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When Greg Berlanti was becoming aware of his sexuality in the early 1980s, the only queer content on television happened to be news reports about the AIDS crisis and not much else.
“There were no apps, no social media to connect with other queer kids, no LGBTQ+ advocacy groups in schools. Not having a single connection to or support of other gay people, not being able to say ‘gay’ or whatever the hell they’re saying down there, that didn’t make me less gay — it just made me more lonely,” the super-producer said from the PGA Awards podium Saturday night while accepting one of the evening’s highest honors, the Norman Lear Achievement Award. “I spent many sleepless nights as a kid terrified I would never be able to muster up the courage to share my truth with the world. Around this time, I discovered I loved telling stories.”
He first applied that love to a specific genre, and the commitment he made telegraphed just how successful Berlanti would become.
“I decided I wanted to be Jim Henson, and my mom found me making puppets in the basement and for some reason didn’t bring me to a shrink to ask if she was raising a serial killer,” Berlanti continued, drawing laughs from the starry audience inside Fairmont Century Plaza that included Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Will Smith, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Issa Rae, Jessica Chastain and Serena Williams. “Instead, she got business cards made, and they said Greg Berlanti: Puppeteer. She put these cards all around town, and I started performing puppet shows for kids’ birthday parties, and my mom — the first producer I ever knew — would help me type up the scripts, negotiate my rates and handle my transportation. Like any smart producer, she kept the majority of the profits.”
Berlanti got serious by saying that he wouldn’t have the career he does if it weren’t for both his mother’s belief in him and “Norman Lear’s belief in the audience,” calling upon the award’s namesake, a longtime mentor and inspiration.
“I can draw a line between the kind of shows that Norman made and all the shows that came after that dare to portray America as it really was, and by doing so, help to change all of us for the better,” continued Berlanti, joined at his table by husband Robbie Rogers, producing partner Sarah Schechter and top executives Ann Sarnoff and Channing Dungey, among others. “To have traveled that distance from that scared kid in that bed to this evening — where my incredible husband, Robbie, sits in the audience with our two beautiful children, Caleb and Mia, asleep at home — to think about how much the world had to change to make the life I’m living now possible, even in hindsight, is unimaginable to me. I’m proud of whatever small part I’ve played in continuing Norman’s great legacy.”
But even with a spin in the spotlight and a new trophy for his mantel, Berlanti said the honor arrives with some sadness, “because I know how many trans, nonbinary and queer kids are still having those sleepless nights,” just like the ones he suffered through. “I desperately want the world to change for them, just like it did for me,” added Berlanti, who referenced the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and moves by Republican lawmakers to target LGBTQ+ youth. “I believe and hope that it will, in large part because of the kinds of stories that so many of you are going to make sure get told.”
Speaking of stories, before Berlanti made his way to the stage, he received a heartfelt and amusing tribute from another super-producer, Ryan Murphy. The two men are responsible for seismic shifts in LGBTQ representation on screens both big and small, and while their genres may differ, they share similar origin stories. Murphy detailed their early days in Hollywood, both aspiring creatives who were hustling for their first big breaks. Murphy’s came first when he sold a script to Spielberg (whom he thanked again backstage, he noted). “The only person who was more excited about this was Greg,” he said of his best friend at the time.
At the time, Berlanti was working as an assistant while burning the midnight oil to chip away at a feature script, despite not being a night person. (“He has always had an allergy to any activity after 10 p.m.”) As a solution, Murphy offered to use some of the cash he received from Spielberg to pay Berlanti’s rent for three months so he could quit his day job and focus on getting words on the page.
It paid off as Berlanti wrote a personal story “populated exclusively by young men like us,” gay men who were searching for community and place. “I was worried about the script, to be honest,” Murphy admitted. “Greg and I were told repeatedly, early on, that we couldn’t sell movies or TV shows populated by gay people because no one would make it, and it would never sell. Couldn’t we try writing a nice Sandra Bullock romantic comedy? But Greg would not be deterred.”
That script was The Broken Hearts Club, a film Berlanti directed from his own script that is considered a gay classic. “After the sale of The Broken Hearts Club, Greg moved to television, a medium he has now dominated for close to 25 years,” Murphy continued. “First came Dawson’s Creek, and then the world.”
Murphy recounted some of the highlights of his career thus far: shattering Jerry Bruckheimer’s record by getting 20 live-action scripted shows on the air across six different outlets; putting the first transgender character in primetime network TV with Candis Cayne on Dirty Sexy Money; showcasing the first legal gay marriage on network TV on Brothers and Sisters; the first lesbian superhero with Batwoman; the first romantic kiss between two men with Dawson’s Creek; and the first studio film featuring a gay lead with Love, Simon.
Murphy said he was recently working on a television show about a heterosexual couple. He received a phone call from a “very sweet, 35-year-old, Gen X” woman who asked him to add a “really cool gay character” and cast a transgender actor. The requests pushed Murphy to inquire about the woman’s background and, as it turned out, she was raised on Berlanti’s content. “That’s how she sees the world — one where everyone is invited to the party.
“This award tonight makes perfect sense to me,” Murphy said in closing. “Greg Berlanti is, in so many ways and has been for two decades now, the logical heir to Norman Lear, who we all love in this room. The demand for conversation and equality zings and reverberates off every page he has ever written or taken a pass on; women, gay people, everybody, all minorities. He has done so much for so many — and he is just getting started.”
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