Nathan Lane recalled how 'saint' Robin Williams 'protected' him from being outed on Oprah

It's been nine years since we lost Robin Williams, but his costars are still singing his praises.

A month after Sally Field fondly recalled Williams as a "generous, loving, sweet, talented man" before receiving her Lifetime Achievement Award, Nathan Lane offered his own memories of how the late comedian helped him during a particularly stressful time.

THE BIRDCAGE, Nathan Lane, Robin Williams, 1996, © United Artists / Courtesy Everett Collection
THE BIRDCAGE, Nathan Lane, Robin Williams, 1996, © United Artists / Courtesy Everett Collection

Everett Collection Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in 'The Birdcage'

On Today, Lane discussed going on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996 to promote his and Williams' film, the classic The Birdcage, in which they play a gay couple trying to marry off their straight and straight-laced son (Dan Futterman) to a lovely young woman (Calista Flockhart) and her incredibly conservative parents (Dianne Wiest and Gene Hackman).

Lane was terrified because this was his first major film role and he just wasn't "prepared at all" to talk about his sexuality.

"And I certainly wasn't ready to go from table-to-table and tell them all I was gay," Lane said, while admitting that was the gay elephant in the room was "sort of unavoidable because of the nature of the film and the character."

Lane confided in Williams that he wasn't ready to come out in a public forum.

"He said, 'Oh, it's alright, don't worry about — we don't have to talk about it," the Only Murders in the Building star told Today's Willie Giest. "We won't talk about it.'"

During the Oprah interview, Winfrey wastes no time in asking Lane if he's worried about being typecast and people questioning, "Are you or are you not? Is he?" And then Winfrey adopts what one can only call a Nineties Gay Accent, and adds, "Is he, honey? I don't know."

Lane, who's currently appearing on Broadway in Pictures from Home, tells Geist that's when WIlliams "sort of swoops in and diverts Oprah, goes off on a tangent and protects me because he was a saint."

In the clip, Williams also adopts a Nineties Gay Accent, joking with Oprah, "Girl, you changed just in the middle of that sentence." There's some neck rolling and light gay affectations, but Winfrey isn't distracted for long, just long enough to let Lane come up with an answer. At the time he claimed he was a character actor without "an image to uphold" and wasn't afraid of being typecast.

Lane maintains that he doesn't think Winfrey was trying to out him, but he simply wasn't ready for the weight of coming out as a gay man in 1996. A year later, Winfrey would be involved in the landmark coming-out episode of Ellen DeGeneres' sitcom, playing her character Ellen's therapist. After DeGeneres came out and Ellen was cancelled, DeGeneres worried that she would never work again.

"I just wasn't ready to do that," Lane said of coming out publicly. "It's great that everyone now feels comfortable but homophobia is alive and well and there are plenty of gay people who are still hiding."

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