'Dynasty' never says die: stars of the TV favorite to play Feinstein's

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday August 23, 2022
Share this Post:
Gordon Thomson, John James and Jack Coleman in a promo video for their show.
Gordon Thomson, John James and Jack Coleman in a promo video for their show.

Long, long ago, in a time before Tivo, when on-demand streaming was just a glimmer in some rising corporate overlord's mind, there was a thing called Appointment Television.

And from 1981 to 1989, many queer folks had a standing Wednesday night appointment with the Carringtons and the Colbys of Denver, Colorado. The rival oil families' double-crosses, back stabs and slap-happy catfights were chronicled in the ABC network's high camp hit, "Dynasty," with a cast led by Joan Collins as the era's ultimate drag muse, Alexis Carrington Colby.

Now three of the actors who co-starred in that lavishly lathery soap opera —Jack Coleman, John James and Gordon Thomson— have reunited for a rat pack-inspired evening of drollery and dish that they're calling "Cocktails with the Carringtons."

The cabaret show —more accurately gab-aret, though there will be two musical numbers along with a slideshow, anecdotes and an audience Q&A session— comes to Feinstein's at the Nikko for one night only, Wednesday, September 7.

During the series' original run, many gay men gathered to watch "Dynasty" at cocktail parties of their own. Not only did the show's frothy plots and filthy lucre offer a brief weekly escape from the stark reality of Reagan and AIDS, but Steven Carrington, the role played by Coleman, was the first gay regular character in a network television drama. (Billy Crystal's Jodie Dallas on 1977 "Soap" was the first in a long-running sit-com, though he had two predecessors in the 1975 single-season flop "Hot L Baltimore").

Playing gay

In a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Coleman, 64, who is straight, reflected on winning his breakthrough role after what he described as "a torturous audition process" at the age of 24.

"I grew up in a home that wasn't racist or homophobic; my parents were very open-minded. And I'd been doing theater since I was a kid. When you come up in the theater world, you end up knowing a lot of gay people. So, I never worried about what my family and friends would think, or that it could hurt my career. The show was becoming white hot."

Coleman joined the series in its third season, replacing Al Corley, the original Steven, whose face —audience members were told— had been tragically mangled in an oil rig explosion, then brilliantly plastic-surgerized into Coleman's smooth-skinned mug. (Corley returned as Steven in a 1991 four-hour mini-series, "Dynasty: The Reunion." Is there such a thing as an oil rig implosion?)

"Replacing another actor was much more daunting to me than playing a gay role," Coleman said. "But I wasn't prepared for the weight of what it meant culturally. Part of my willingness to not think twice about it was not understanding how important it would be to gay men.

Gordon Thomson, John James and Jack Coleman in the 1980s.  

"I was a bit naïve back then and there was a learning curve. Now I get it, of course. It's the kind of representation everyone is fighting for. You see yourself on TV after so long being told you're invisible.

"I got emails—" Coleman stopped speaking abruptly, then burst into a laugh. "No, I did not get emails! I got letters from people who wrote that seeing Steven on TV changed their lives, helped them come out to their parents. So, I was sort of the avatar for a world I didn't really represent. I was not freaked out by it. But I also wasn't an expert. Still, as I continued to play this character on the biggest show on television, I was far more interested in making gay people proud than making straight people comfortable."

Laying low
Ironically, as Coleman's gay character was celebrated, his fellow new cast member, Gordon Thomson, was closeted. Thomson, now 77, also joined "Dynasty" in its third season, playing Adam Carrington, Steven's older brother, resurfacing in his thirties after being kidnapped as an infant and never found by investigators. In addition to being openly homophobic, over the course of several seasons, Adam tried his hand at blackmail, murder and rape.

"Not a nice man," Thomson tidily summed it up speaking to the Bay Area Reporter. "But for an actor, it was the best part on the show for a man, bar none. It didn't feel uncomfortable to play. I'm an actor. That's what we do.

"It probably would have felt very strange if I'd been cast as Steven," Thomson acknowledges. "This was the height of 'The National Enquirer' and all the other tabloids and they gave enormous attention to the casts of 'Dynasty' and 'Dallas' and 'Knots Landing.' I was blackmailed once by a guy who said, 'Give me money or I'll tell The Enquirer. The tabloids would pay a lot of money for that sort of story. It made me even more cautious.

"At that time there was still so much opprobrium in Hollywood about being gay. When you hear people being really vicious, saying that you're some kind of a freak, you shrivel. I heard a very successful producer who was gay tell another gay man, 'I'd never cast a gay man in a leading role.' Coming out was not something I could imagine doing."

John James, Jack Coleman and Gordon Thomson in one of their recent shows.  

Looking back
Prior to moving to the U.S. in 1981 to play Aristotle Benedict White, an Egyptologist, on the daytime soap "Ryan's Hope," Thomson, an Ottawa native, trod the boards exclusively in Canada, winning acclaim for his turns in Shakespeare and Turgenev and for playing Jesus in a production of "Godspell" which also had Victor Garber, Martin Short and Gilda Radner in its cast, with Paul Schaffer leading the orchestra. He later had a starring role on a Canadian TV series, "High Hopes."

"Being a TV actor in America is very different than in Canada," said Thomson. "The most I ever made in a year in Canada was $36,000 dollars. For "Dynasty" I was making six figures. I'd never received a fan letter in my life before "Dynasty," but plenty of people wrote to me about Adam Carrington.

"It was not until five years ago, when he was 72, that Thomson decided to be publicly open about his sexuality after a Daily Beast Reporter confronted him with "rumors" during a promotional interview for the release of a boxed set of "Dynasty" DVDs.

"I was ambushed," Thomson says. "He took away my choice. And do you know what he did at the end of the interview? He asked me on a date. Unbelievable."

Notwithstanding Hollywood's small-mindedness, Thomson says he thoroughly enjoyed his years on "Dynasty."

"We all had good experiences making the show. And there's still an extraordinary global interest in 'Dynasty.' They love it in Australia. We're actually talking about bringing the cabaret show there. John James was just in Serbia playing Joe Biden in a movie, 'My Son Hunter' and a local reporter ran up to him, heels clicking, just so excited, and she says, 'I can't believe I'm meeting Jeff Colby!' We'll all be riding the tail of that comet for the rest of our lives."

'Cocktails with the Carringtons' with Jack Coleman, John James and Gordon Thomson. September 7, 7:30pm. $65. 222 Mason St. (866) 663-1063. www.feinsteinssf.com

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.