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ABOVE: Nathan Lane (left) and Robin Williams in 1996's "The Birdcage"

Nathan Lane Recalls How Robin Williams Protected Him From Being Outed On ‘Oprah’

The pair had starred in 1996’s The Birdcage, which led to some people wondering about Lane’s sexuality…

The 1996 film The Birdcage helped elevate Nathan Lane from a New York stage performer to a bonafide movie star. However, looking back at the role that turned him into a star, the Emmy and Tony winning actor sees the film’s biggest impact as more personal.

Appearing on Sunday Today, Lane recently reflected on the smash comedy, in which he and Robin Williams portrayed a Miami gay couple who find themselves in a bind when their son announces his plans to marry the daughter of a deeply conservative politician. Directed by Mike Nichols, The Birdcage was a modernized take on the 1978 Franco-Italian film, La Cage aux Folles. When it was released in 1996, The Birdcage was a massive hit and Lane nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.

Lane, who is gay, said he’d been open about his sexuality to friends and family long before the film hit theatres, but he feared that he would be ostracized by Hollywood if he spoke too publicly about his private life. In the Sunday Today interview Lane told host Willie Geist that Williams played a key role in making sure he didn’t have to come out when they appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote the film more than a quarter of a century ago.

“I finally got a big part in a movie, and I didn’t want to make it about my sexuality, although it was sort of unavoidable because of the nature of the film and the character,” he recalled. “I don’t think Oprah was trying to out me, but I said to Robin beforehand: ‘I’m not prepared. I’m so scared of going out there and talking to Oprah. I’m not prepared to discuss that I’m gay on national television. I’m not ready.’ He said: ‘Oh, it’s alright, don’t worry about — we don’t have to talk about it. We won’t talk about it.’”

In the end, Lane said Winfrey asked him questions that hinted at his sexuality, including whether he feared being “typecast” in the wake of his Birdcage role, but that Williams made sure the conversation didn’t lean too heavily into that discourse.

“Robin sort of swoops in, and diverts Oprah and goes off on a tangent and protects me, because he was a saint,” Lane said. “I was terrified … It’s great that everyone now feels comfortable, but homophobia is alive and well and there are plenty of gay people who are still hiding.”

Of Williams, who died in 2014, Lane added: “Robin was just the greatest person ― such a beautiful, sensitive soul and so kind and generous to me.”

As for the film, today Lane finds comfort when viewers tell him that the movie helped them realize they were LGBTQ+, or prompted them to embrace a loved one who feared being shunned because of their queer identity.

“I think people just love the movie, because it’s funny,” he said. “It’s disarming, that’s how you draw people in.”

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