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The Queerest Show on Earth

All of which is a long, long way from the Zeitgeist of the first episode of the British version of Queer As Folk, in which the tongue of a 29-year-old man travels farther down the backside of a 15-year-old boy than any tongue has ever traveled on TV before. That image has produced the identical reaction in everyone I know who has seen it: "How did they ever show that on British television?" Which is always immediately followed by "We'll never see that on American television." They might be wrong about that.

The original version already enjoys cult status among gay men on both sides of the Atlantic. Bootleg tapes of the British show were passed to American friends in the show-business community; soon they were showing up all over Chelsea, Fire Island, West Hollywood, and the Castro. In August, an edited version of the British show began to get its first airing on a new gay cable network called C1TV, which has cobbled together a network by purchasing time on public-access stations that reach 7 million viewers in 25 American cities. However, to placate more conservative cable operators, all the nude scenes in the original have been blurred, and the harshest language has been bleeped out. The uncut version has been shown at gay film festivals all across America.

As a result, the director and the executive producers all realize that they will face heavy criticism from the fans of the original if they tamper with its production values. At the same time, they're not interested in making a carbon copy of the original. Although the pilot does incorporate all of the major plot points of the first three British episodes, it also expands the role of the lesbian couple, who in the new version are portrayed by two strikingly good-looking actors, Michelle Clunie and Thea Gill. And since the first season of the American version will be twice as long as the British one -- which involved eight episodes -- the executive producers will have to invent many new story lines. In fact, if the show becomes a hit, Showtime hopes to keep it going for five more seasons.

When I first met with them, the executive producers seemed confident that there would be no pressure to tone down the graphicness of the original. "There was a stipulation at the very beginning of this project that we would not hold back -- that we would either meet or surpass what they did in the English version," said Cowen. "They said, 'Go as far as you want.' "

The director, Russell Mulcahy, told me he was disclosing that he was gay because that fact makes this project especially important to him. "I just think it's an irrelevant point most of the time," he said over lunch in the cafeteria of the Toronto school that was used as a location on the tenth day of shooting. "The only reason I mention it here is, I thought it is relevant to what I'm doing. I feel a double commitment -- not only to a good piece of film, but there's a further obligation for me as a gay man."

Mulcahy, who lives with his lover in Sydney in his native Australia, is known for the imaginative visual style of his most successful feature, Highlander, and the countless music videos he has made for Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Elton John, Culture Club, and Duran Duran. "It's definitely not watered down," he continues. "It's probably pumped up." To prove the point, he gleefully described how he simulated an ejaculation on the second day of shooting, using a syringe filled with Liquid Silk, "a shampoo with the consistency and color of sperm. There was me, or the assistant director, with these hands between the legs of some actor with this big syringe."

Lipman said, "You can't do this project and not go all the way. And it isn't even in the graphicness of the sex or the language; it's in the characters too -- especially the character of Brian, who is so unapologetic, who is a gay character who has balls, who fucks, who takes drugs, who is not sick, and who doesn't need to apologize. This is a character unlike commercial gay characters, who are either eunuchs or clowns. Those are nonthreatening gay characters. To many people, Brian is a threatening gay character. That's why people have the reactions they do."

"We've talked about what it's really about, and to us it's about becoming a man," Cowen told me. "It doesn't matter if you're a gay man or a straight man -- you have a certain rite of passage. I think it's harder for gay men to become men. It's very easy to be caught as a boy. And it's almost a fight: Are you going to live or are you going to die becomes a very big question. A lot of gay men die of aids; a lot of gay men experience the death of the soul and the spirit. I think a lot of gay men fall into crystal meth and other drugs. It's very easy to die as a gay boy and not become a man."

Most people who know about the new production assumed that it would be toned down after word leaked out that Showtime had decided to age the youngest character from 15 to 17. But the producers have figured out how to have it both ways on the age issue: To fill the youngest role, they found a blond newcomer named Randy Harrison who looks about 14 even though he's about to celebrate his 23rd birthday. Harrison graduated from the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music last March, did a single showcase in New York, found an agent, and landed the role of a lifetime last summer. Queer As Folk is the very first time he's ever been in front of a camera, and the director is already calling him "the two-take wonder."

As a member of Generation Y, Harrison felt little hesitation about announcing that he was gay. "I knew that if I ever were to become famous, I would be myself. I've had a boyfriend for three and a half years. I'm proud of that."

Unlike the character he plays, Harrison is a stranger to the gay club scene -- he never even bothered to go to the gym until he landed this role. On the other hand, he wasn't the least bit intimidated by the sex scenes, although he did find it tedious to have to fake so many orgasms "over and over and over again." He says he's warned his parents about what to expect, but "I don't think they believe it entirely. They keep saying, 'Well, they can't show anything too bad on TV.' And I keep saying, 'It's going to surprise you.' "

Peter Paige plays Emmett, the most flamboyant member of the troop, and he also felt the need to be completely truthful about who he is. "I am a gay man," he said. "I don't mind that appearing in print. I just don't think I could do this show and then apologize for my sexuality by not stating it as fact. What I love about my character is that Emmett is the gayest of the bunch, and he's not self-loathing. Of all these people, Emmett really is the happiest with who he is. And I think that is revolutionary." Scott Lowell, another newcomer to film, declined to say whether he is gay or straight, because "I'm playing a gay character -- that's what I want people to believe. And after this, who knows what I'm going to be?!"

Hal Sparks, the former host of Talk Soup on E!, who plays Brian's best friend, Michael, and Sharon Gless, who plays Michael's mother, are the only two actors in the show who have had any significant public recognition before now.

For this job, Sparks had to accept an elaborate nudity clause, which allows the use of every part of his body on film. "Yeah, yeah," said Sparks. "But don't get all excited. This is a cutting-edge series, but there's nothing cutting-edge about my penis. It's just standard-issue African-American -- it's just a little paler than most.

"I did have trepidation," Sparks admitted about his role. "And this momentary twinge of 'Oh, my God -- what if they think I'm gay?' And I would be a liar if I said that didn't occur. But what makes you a greater person is when you feel that and you go, 'But this is for the better me. This is for the betterment of everybody around me.' "

The willingness of so many of the principals to talk so honestly is another barometer of how much the world has changed since the Stonewall riot launched the modern gay-liberation movement 31 years ago. But there's a flip side to all this courage. According to Jerry Offsay, president of programming at Showtime, practically all of the major talent agencies were scared away by the show's content. Even after Offsay offered to triple the starting salary for the actor playing Brian, there were no additional applicants for the role.

"I got on the phone with some of the big agents," Offsay remembered, "and I said, whoever this guy is, we will offer him parts playing straight characters in our other movies, so that he's not typecast as a gay man. And he will be a star. And they said, 'We understand, but it is very sexual.' " In addition, there was a long list of fashion companies, including Versace and Abercrombie & Fitch, that refused to allow their products to be shown on the show. (Tom of Finland, on the other hand, was delighted to provide a pair of orange leather pants for Emmett's character.)

"I think we all realize at this point that Hollywood as a liberal business is a myth," said Lipman. "It's extremely homophobic. From our experience on this show, I would say, far more than I ever imagined." But, he added, "the people who were brave enough, who wanted the challenge and were up to it, found it."

Sharon Gless, of Cagney & Lacey fame, is one of those actors; she loved the script as soon as she read it. One of Gless's best friends happens to be Carole Smith, who is Offsay's personal assistant, so Smith instantly arranged for Gless to meet with the show's producers. Gless told me, "This is definitely the biggest character I've ever played. I didn't see the original version, but I get the thrust of it, pardon the expression. The stuff that comes out of my mouth is outrageous."