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Before There Could Be a Jack McFarland, There Was a Jim J. Bullock

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Unabashed Gay Icon: Jim J. Bullock


On coming out

Long before he officially came out of the closet on The Joan Rivers Show in 1990, Jim J. Bullock was gay on television. With an encyclopedia of exaggerated gestures and contorted faces, he charmed his way from a one-time guest spot as naïve, overgrown, sexless man-child Monroe Ficus into a co-starring role on ABC’s fluff family sitcom Too Close For Comfort for six years in the 80s.

Though sparring internally with the Anita Bryants and Billy Grahams of his Southern Baptist childhood, Jim’s audiences never knew it. If you caught his stand-up act at the Comedy Store in the late seventies, you’d probably ask who that gay guy was — the one with the perm, lip-syncing in foam go-go boots to Nancy Sinatra. “I had energy shooting out of every hole in my body,” Bullock recalls to Queerty. “There were no limits to what I would do on stage.”

Except, of course, talk about his sexuality.


On his (drag-infused) stand-up act

It’s easy to picture the barely legal Jim J., bouncing into Los Angeles from Odessa, Texas, earmarked Bible in his carry-on, unable to shake the Baptismal waters from his head.

He was a classic case: the asexual court jester, the people pleaser who cracked the joke before anyone else could make one at his expense. “I didn’t like to rock the boat,” he says. “I didn’t perceive myself as gay, I just thought of myself as funny.” And so did the casting directors who saw Jim’s set and gave the 20 year-old his big break. (But let’s be honest: They probably did perceive him as gay.)

toocloseforcomfort

In a case of art imitating life, the TV network execs, Too Close For Comfort‘s producers, and Jim simply ignored the visible gayness of his character, Monroe, for as long as they could. During the first two seasons, writers handed Monroe a pair of romantic interests: a transvestite who he believes is a biological female, and an elderly woman who takes his virginity (played by Selma Diamond). And lest we forget the infamous episode where Monroe is tied-up and raped (yes, raped) by two heavyset biker chicks in their van in a mall parking lot. No joke. There’s even a website and short film devoted to the episode.

By season three, though, the viewing public grew savvy. Twenty-three year-old Bullock, who appeared on the show from 1980 until its end in 1986, was summoned into a closed-door meeting with producers. “We are receiving letters from viewers,” he was informed gravely. “They want to know if your character is gay. We don’t want him to be gay.”


How he was told to “act” on the show, and his character’s girlfriends

Jim wasn’t pushing to make his character gay, either.

“It was a time,” Jim says, “when people just didn’t talk about that shit; it just was not talked about.” When homosexuality was talked about in the 1980s, it was all hellfire and brimstone. Pat Buchanan, the Reagan White House communications director at the time, declared HIV/AIDS nature’s “awful retribution” on the “poor homosexuals.” A 1986 Supreme Court decision upheld a Georgia law criminalizing oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults. HIV/AIDS was decimating the gay male community and all gays were at the core of the blame game. If there was ever a decade to stay in the closet, the 1980s might have been a good time to rearrange the hangers.

I ask if that period was isolating. “It’s just the way it was. I was afraid I would lose everything if I was found out.”

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By:           Matt Siegel
On:           Jul 10, 2009
Tagged: , , , , , ,

  • 22 Comments
    • Jaroslaw
      Jaroslaw

      Not to take anything away from Jim Bullock, but Paul Lynde was pretty Gay acting on Hollywood Squares, Liberace too. And there are others, but that would not exactly make Jim the first and/or definition of “Gay” on TV would it?

      Jul 10, 2009 at 9:15 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • merkin
      merkin

      I understand not coming out in Hollywood in the 1970s, and I even understand taking a minstrel role like Munroe–but to give him kudos for it?! Ive met Jim, and he’s an nice guy. But it must be a frickin’ slow news day to run a seven-page story on the guy

      Jul 10, 2009 at 9:21 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Marius
      Marius

      One of the other guys who was sitting in a square with Bullock – Charles Nelson Reilly. Kinda gay.

