [the] New York [theater scene] knew. But this notion of coming out publicly, as if I was a public figure — no one had been interested in my sex life up until then."

But with the release of Birdcage in 1996, the actor's profile was certain to explode, and Lane was suddenly faced with a difficult personal decision.

"Suddenly I had a publicist and they had to say, 'Well, what do you want to do? You're going to walk into a room filled with journalists and this is going to come up.' And I just said, 'I don't know if I'm ready to start discussing this. ... I finally get a nice role in a movie and I want it to be about the acting and not a coming out story.' Right or wrong, that was my decision," he recalls.

Lane opted to avoid the topic of his sexuality while promoting the film. But just as his publicists predicted, the subject came up, most notably on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Says Lane: "We had to discuss this beforehand and I said, 'I'm not ready to discuss whether I'm gay or not with Oprah. I can barely deal with meeting Oprah, let alone telling her I'm gay.'

"She says to me something like, 'Oh, you're so good at that girly stuff.' Or whatever it was. And Robin obviously sensed she might be going toward the sexuality question and he immediately swoops in and diverts the interview away from that to protect me," he continues.

In fact, on the show, Winfrey asks of Lane point-blank, "Were you afraid of being typecast as 'are you, are you not?' 'Is he, isn't he...?'" Williams then breaks in to make light of Winfrey's playful intonation while asking the uncomfortable question.

Undaunted, Winfrey presses on.

"So..?" she asks. Lane awkwardly wiggled out of the line of inquiry.

When he was later asked by Us magazine, 'Are you gay?' Lane had a response ready: "I said, 'I'm 40, single and I work a lot in the musical theater. You do the math. What do you need — flash cards?' I thought I had come out, but apparently I didn't. That wasn't enough," he says.

Lane finally came out in no uncertain terms in a 1999 cover profile in The Advocate. "And then people were just annoyed that I came out. 'Yeah, we already knew! Fuck you.' So there was no winning there," he says. "It was all so intimidating. Honestly, I was terrified."

While making Birdcage, the actor was out to the cast and crew. But for a major motion picture that centers on a same-sex relationship, Lane often found himself to be the only gay person on the set.

"The only, sort of, uncomfortable moment in the making of it is the use of the word 'fag' in the movie," he remembers. "I said, 'Alexander the Great was a fag.' ... I couldn't figure out why Mike and [screenwriter] Elaine [May] wouldn't let go of this. I said to Mike, 'As the only gay person in the scene, I feel a little uncomfortable saying this and I don't know why the character would be using that term.'" 

"I felt lucky just to be invited to the party, so it was very hard for me to question him at all," Lane says. "He did the classic, 'Just do one for me.' Of course, that's what he used."

After the film's release — it became a box office hit, grossing $124 million domestically, or $202 million today — Lane was traumatized by a disturbing fan interaction: "I was sitting in a cab in traffic in Manhattan and there was a guy in a truck next to me. ... He looked at me and smiled and started to scream, 'Hey, faggot!' He just kept saying 'faggot.' I was humiliated. I thought, 'I wish Mike was here for this.' It was the other side of fame."

Despite Birdcage's success, Lane was disappointed that it didn't serve as a springboard to a bigger movie career. Asked if he thought homophobia played a part in that, he responds, "I'm sure it was a little bit of that."

The actor recalls a conversation with his then-agent, the late Jeff Hunter, a longtime William Morris vet who had repped Marlene Dietrich and Montgomery Clift.

"I went and said to him, 'Not much has happened after The Birdcage. I thought it was maybe going to lead to stuff,'" Lane recalls. "He said to me, 'Maybe if you weren't so open about your sexuality.' He was gay. He was this shaved head, moustached old queen and he said, 'Maybe if you weren't so open about your sexuality you'd have more offers.' So I left. I went to CAA. That was a mistake. 'Where fun goes to die.'"

But don't feel too badly for Lane, whose career is thriving both onstage and off, with a pair of dramatic roles. He next will appear in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, playing a veteran LAPD officer in the 1930s-set crime tale. It is slated to premiere April 26 on Showtime.

And in spring 2021, Lane will take on the iconic role of Willy Loman — opposite Laurie Metcalf's Linda Loman — in a new Broadway production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, produced by Scott Rudin. 

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For much more from Nathan Lane on the making of The Birdcage, tune in to the latest episode of It Happened in Hollywood. And as always, be sure to subscribe