Stan Zimmerman (The Golden Girls) -A Writer, Pioneer & Activist

You might not know it, but you owe at least half of your gay Television education to Stan Zimmerman. Growing up in the eighties we learned our gay male wit and sass from four older ladies who candidly spoke of their sexual exploits while in a snazzy pastel pantsuit. “The Golden Girls” were our idols. It seems strange that us gay men can relate so well to this ladies in their gold years, but once you find out both these gay men, Stan Zimmerman and James Berg were apart of the ground-breaking writing team, it all makes sense. We got the chance to chat with Stan and get the real story of being an entertainment pioneer, crusadingfor LGBT rights, empowerment and visibility. 

How did you get into working in Hollywood and writing? As a kid I was obsessed with television. I was a future Fop -Laughter from both of us-. I was not playing basketball or baseball outside. I was imagining what my world would be. I wanted to own my own television network at a very young age. So, I created my own network in my house, and I would put on a program, 7 nights a week. It was pretty insane.

That’s insane… Then I got into theatre and went to Cranbrook Theatre School, in the summer. It was a beautiful program with a beautiful outdoor Greek theatre. They had these bad short plays that they were doing for twenty/thirty years and I kind of rewrote them. I made them into comedies. The people who were running the place didn’t love that, but they loved that the audiences were laughing their heads off. That was my first taste of howI could make people laugh. And that sound… When you hear laughter from something you did it, just sends a tingle up your spine. I was hooked. I was like I’m in! 

So you never wanted to be an actor? I wanted to be an actor. I went to NYU circle in the square undergrad program. I was very nervous to go to auditions. My face would kinda shake. 

Oh no! You can’t go and be yourself when…-Stan does a quivering motion-. People were like, “are you alright?” And there was no diversity casting back then. Then I met my writing partner James Berg in the dorms. Between acting classes, homework and after-school jobs we starting writing TV pilots. We got an agent our senior year of college.

Wow that’s fast, very, very fast! And he sent our stuff out to LA. And some people responded positively. So we came out, he had a family bar mitzvah and I came out to visit a friend. And we had a couple of meetings and everyone said you have to move to LA if you want to write. So I graduated college, worked in casting and he had a boyfriend and a beautiful apartment and didn’t want to give it up. I was like I have to get out of here. Three months later he came out here and I was working in the Vista movie theatre. 

I’m right by there. That’s my old haunt. We kept writing spec script after spec script, and we had no money so we would go to free tapings of shows. Lucky within a year we wrote one script and everyone loved it. So we got three offers to go on different TV shows.

So, you’re like talented or something -bursting with laughter-? We were big sluts really -even more laughter-.

You slept your way to the top, let’s be honest! I wish, I wish. I wanted to but no one was having any of it that’s for sure. You really have to do it the hard way, with material. Because we had such great work ethic we kept writing and writing and got pilots and kept pushing that. 

What was the first pilot that got picked up for you? Well we were on a really awful TV show and then we got a pilot script at CBS that they didn’t make. You can make a whole career out of making scripts for pilots without even making the pilot. It wasn’t for a few years when we were very, very lucky to get on the first season of ‘The Golden Girls’. That took us in an entirely different direction. That was very exciting. They always want fresh new faces and we became the favor of the month. All of these agents would take us to lunches and dinners and saying, “We’ll get you over to Hugh Hefner s mansion.” We didn’t want to say, “Well we don’t want to go.” Back then we had to be in the closet in the “business.” It was a very white boy network. 

So everyone was in the closet? You had to be in the closet. We were told by agents if there were any kind of party you have to bring a girl or you can’t go. 

But they knew you were gay? Our agents did.

What year was this? Sorry am I dating you. Way, way, way back. They can IMDB it. There’s a link in there. Then the LA Weekly did a cover story on us, “Out in Hollywood.” All of our reps were like, “No you can’t do that will ruin your career.” But we were like, “That’s who we are.”

That’s huge, such pioneers. It didn’t ruin your career. It didn’t. I think it helped. I couldn’t lie. Just yesterday I was in a meeting with a producer and I was saying I’m gay and I’m think how far I’ve come. Now, no one bats an eye in this town, but back then you couldn’t.

So you guys wrote the initial pilot for “The Golden Girls?” No, no, no. We were lucky enough to get a pitch meeting there. They had just started filming. It wasn’t even on the air yet. You go in and pitch ideas you have for future episodes. We went in and sold our little hearts out but they were not buying any of the stories. As we were walking out,  I don’t know what came over me but I just said “What if Betty White’s mother comes to visit and treats her like a little girl?” They were like come back in let’s talk.

Your life could have been completely different. We would not be sitting here -referring to his lavish home in the Hollywood Hills-. I would be making you popcorn at the Vista Movie Theatre. So we sat down and hammered out what the episode would be and they said great you’re hired to write it. 

What was it about the show that made people feel a connection to it? Especially since it was about these older women. Although the actors were old the things they said touched people no matter what age. They’re fans from little kids to old people. No one hated it. Everyone has grandmothers like that. And you wonder do they talk about sex like that, why not. And that opened those doors as far as women talking. And then you get that kind of show, “Designing Women”, “Sex and the City” and “Girls”. It has become a tradition now of female ensemble shows. 

