Nathan Lane: Robin Williams protected me from being outed, he was a saint

You know how people always ask which celebrity death you still feel? Robin Williams is right up there for me. Next year will mark 10 years. And when I read stories like this that little hole in my heart gets a little bigger. In 1996, Nathan Lane starred with Robin in the American film version of La Cage aux Foulles called The Birdcage. I love The Birdcage. Granted, not all of it has aged perfectly, but what they did with both the original stage play and film, for the time, was a treat. Robin and Nathan played married nightclub owners who pretend to be straight in front of right-wing conservatives and potential in-laws Gene Hackman and Diane Wiest. Over the weekend, Nathan told Willie Geist that at the time, he had not come out yet. While Nathan’s sexuality was a bit of an open secret, he had not said anything officially. However, due to the nature of the film they’d just made, he realized he might get asked questions he wasn’t ready for. Before an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Nathan told Robin he was scared of being outed. When his fears started being realized on national television, Robin redirected the conversation to protect Nathan. And now I need a tissue to dab my eyes.

Nathan Lane is looking back at how the late Robin Williams shielded him from having to publicly disclose his sexuality during an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

In a new interview with Willie Geist for Sunday TODAY, Lane, 67, recalled how he “wasn’t prepared” to discuss being gay during a 1996 appearance on the talk show. The duo was there to promote their 1996 film The Birdcage, in which they portray a couple. At the time, Lane wasn’t ready to open up about his personal life.

“I don’t think Oprah was trying to out me,” Lane told Geist. “I said to Robin beforehand, ‘I’m not prepared. I’m so scared of going out there and talking to Oprah. I’m not prepared to discuss that I’m gay on national television. I’m not ready.’”

Instead, the Lion King star was hoping to focus on the triumph of scoring the iconic role, in which he portrayed a gay man who performs in a Miami drag club owned by his partner, played by Williams.

“I certainly wasn’t ready to go from table-to-table and tell them all I was gay. I just wanted to talk about I finally got a big part in a movie and I didn’t want to make it about my sexuality, although it was sort of unavoidable because of the nature of the film and the character,” Lane said, looking back. “I just wanted to do good work, and I hoped that people would like it.”

But during the show, Lane and Williams both recognized that Winfrey was beginning to inquire about whether the former was gay in real life.

“She was like, ‘How come you’re so good at that girlie stuff? Are you worried about being typecast?’” he said. Williams, however, was able to redirect the conversation. “And then Robin sort of swoops in and diverts Oprah, goes off on a tangent and protects me because he was a saint.”

“Robin was just the greatest person, just such a beautiful, sensitive soul and so kind and generous to me,” he said. “And it was, you know, it was sort of prescient about gay marriage.”

[From Yahoo!]

I did not see this interview back then, but I can picture how it went. Oprah was a different interviewer both on her talk show and in the 90s than she is today. I’m sure Nathan is correct that she wasn’t trying to out him. As I said, there were plenty of assumptions about his sexuality already (not that that makes it okay). Plus, daytime talk shows at the time were only just starting to break away from their sensationalist Q&A format. And Robin was a animated guest so having him jump in and take over was not unusual. He could’ve easily highjacked the conversation and been so entertaining in wherever he took it, there would be no need to go back. And yet, I don’t doubt for a minute that he did it to protect Nathan. If you’ve seen the movie, this story parallels their relationship on screen, making it that much sweeter.

Nathan, I did not realize, married his partner Devlin Elliott in 2018. They’ve been together for 25 years and Nathan came out on his own terms in 1999. Which is how it should be. It’s a big step opening up that conversation and that takes psychological preparedness to get there. Forcing someone’s hand could have repercussions. We should all be so lucky to have a friend like Robin.

Note by CB: I found that interview! It’s queued up to that part.

Embed from Getty Images

Embed from Getty Images

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Photos credit: LOREY SEBASTIAN / Avalon and Getty Images

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33 Responses to “Nathan Lane: Robin Williams protected me from being outed, he was a saint”

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  1. Dani says:

    I love Nathan Lane; and Robin Williams’ death is the one that still hurts the most. The man was an angel on earth. Good on him for protecting Mr Lane.

    • Arizona says:

      I called out of work the day Robin died and cried and watched his movies. I’ve never had a celebrity death affect me the same way.

  2. K8erade says:

    Yeah…I still can’t watch Robin William’s stuff. Not because I don’t love it but his death just still hurts that much. If I recall, he died about 6 months after another favorite actor of mine: Philip Seymour Hoffman. That was not a good time.

    Nathan Lane is one of those actors that I’m always wishing good things for. He’s amazing. I wish he did more film but I had the pleasure of seeing him on Broadway back in 2012. That was nice.

    • Mabs A'Mabbin says:

      I can’t either. I’m such a puss. That movie was everything to me at the time. So good. So funny.

    • The Recluse says:

      He was in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels and was really good playing a detective in it. He’s seriously underrated.

  3. HeyKay says:

    I love Nathan Lane.
    I wish he’d sing more. I’d love to see him on the late night shows, singing on a weekly basis.

    Robin Williams what a beautiful soul he was!
    100% talent and so kind and loving.
    I’ve heard stories of Robin and the one that really sticks is He and Christopher Reeve, the Superman actor, were great friends in college before either started their true careers. When Christopher had his terrible accident, Robin rushed to visit him and cheer he & his wife a bit. Robin insisted on paying CRs medical bills, kept in touch always.
    Now that is a great human.

    • Mar says:

      Funny I was just thinking about Christopher Reeves the other day, he had a way about him, not only in the Superman movies, but in real life, that was very special. His injury and his death , to this day, make me incredibly sad. I also forgot about his friendship with Robin.

