Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Diversity has never been one of SNL’s strong points – if you’re not an Irish-Catholic improv star from Second City or The Groundlings, odds are you’ll have to scrape your way to Lorne Michaels’ attention. As a result, sexual orientation has always taken a backseat to the issues of gender and race on SNL, and prior to the recent hire of featured player Kate McKinnon, there was only one openly gay player in the show’s history, who was also the first openly gay actor to appear on American network television – Terry Sweeney. As is the case with many trailblazers, the thing that made Sweeney notable also limited his range, but his fearless pride helped usher in a wider awareness and acceptance in the network TV world that would evolve into shows like Kids in the Hall, Ellen, and Will & Grace.
Born in Queens and raised in Massapequa Park, New York, Sweeney developed an interest in performing at a young age and studied Spanish and Italian at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he was also a member of the Gay Speakers Bureau. After graduating in 1973, he took up jobs as a counselor and waiter before trying his hand at scriptwriting, and it wasn’t until 1980 that he landed a writing job on SNL for its sixth season. He got the gig by ordering a load of sandwiches from Carnegie Deli and posing as a delivery man at 30 Rock so he had the chance to give then-producer Jean Doumanian scripts of his sketches. The plan worked – Doumanian called him in a week later and hired him.
Unfortunately for Sweeney, SNL’s sixth season was cut short due to the 1981 WGA Strike and most of the cast and writers, save for Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, were fired. Following his stint as a writer, he met Lanier Laney, who would become his longtime partner and collaborator. “I fell in love with Terry the minute I saw his impersonation of Angie Dickinson in her shooting position from Police Woman,” Laney told People in 1986. The two sold three film scripts after moving to Los Angeles in 1983.
When Lorne Michaels returned to SNL in 1985, he hired a hodgepodge cast including Jon Lovitz, Robert Downey Jr., Nora Dunn, and Randy Quaid. Sweeney and Laney were hired as a writing team, with Sweeney also doubling as a repertory player. In Live from New York, Sweeney tells of his initial experiences as a gay cast member in the SNL writer’s room:
I think the writers came to think of me as just the gay guy. They’d go like, “Oh well, he’s a hilarious gay guy, so if we want a gay guy, we’ll just put him in this sketch where the guy can be really effeminate – the guy’s really gay. But if it’s a regular role, let’s give it to Jon Lovitz or Randy Quaid” – who were really talented, but it’s just a question where I would feel like, “Hey, I can do this too.” So I think I felt the brunt of some prejudice.Later on, I came to realize – as one matures, one realizes it’s not always the homophobia; it’s a lot of times just that’s not your world. If you’re straight, you’re thinking about a straight guy and a husband, and it’s not – it’s just not something you’re thinking about. You think that you find a gay guy over there, and a straight guy’s over here, and it doesn’t occur to people that they’re ever in the same place.
Given those barriers, Sweeney’s roles were predictably limited to gay stereotypes and exaggerated female impersonations of Diana Ross, Joan Rivers, Patti LaBelle, Barbara Howar, Joan Collins, and his pitch-perfect First Lady Nancy Reagan, which host Ron Reagan said, according to Sweeney, was more like his mother than his mother was. During his single-year run on the show, Sweeney’s only male impersonation was Ted Kennedy in a November 1985 episode hosted by Madonna (you can watch the sketch here).
Michaels fired all but a few cast members at the end of the season, and Sweeney left with Laney to go on together to cowrite the film Shag in 1989, then write for FOX’s MADtv, WB’s sketch show Hype, and Sci Fi Channel’s Tripping the Rift starting in 2004. As an actor, Sweeney’s had small roles in shows like Seinfeld, Family Matters, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. He currently lives with Laney in Beaufort, South Carolina, which he calls in this adorable video “the reddest city, the reddest state, and this is the reddest wine I could find.” SNL might have buried him in the dreg sketches after Weekend Update under a mound of flamboyant makeup, but Sweeney has a place in the pantheon as a pioneer and inspiration not just for future openly gay performers, but anyone a little different from the norm.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.