It was a pioneer in that respect. Yeah, Susan Harris came up with that idea. But she didn’t come into the office. The word was that she was agoraphobic. She would write her scripts and we weren’t allowed to change them. So those weeks she wrote -phew- it was like a week off. 

Did you interact with the cast much? No, the most was Estelle. She came to us probably the first day on the set. We had seen her in New York in “Torch Song Trilogy” ,we thought she was amazing. So she pulled us to the side of the stage and says, “You are one of us.” And I was like we’re Jewish yeah. She was like no Gay. She considered herself... 

What? She was gay? No she wasn’t gay. I think because of “Torch Song Trilogy” she was surrounded by it she had done the tour with all of her boys. She would say, “Meet me for dinner tonight” I was like Estelle Getty and I are having dinner. I’d get there and there would be a table of twelve guys. She loved being surrounded by all of her boys. It was so cool. But still it wasn’t something you would say, “out and proud”, but she knew. She had good a gaydar. She invented the gaydar. She could just tell. 

Now the show is such a big part of gay vernacular. It is. 

People made parodies of the show. I’ve been to a lot of them. There is a group who does it here. And they do this one episode and I don’t think it was my best. And I kind of cringe a little bit. I’m like, “Do the good one.”

What did you go on to do next? We did a bunch of shows. We went on to do an episode of “Fame” with Janet Jackson. Then luckily, we got Roseanne.  Though we ended up turning down the first season of “Roseanne.” We got to write the lesbian kiss episode and then had a huge party with GLADD. 

How was Roseanne? She’s Republican right? Sandra Bernhard was just telling me she’s gone kind of Republican which shocked me. 

Photography: Nathalie Taylor

Photography: Nathalie Taylor

Oh you know Sandra? Sandra I knew from LA. Wehad recently reconnected because she’s featured in my new webseries “Secs and Execs.” She plays the boss of the company. It was really nice to reconnect with her again and she’s such a great lady.  

It seems like you like to write for strong women. I’ve always loved writing for women. Back in the day before there were female writers on staff the gay guys had to become the voice for females. I had a very vocal and open mother grandmother and sister. I was always taking from them. I surround myself with a lot of really, funny and wonderful women in my life. I feel like women are just more open with their feelings. As guys we aren’t raised to be expressive. It’s changed a little over the years. But still, we are a little bit shut down. That’s why I love writing for women. It gives you so much more to say verbally. So me and my writing partner ended up on a show Sandra was working by accident. Then the lesbian kiss episode came up on “Roseanne” and ABC was not going to air the show at all. It was just a few seconds she got kissed in a lesbian bar. We loved the idea of taking a character. 

This was before “Ellen”, “Will and Grace” and all of that. Again a pioneer. Next year I want a float in the Pride Parade -we both chuckle-I just want to be in a parade somewhere. So first it was hard finding an actress to kiss her. Actresses didn’t want to be labeled “lesbian.” ABC said you can’t show two women kissing. We loved the idea of a challenge – and Roseanne is a very liberal character. What is it that’s going to get her to go, “What am I, did it feel good, so it too weird, why did I shut down, why didn’t I just full on kiss her?” So it brought on all of this up for her. Then what would Dan say “Would he be really into it, what if that turns her?”I don’t know, whatever. But it was just a good thing to throw into the mix of these characters and then see where they all land. Then ABC said they wouldn’t beairing it and Roseanne said, “We’re filming it.” Her and Tom Arnold were together at that time. They saw a cut of it and said “We’re still not airing it.” Then she said we’ll buy it back and we’ll pay for it to be featured on HBO. That was going to be the plan. So I would come home from work and that would be on the news for the night. This whole controversy of what to do with it. Then ABC said they’ll air it but we had to edit it in a certain way. So we threw a big party at Studio One and Glaad and all of the news media attending. It was packed with hundreds of our gay, lesbian and straight friends for the big screen . We didn’t know what was going to happen and then all of a sudden they kiss and the room just erupts because they hadnever seen two women kissing on TV before. 

Oh that’s amazing! Even though it was just a few seconds it was on TV. 

Was that one of your proudest moments? Of course. It was in front of all of these people and friends. I felt very proud that it was worth the fight for it. And I think that it paved the wayfor “Ellen”, “Will and Grace” ,whom pushed it even further. They took the fucking door off the hinges -both of us full laughter-.

So then there’s “The L word”, “Queer as Folk.” Then there’s everything. That was really cool to be involved in that. You’re lucky in this career, to be on a one of a kind show that is a classic, but to have “The Golden Girl” and “Roseanne” it’s pretty amazing. We got to do “Gilmore Girls” which is a classic in it’s own right. Then to do the “Brady Bunch” movies which is a whole other – taking an old classic twisting it in a sick and demented way – that was fun.  We were able to cast Rupaul in that part because it was not written – it was written for a women. Back to the Revolver.

Like we were there last night.. All good things happen at Revolver. It was on of the first times Ru’s video “You better work” was coming on. It was really starting in LA and New York. No one had even heard of a Rupaul. I went into work the next and I had this crazy idea. What if Miss Cummings, the guidance counselor, was played by Rupaul. There’s a line at the end of the scene when she’s with Jan and I was on set and I said “Before Jan leaves just say Jan you betta Work” and Betty Thomas was like why and I said “Just trust me!” Then the song exploded before the whole world knew that song ,we using the beats of the song to end the scene. 

Keep up with Stan on Instagram and Twitter @zimmermanstan.