      • H says:

        I watched a wonderful documentary on Amazon Prime this weekend called Robin’s Wish. It was done by his wife and discussed his Lewy Body Dementia, which was only discovered after his death.

        In it, they talked about his great friendship with Christopher Reeve. Everyone should watch this movie as it discusses dementia and how it affects everyone around the patient. Robin was a true gentle soul and taken from us too soon.

  4. Jais says:

    Robin Williams❤️ Forever

  5. kgeo says:

    What a great movie. I know it’s just entertainment, but living in Arkansas, a lot of people could benefit from its message right now.

  6. FilmTurtle says:

    Ah, I still miss Robin terribly. Full stop.

    That moment at 17.17-ish in the clip, when Robin and Nathan look at each other, knowing what we know now, is lovely and heartwarming.

    “The Birdcage” is definitely problematic in a variety of ways, and a bit of a relic, but the performances of Nathan and Robin (and Hank Azaria and Christine Baranski) are indelible. And it was showing a drag queen and her husband as stable and loving, and warm, supportive parents, at a time when that was NOT the narrative in the culture.

  7. LSL says:

    I watched almost that whole video just to watch them in action. You can see exactly when Robin seamlessly jumps in to help Nathan. Both wonderful men and actors. I miss Robin Williams so much. Thank you for sharing this today!

  8. zazzoo says:

    Am I remembering this wrong? I really thought Lane was openly gay when the Birdcage was released. I think I misremember the 90s a lot, applying today’s social contexts to my memories of my 20s.

    • FilmTurtle says:

      He was, as Hecate mentions, “openly closeted” (a term coined by Michael Musto). He had done a handful of small parts (like Timon in “The Lion King”) but this was his first leading role, so the general public didn’t really know anything about him.

    • Blushandbashful says:

      No, he came out later. I remember because it was discussion of is he or isn’t he because he was so great in the role

    • Me single malt says:

      He was out on a personal level. But he was not out on a professional level and at the time he stated he was not ready to discuss his sexuality publicly.

      Even now actors are continually told not to identify as gay if they wish to be offered leading roles. Sigh.

      • zazzoo says:

        It’s ridiculous. Pedro Pascal is a good example. I don’t want to speculate on his sexuality because he’s chosen to keep it private, but one thing we do know is that being a womanizer would *not* hurt his career, but he’s not playing the Nicholson/DiCaprio card. For all we know, he’s in a deeply loving LTR that he keeps under wraps and it’s none of our business. But the idea that being gay would still hurt someone’s career really pisses me off. I can fantasize about a hot celeb regardless of their gender, sexuality, or relationship status because it’s a fantasy and I’m not delusional. At this point, Nathan Lane is very well known as a gay man, but he’s a great actor. He’s not an action star or a lothario type. I could see him plausibly playing an aging straight married man though. Gay or not no one is gonna buy him as a womanizer.

  9. Katie Beanstalk says:

    There were so many gay stereotypes back then. Probably what he really wanted to avoid.

  10. Nicegirl says:

    so beautiful. 💕

  11. TwinFalls says:

    It’s weird to think you can miss someone you’ve never met but I do miss Robin Williams.

    • zazzoo says:

      Robin Williams brought the world so much joy and he lived in so much pain. That’s not an easy thing for any of us to accept. Of course we still have strong feelings about him.

  12. K says:

    I miss Robin Williams every day. He was just one in a million.

  13. des says:

    I found myself really annoyed at Oprah. Her questions were a little gross. She knew what she was asking and implying. She was trying to put him.

  14. LAR says:

    Yet another story showing Robin Williams as a generous and caring friend. He really stood up for people when it counted.

  15. Fuzzy Crocodile says:

    Late to this post, but just wanted to add my love for Robin Williams.

    Grew up watching his movies.

    When he died, it really felt like losing a close friend and I still grieve that loss. He was one in a billion. Every time one of his movies comes on, I still watch it.

  16. Feebee says:

    I still miss Robin Williams. I was lucky enough to see one of his shows and still remember my face aching from laughing and being annoyed that I kept missing the next joke cos I was laughing from the one before.

    I can’t see the video but I can only imagine. No one could go off on tangents like RW and of course it would be nothing to protect his friend. He was such a special person.

    I don’t think Oprah was trying to out him but she did have a weird blind spot on that subject in the 90s. Her interview with George Michael after the bathroom incident was wtf. For me at least.

  17. N says:

    This is the kind of story WE NEED RIGHT NOW.

  18. jferber says:

    N, agree. Lovely memory of Robin from the great Nathan Lane.

  19. HeyKay says:

    Robin was so incredibly creative and talented.
    I can’t watch his performances without crying, even his comedy. Just makes me sad to know he is gone.

    Anthony Bourdain is the other celeb, I no longer can watch him, I simply break down.
    I used to turn on his shows and leave them on for hours as friendly background/comfort TV.


  20. Lucky Charm says:

    Robin Williams was a beautiful but tortured soul, and extremely missed. Nathan Lane is a talented and underrated actor who has a great career ahead of him. It’s terribly sad that anyone has to “come out” in the first place. No one expects a straight person to publicly declare which gender they prefer romantically. There should be no reason for speculation in the first place. As far as I’m concerned, the only time anyone needs to know a person’s sexual preferences is if they prefer children. And that’s for the safety of the children, not for salacious gossip.

  21. Christine says:

    All of this makes me sad. The “girlie stuff”, Robin Williams, Nathan Lane not feeling comfortable to marry the love of his life until 2018.

  22. Tessa says:

    I saw nathan lane in some broadway musicals and dramas and comedies. He is great and I saw him in revivals including the front page and I saw him in the musical the producers.