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Twenty-four years after ABC’s Roseanne ignited a political firestorm with an episode depicting a same-sex kiss, actress Mariel Hemingway still can’t get over what a stir the scene caused.
Hemingway, playing a lesbian named Sharon, passionately kissed Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) in a gay bar during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” episode penned by James Berg and Stan Zimmerman. It would become one of the show’s most controversial of its 220 (and counting) episodes.
“I was the girl who wasn’t shy about doing something like that,” the Oscar-nominated actress tells The Hollywood Reporter about the unexpected brouhaha the episode created in 1994. “I knew it would be super fun, and I thought it was a great show. I didn’t even think about it. I just knew this is going to be awesome.”
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was not the first time a kiss between two women was shown on network television. (That didn’t occur until 1991 during an episode of L.A. Law, with the second broadcast on a 1993 installment of Picket Fences.) Still, same-sex kissing was far from commonplace when Roseanne became the first comedy to do it. At the time, ABC threatened not to air it, with some reports noting the network stood to lose $1 million in ad revenue.
“The religious right was very upset, and there were other upset people,” Hemingway recalls. “When you’re doing something, you’re in it and you don’t realize the impact that it will have. But then, it was several weeks later, and they were about to air it, and it was so controversial.”
Barr, Hemingway recalls, demanded that ABC air “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” “Being on that set, you realized that Roseanne was extremely powerful in the television world,” the actress says, still in awe. “She got to do what she wanted, and she was used to getting what she wanted. She probably threw some hard punches. I am not sure what those were, but I am sure that she did, and I am sure they took notice.”
Although a few smaller markets refused to show it, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” aired March 1, 1994. Nearly 20 million people watched.
“Once you saw it, it was ridiculously funny because it wasn’t a make-out session; it was just a little kiss that Roseanne [the character] made a massive reaction to,” Hemingway says, laughing. “It was funny. The buildup is always more than the reality of it. I love the fact that I was a part of that, a moment telling people of different sexual orientations that it’s OK to be who they are.”
While Hemingway speculates that ABC — and Barr — likely received plenty of hate mail about the episode, the actress had the opposite experience. “A lot of people stopped me in person and were like, ‘Thank you so much. I know it was silly, but it meant a lot to me. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone and it was OK,'” she says. “And some of those were actors and others in the entertainment industry who never felt like they could be themselves, so that was pretty profound.”
Looking back, Hemingway says she found all the ruckus over the kiss to be hypocritical. “None of [the aforementioned TV kisses] compared to the violence on TV at the time,” she says. “I was raising two little girls and I thought, ‘Who cares if you see somebody’s breasts or someone kisses another woman, and meanwhile they can kill anyone and there is so much blood on television.'”
She laughs at the notion that no one would bat an eye if that same kiss happened on TV today given how much programming has evolved in the past two decades. “You can get away with anything now,” she says. “I don’t like violence, but I believe in the ability to say, ‘OK, this is who were are and you can choose not to watch that.’ But I think we need to be given that choice. I don’t like our rights being taken away in any form.”
As for a chance to appear in the reboot should it return for another season, Hemingway is all in. “I would love that,” she says. “I think it would be very funny to see what happened to Sharon.”
Roseanne airs Tuesdays on ABC.
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