Long before same-sex marriage ruled SCOTUS (or vice versa), Fox’s 1991 family sitcom Roc made history by airing one of television’s first gay weddings.
The series followed a traditional family man (Charles S. Dutton) and his life in Baltimore, but in the season 1 episode “Can’t Help Loving That Man,” the show became much more than its simple logline when it introduced Roc’s gay uncle Russell, played by Shaft actor Richard Roundtree, and presented a wedding between him and his male partner—a far cry from what the rest of television was showing in 1991.
Cast member Rocky Carroll, currently starring on NCIS, played Roc’s younger brother Joey and vividly remembers the big moment. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality on Friday, Carroll proudly walked EW through the reception.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you have instant memories of what Roc did all those years ago?
ROCKY CARROLL: I absolutely do. The significance of that storyline fell in line with a lot of other significant things that were happening at that time, especially with the network. Fox was still a network that was trying to play with the big boys and at the time was still in the process of establishing itself as a major network power. The biggest show up to that point was The Simpsons. Roc was sort of an experiment because none of the lead actors on our show had any real television experience, especially in half-hour TV. Fox at the time was willing to try any and everything to establish itself, and in that, they allowed us to do shows and storylines like the wedding. Not only did we have a central recurring character on our show who was gay, but we also had the wedding! We went beyond just recognizing the fact that he’s gay. That was almost 25 years ago. If you think about the evolution of same-sex marriage that has happened since, the reality of it wasn’t even on the radar in 1991.
Yet it was on the radar for your writers.
I guess for a lot of people, it was sort of an abstract thought, but I think what we knew and what the writers knew was that it was something that could possibly become very real and very prominent in our culture, and I’m just proud to know that we were ahead of the curve. But television is always ahead of the curve. Television had a black president long before Barack Obama. So it falls in line with what we do in the world of television: we imagine what could be. We don’t shy away from what could be, and I think in 1991, that’s where we were. We weren’t trying to set policy or create a reality that at the time didn’t exist. We did what we always do in the entertainment world: we say to the world, imagine what could be.
How did the show approach the topic?
Whatever impact that episode had, we played from our strong suit, and our strong suit was comedy. We were all of the belief, and I still believe, that you can change minds and change hearts through laughter faster than you can any other way. If you can appeal to another person’s sense of humor, you can introduce ideas, thoughts, things that they may disagree with or not believe in. At least they’ll listen. And I think that’s kind of where we were at that time of this episode. We knew we were funny enough that we could take a very real scenario and introduce it and not shine a light on it in a way that people would back away from it, but we could incorporate it within the humor of our show—not to poke fun at it, in any sense. And I also think another bold move on the part of the producers and the writers was that we cast Richard Roundtree. In the 1970s and his movie career, he was Shaft! He was the epitome of “a man’s man.” He played our uncle who happened to be gay. I think we were doing a lot of things, but we didn’t want to hit you over the head with a sledgehammer with the fact that it was just a part of this particular fictional family’s life.
Do you remember any pushback from the network?
I don’t remember any pushback there. That was my first foray into television—I was an actor in my late 20s, and I had been in Hollywood for less than a year at the time, so if there was pushback, HBO Independent and Fox did a very good job of shielding us from it. I’m sure there probably were some people on the fringe who may have reacted to it, but like I said, I think the thing that was most in our favor was Fox still trying to establish itself as a contender in the world of network television. I think a lot of people looked at it and said, this is Fox network trying to stake a claim and do something that the Big Three wouldn’t do.
How about the fan reaction?
What I remember was the fan reaction was great. I remember receiving a GLAAD award for what we did, and I’ve got to be honest, that was the first time that it dawned on me as an individual that maybe we did something that had a far-reaching impact.
What did it feel like in the room when you were shooting?
To me, we just did a really good episode. Even though the subject matter was not quote-unquote “the norm” for television, for me I was proud of the fact that we did a good episode, that things that were supposed to be funny were funny, and that we told a great story. On the creative side, my primary objective was, is this show up to par with the other episodes that we’ve done? It wasn’t until it was all said and done and we started receiving response and were awarded by GLAAD. The words “bold” and “daring” and “cutting-edge,” none of those words entered our minds when we were doing it. We just did it. I never remember sitting around a table during a rehearsal or during shooting and talking about the significance of this. I don’t remember a single HBO Independent or Fox network executive ever coming to us and talking about the overall impact or possible impact of this type of show. I just don’t think we were there as a society and I don’t think HBO Independent really cared!
You can’t be thrown off by gravity if you don’t even realize it’s there.
And you know what? I would venture to say that if a show on the Fox network today were to do that same episode… remember, technology was just starting to permeate our culture in 1991, so you didn’t have social media or the sort of instant news cycle that exists now. So even if there was a reaction or backlash to our episode, it wasn’t magnified in the way that it would be now.
Frankly, an episode like this in 2015 is still considered monumental.
[Friday] was a huge day in America, but I think it’s what we’ve come to expect as a society, if we’re going to hold true to the principles of our country. And I remind people all the time that what the United States of America ultimately is, what we claim to be, is the exception to the norm. A free and democratic society is not the norm. When you look to the history books, world history was not based on great democratic societies but on imperialism, absolute rule, kings, queens, monarchs, dictators. People who said what I say goes, and if you believe differently, then war unto you. So this concept of a free and democratic society of the people, for the people, and by the people is still looked at in most parts of the world as this sort of noble experiment, and I tell people all the time, look at where we’ve come.
America, we are the iPhone of modern society. Most other cultures evolve very slowly, where it’s taken thousands of years for subtle change. We live in a society where the President of the United States, if he were born under 150 years ago, would have been the legal property of another man. That’s amazing that in such a small period of time, when enough people get together and say this needs to be changed, it happens, and it doesn’t take a thousand years for it to happen. I know we can all have our opinions and our complaints about how things work in this society, but compared to the big picture and the rest of the world, I think we do pretty good. The change that has happened for same-sex marriage is amazing and, once again, it’s a testament to living in a country that is still the exception to the norm.
What emotions do you feel looking back on this episode 25 years later?
My immediate reaction is just how proud we were to have done something that seemed so far ahead of its time, and I think it still stands. Whether the network’s reason for giving it the green light was just to shed more light on themselves as a network…at this point in my life, it really doesn’t matter. I’m just glad it happened.