On this day in 1997, in a widely publicized episode of the ABC sitcom Ellen, TV character Ellen Morgan (played by Ellen DeGeneres) announces that she is gay.
DeGeneres, a former stand-up comedian who was born on January 26, 1958, became part of the ensemble cast of the ABC series These Friends of Mine in 1994. She soon emerged as the undisputed star of the show, which landed in the top 20 best-rated programs for the 1994-95 season. It would return in 1995, after being renamed Ellen. With her sitcom success, DeGeneres seemed to be following in the footsteps of stand-up comics such as Tim Allen and Jerry Seinfeld. Like them, DeGeneres soon published a bestselling memoir, My Point–And I Do Have One (1995).
In the fall of 1996, word leaked out that the character of Ellen Morgan, a bookstore manager, might acknowledge that she was a lesbian, making Ellen the first prime-time sitcom to feature a gay leading character. Over the next six months, ABC relentlessly encouraged the hype, with DeGeneres herself fueling the fire by joking in television interviews that her character was “Lebanese” and resisting attempts to clarify her own sexuality. A week before the episode aired, DeGeneres made a well-publicized “coming out” of her own, appearing on the cover of TIME magazine under the headline “Yep, I’m Gay.” An interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s 20/20 ran on April 25, during the all-important “sweeps week” for the network.
An estimated 42 million viewers watched April 30th’s special hour-long episode, which featured cameo appearances by Laura Dern (as the woman Ellen falls for), Oprah Winfrey (as the therapist to whom she makes her revelation), k.d. lang, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton and Dwight Yoakam. Later episodes of Ellen failed to hold audiences, however, and by the end of the 1997 season the show was canceled due to low ratings. DeGeneres went on to star in the short-lived CBS sitcom The Ellen Show and provide the voice for a lead character in the acclaimed 2003 animated blockbuster Finding Nemo. In September 2003, she launched a syndicated talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which won four Daytime Emmy Awards in its first season. From 2004 to 2008, DeGeneres picked up four straight Daytime Emmy Awards for Best Talk Show Host. She has also served as a host for both the Emmy Awards and the Academy Awards.
In addition to her thriving career, DeGeneres has also made headlines for her love life, including a well publicized relationship with the actress Anne Heche, who later broke up with DeGeneres and married a man. In May 2008, shortly after the California Supreme Court overturned a ban on same-sex marriage, DeGeneres announced she would marry her longtime girlfriend, the actress Portia De Rossi. The two were wed at their Beverly Hills home on August 16 of that same year.