      Is Bullock the only one to have come out? I don’t know.

      Sean “Jack” Hayes hasn’t, but I know that’s none of my business.

      Jul 10, 2009 at 9:24 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Not So Fast Cowboy
      Not So Fast Cowboy

      wow,

      “Too close for Comfort” ran for _six_ years?

      Jul 10, 2009 at 10:27 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • koalaboy
      koalaboy

      You guys on here always piss me off with you’re ridiculous comments on what things the moderators should use their time reporting on.. why don’t you make your own site and write about what you want!

      I’m a young gay comedian and found this article very resourceful and entertaining. Thank you :)

      Jul 10, 2009 at 10:41 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • David Ehrenstein
      David Ehrenstein

      Very nice interview. Jim J. is a lovely man and a very talented comic actor. It’s so odd to think of all the silliness (there’s no other word for it) that went on back then. It was obvious to anyone watching “Too Close For Comfort” that Jim J. was gay — and they loved him. Beyond sad that he was literally punished for being so talented.

      Jul 10, 2009 at 10:53 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Geoff M
      Geoff M

      I always knew about Jim J, and I was a little kid. I had the biggest crush on him, and still do! Thanks Queerty!!!

      Jul 10, 2009 at 10:58 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • MackMike
      MackMike

      Jim J.’s career began where Paul Lynde’s career ended, and while Lynde’s popularity soared during the sexual revolution that unfolded in the 1960′s and eary 1970′s, Jim J.’s was launched in a suprisingly oppressive era. The scourge of AIDs set back the GLBT community is ways that are probably incomprehensible to many who did not live through it. All gay men were viewed as disease carrying deviants, who God was specifically punishing. Stories of community pools being drained if a gay man thought to have HIV were featured on Oprah and Donahue, and gays who worked in restaurants, dental offices, in the medical profession were either fired, or exposed to rentless discrimination. Patrons even demanded that gay waiters be fired from restaurants who depended upon their dollars. Children with HIV, like Ryan White, were dismissed from their schools.

      This all unfoladed, even after a great deal of information swelled to counter the public fears–education seemed to simply fall on deaf ears. The Moral Majority was in full swing, and gays who had just begun to enjoy maintstream acceptance found themselves being forced back into a closet. Thanks to the courageous efforts of activists, such as Larry Kramer, a resistence built in the GLBT community, but in many ways our community is still recovering.

      This was the environment that Jim J. was faced with as he portrayed Monroe. Where as Lynde’s Uncle Arthur was laughed with, with a nudge and a wink; the social attitudes at the time created such an environment of intollerance that viewers were only willing to laugh at the most outrageous, the bitchiest and the most fey characterizations of gays at the time. The character of Monroe was none of these, yet still perceived as being possibly gay, and this more realistic portrayal of a “gay” man was very threatening to audiences.

      Though not a fan of the show, I did watch from time to time as a kid, and even I could see that Bullock was walking a high beam in a difficult to maintain balancing act. Nevertheless, the one thing that should be pointed out is that Lynde, who had the benefit of a friendlier culture in his time, was reportedly not a very kind human being. Having had the pleasure to spend a long afternoon with Jim J. at a wedding reception, I can first hand report that he is in person what he has always appeared to be on camera, a very gracious and warm man, with an engaging sense of humor and great knack for timing.

      Jim J. deserves all seven pages that have been dedicated to him here, I assure you.

      Jul 10, 2009 at 11:59 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Dabq
      Dabq

      Thanks for one of the best articles I have ever read on this site, and, all the best to Jim J. Bullock who was indeed a gay trailblazer!

