Ellen DeGeneres speaks out -? The prime-time crusader led TV into a new era, but at what cost?

”What is normal?… Before The Beverly Hillbillies people used to think it was weird to eat dinner off a pool table. And now we know better.” — Ellen Morgan, Feb. 11, 1998

She had a sinking feeling that the show would be canceled. And so before she left the building on March 11, before she walked off Disney’s soundstage No. 7 for what would almost certainly be the last time, Ellen DeGeneres wanted to say a few words.

She had said so much in the last year, first by shouting ”Yep, I’m gay” on the cover of TIME magazine, then, more recently, by publicly pummeling ABC executives, whom she believed had abandoned her show and betrayed her by slapping a parental advisory on it. Last month, however, she spoke quietly. ”Is everybody here?” she asked the crowd. Ellen‘s Jeremy Piven and Joely Fisher were standing close by, as were the show’s crew, her mother, and Ellen’s creative team.

”I can’t thank you all enough,” she said, her voice breaking. ”You’ve all been part of this very controversial show, and I’m sure you get a lot of s— from a lot of people…. The fact that you’ve supported me through all of this means a whole lot to me. It’s been a wonderful run.”

It was a terribly sad moment — some of the crew began crying, as did her mother, and DeGeneres was in tears by the time she had finished speaking. But it was also a very Ellen moment. For through it all, she was dolled up like Lucy Ricardo, in a peasant dress with an oversize pregnancy pouch underneath. And she was standing in a giant vat full of coffee beans, having just taped a segment of this season’s star-cameo-packed, hour-long Ellen finale airing May 13. At any other time, the sight of her climbing out of the vat might have provoked laughs. This time the crew simply applauded respectfully.

Shooting a documentary for Britain’s Channel Four called The Real Ellen Story, codirectors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey followed her to the soundstage door. There they hung back and watched as Ellen DeGeneres disappeared into a shaft of afternoon light.

Thus Ellen ended as inauspiciously as it began five seasons ago, just one year after it made history and a few short months after DeGeneres was hailed as EW’s 1997 Entertainer of the Year. On April 30 of last year, 36.2 million viewers watched its lead character, Ellen Morgan, not only come out of the closet but become the first leading gay prime-time character ever, and a test case for the nation’s tolerance. Denounced on the right (Jerry Falwell infamously dubbed her ”Ellen DeGenerate”), embraced by the Left, and hyped to the heavens, Ellen also became the network’s great lavender hope — a show that could give it a dose of hip and possibly even help pull it out of third place.

Of course, that never happened. There were the diminishing ratings this season (the show averaged just 12.4 million viewers) and the ever-widening rift between DeGeneres and ABC. Though ABC promised to bring Ellen back after replacing it mid-season with Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, it recently yanked the last two half-hour episodes. (Two Guys, a critical dud with its own falling ratings, will stay on until Ellen‘s finale airs.) Finally, on April 23, ABC made it official: Ellen was no more.