Actress Laura Dern is “grateful” to have been a part of the landmark episode of the sitcom Ellen, which featured a gay character as its lead for the first time on TV, but she confirms that it wasn’t easy.
In the famous “The Puppy Episode,” which aired on April 30, 1997, Dern played Susan, who forges a connection with star Ellen DeGeneres, who plays the character Ellen Morgan. It’s a role that sometimes gets lost among the Jurassic Park-size projects and the Big Little Lies-types on Dern’s long list of credits.
“We only did it for what, 10 days?” Dern said last month at New York magazine’s Vulture Festival, although the comments were published online Dec. 2. “We all spent the next couple of years really struggling in work and safety. It was radical to experience that. It was the only time I ever experienced having to have full security detail.”
Dern, whose recent work had included the Alexander Payne-directed dramedy Citizen Ruth, recalled immediately saying yes to the show. She was in good company, too. Oprah Winfrey appeared as Ellen’s therapist.
“Greatest thing I could’ve ever been part of, honestly. An incredible honor,” Dern said. “[DeGeneres] was a big fan of Citizen Ruth, and she asked me, would I come join this effort? Not just to play a role, because there were several of us. Oprah, who played her therapist in the episode, obviously the cast of her show. I was excited. I didn’t think twice about it. It was a great opportunity.”
Others, however, immediately urged Dern to say no.
“And then the calls started coming in once I’d said yes, from a couple of advisers in Hollywood who were out gay men, [telling me] to not do it,” Dern said. “A lot of people in my life really worried. And I was like, ‘This is ridiculous.’ This is where I grew up in a bubble and didn’t realize we weren’t there yet or something. The first time I became aware was, Oprah and I were having a snack, and suddenly a flood of cops swarmed the set and the stage while we were rehearsing. They’re like, ‘There’s been a bomb threat, we’re sweeping the stage.’ And they start literally rushing us off the stage.”
After the episode aired, Dern said movie offers dried up and she didn’t work for a year. The moderator asked if it was the “most significant dry spell” of her career.
“It was significant. It was significant because I was doing successful independent movies, and, only months before that, I was in Jurassic Park, the most successful movie ever,” Dern answered. “So it was like, you’re being offered this, you’re being offered that — and it just stopped. Which is kind of wild.”
Still, Dern said, it was worth it to share such an “amazing” moment with DeGeneres.
“She said it was the first time she said ‘I’m gay’ out loud. We didn’t rehearse it, so when she said it to me, and was looking in my eyes and holding my hands and I felt her shaking … the gift — it makes me want to cry — the gift of that, the intimacy of what that means, was such insight for me,” Dern said, adding that she’s “forever grateful” for the experience.
In 2017, DeGeneres herself remembered the episode when she marked its 20th anniversary on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
“It was surprising how many people I upset,” DeGeneres said. “I was a comedian and I was funny and I also happened to be gay and I just got tired of hiding it. I thought, ‘Well nothing’s going to change. I’m still funny, I’m still the same person.’ Plus, I assumed that people did know, I didn’t think it was going to be that much of a shock.”
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