      Jul 10, 2009 at 12:06 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • J-Like
      J-Like

      It’s a great article. I remember this show, vaguely, and I think the only reason I watched was Monroe. I was a kid, I could somehow sense something about this Monroe guy, it was the kind of thing where you wait for that fleeting echo of something that seems familiar to you and yet you don’t understand. We can now talk about minstrelsy and all those things, but we really can’t adopt a holier-than-thou attitude about it: we don’t know what those times were really like. We roll our eyes when we read a book from the early twentieth century advocating a woman’s right to stand up to her husband, thinking that she really should divorce him and set up her own business and get a “room of her own.” But these people did not live in our current world. Were there people who bucked the trend, who seem more courageous to us now b/c they were uncompromising? Sure. But those who do the high wire act, trying to be in the mainstream and also to be true to themselves, they deserve our respect, not our condescension. I had forgotten about Jim J and Too Close for Comfort until today. I’m glad I remember him now: I liked seeing him, brought me back a sense of childhood and of being different even before I could name it. I also think that b/c the show was set in SF, I began to develop an association between SF and queers—and here I am! Thank you Jim J!

      Jul 10, 2009 at 12:51 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Monstro The Whale
      Monstro The Whale

      I don’t think ever played Monroe as gay — he played him as a SPAZ. And it was funny. His effiminate qualities were thrown in ofcourse – but people watching in Too Close For Comfort’s heyday were more astounded by his energy and clowny spazzy character.

      I was called ‘Monroe’ by a few close fahhag in highschool. Go figure. ‘Gay’ was still the thing that dare not speak its name in suburbia circa 1982.

      I also really liked the TCFC’s army camoflage and head-band wearing dyke-prototype character of APRIL played by Deena Freeman. She rocked hard.

      Jul 10, 2009 at 1:24 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • lifeofthecity
      lifeofthecity

      @merkin:

      slow news, fast news day…you’ll still be as cynical i bet….you’re such a twat

      Jul 10, 2009 at 3:28 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Cam
      Cam

      I remember how offputting it was to me, how gay Monroe was on the show, and then they tried to have him have a girlfriend later, I was very little and didn’t quite get why the character bugged me. I had a similar feeling when Anthony on Designing Women had a series of Vegas/stripper girlfriends….it’s like. Yeeeeaaahhhhhh, Riiiiiiiight.

      Jul 10, 2009 at 4:35 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • BobP
      BobP

      What about Nancy Culp as Miss Hathaway on the Beverly Hillbillies? We can’t leave her out.

      Jul 10, 2009 at 5:53 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Sarah
      Sarah

      I was a kid and I knew Monroe was gay…and Monroe helped shaped my sense of humor. Thank God for that.

      Jul 10, 2009 at 6:11 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • marius
      marius

      @BobP:

      Even the Hillbillies writers gave Miss Hathaway a crush on Jethro.

      That was believable. I’d take Cousin Bessie over him.

      Jul 10, 2009 at 7:34 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Joanaroo
      Joanaroo

      Thank you for this article. I liked Jim J. and watched T.C.F.C. It’s a shame he had to work thru the homophobia of the 80s. Technology was being developed, yet attitudes about gays went back to the Salem witch hunt days. Glad to see Jim J. again.

      Jul 11, 2009 at 5:28 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Mike
      Mike

      Great article! A perfect change from some of the other crap that is posted on this blog.

      Jul 11, 2009 at 9:10 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • nina
      nina

      Great article- substantive and uplifting as well. Thanks

      Jul 11, 2009 at 11:38 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • hephaestion
      hephaestion

      That clip with the Captain & Tennille on Jim & Tammy Faye’s show had me crying. I had no idea Toni Tennille was a big friend of the gays. It was very moving.

      Jul 12, 2009 at 5:22 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • mikebuc
      mikebuc

      Thanks for the memories. Absolutely love Jim J. Always envied his hair in the 80′s!

      Jul 12, 2009 at 11:18 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Marius
      Marius [Different person #1 using similar name]

      Too Close for Comfort was on the air at pretty much the same time as Three’s Company. Monroe vs. Jack Tripper…something, anything there?

      Jul 12, 2009 at 11:39 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·

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