On April 30, 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 30’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 ran for 19 seasons. She has also served as a host for both the Emmy Awards and the Academy Awards.