Greg Berlanti accepts Norman Lear honor from Ryan Murphy – The Hollywood Reporter
When Greg Berlanti became aware of his sexuality in the early 1980s, the only queer content on television happened to be reporting on the AIDS crisis and not much else.
“There were no apps, no social media to connect with other gay kids, no LGBTQ+ advocacy groups in schools. Not having a single connection with or being supportive of other gay people, not being able to say “gay” or whatever else they say there, that didn’t make me any less gay ; it just made me more alone,” the super-producer said from the PGA Awards podium on Saturday night as he accepted one of the night’s highest honors, the Norman Lear Achievement Award. “I spent many sleepless nights as a child, terrified that I would never find the courage to share my truth with the world. During this time, I discovered that I loved telling stories.
He first applied that love to a specific genre, and the commitment he made telegraphed just how successful Berlanti would be.
“I decided I wanted to be Jim Henson, and my mom found me making puppets in the basement and for some reason didn’t take me to a shrink to ask if she was raising a serial killer,” Berlanti continued, making the audience laugh. star-studded audience inside the Fairmont Century Plaza which included Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Will Smith, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Issa Rae, Jessica Chastain and Serena Williams. “Instead, she had business cards made, and they said Greg Berlanti: Puppeteer. She put these cards all over town, and I started doing puppet shows for kids’ birthday parties, and my mom – the first producer I ever knew – would help me type the scripts, negotiate my rates and manage my transport. Like any smart grower, she kept the majority of the profits.
Berlanti got serious saying he wouldn’t have the career he does if it weren’t for both his mother’s belief in him and “Norman Lear’s belief in the public”, making appeal to the award’s namesake, a longtime mentor and inspiration.
“I can draw a line between the kind of shows Norman did and all the shows that followed that dared to portray America as it really was, and in doing so help change us all for the better,” continued Berlanti, joined at his table by husband Robbie Rogers, producing partner Sarah Schechter and senior executives Ann Sarnoff and Channing Dungey, among others. “To have come this far from that scared kid in that bed to tonight – where my amazing husband, Robbie, is sitting in the audience with our two beautiful kids, Caleb and Mia, asleep at home – to think about all this that the world had to change to make the life I now live possible, even in hindsight, is unimaginable to me. I am proud of the small role I played in continuing Norman’s great legacy.
But even with a rotation in the spotlight and a new trophy for his coat, Berlanti said the honor comes with some sadness “because I know how many trans, non-binary and gay kids still have those sleepless nights.” just like those he suffered by. “I desperately want the world to change for them as it did for me,” added Berlanti, who referenced the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill and steps taken by Republican lawmakers to target LGBTQ+ youth. “I believe and hope it will, in large part because of the kind of stories that so many of you are going to be sure to tell.”
Speaking of stories, before Berlanti took the stage, he received a heartfelt and fun tribute from fellow super-producer, Ryan Murphy. Both men are responsible for the seismic shifts in LGBTQ representation on big and small screens, and while their genders may differ, they share similar origin stories. Murphy detailed his early days in Hollywood, both budding creatives jostling for their first big breaks. Murphy’s came out on top when he sold a script to Spielberg (whom he thanked again backstage, he noted). “The only person who was more excited about it was Greg,” he said of his best friend at the time.
At the time, Berlanti was working as an assistant while burning the midnight oil to chip away at a feature film script, despite not being a night person. (“He’s always had an allergy to any activity after 10 p.m.”) As a solution, Murphy offered to use some of the money he received from Spielberg to pay Berlanti’s rent for three months so that he could quit his day job and focus on getting words on the page.
It paid off as Berlanti wrote a personal story “populated exclusively by young men like us,” gay people looking for community and place. “To be honest, I was worried about the script,” Murphy admitted. “Greg and I were told many times, early on, that we couldn’t sell movies or TV shows populated by gay people, because no one would, and it would never sell. Don’t we try to write a nice Sandra Bullock romantic comedy? But Greg wouldn’t be deterred.
This scenario was The Broken Hearts Club, a film directed by Berlanti from his own screenplay considered a gay classic. “After the sale of The Broken Hearts Club, Greg moved on to television, a medium he has now dominated for nearly 25 years,” Murphy continued. “The first came Dawson’s Creek then the world.
Murphy recounted some of the highlights of his career so far: beating Jerry Bruckheimer’s record by far by airing 20 live scripted shows across six different outlets; put the first transgender character in prime-time network television with Candis Cayne on dirty sexy money; featuring the first legal gay marriage on network TV on Brothers and sisters; the first lesbian superheroine with batman; the first romantic kiss between two men with Dawson’s Creek; and the first studio film featuring a gay lead starring Love, Simon.
Murphy said he was recently working on a television show about a heterosexual couple. He received a phone call from a “very nice, 35-year-old Gen Xer” woman who asked him to add a “really cool gay character” and cast a transgender actor. The demands caused Murphy to inquire about the woman’s background, and ultimately she was brought up on Berlanti’s content. “That’s how she sees the world – a world where everyone is invited to the party.”
“This award tonight makes perfect sense to me,” Murphy said in closing. “Greg Berlanti is, in many ways and for two decades now, the logical heir to Norman Lear, whom we all love in this room. The demand for conversation and equality resonates and reverberates on every page he has ever written or transmitted; women, gay people, everyone, all minorities. He has done so much for so many people – and he is just getting started.