Ron Nyswaner was a boy growing up in western Pennsylvania coal country when he saw a made-for-TV movie called “That Certain Summer.” It aired in 1972, starring Hal Holbrook as a gay father struggling to come out to his teenage son.
“There’s a moment where Hal Holbrook says to his son, ‘Do you know what the word ‘gay’ means?” recalls Niswaner of a rainy morning in Manhattan. “I remember breaking into a sweat. I was just paralyzed.”
“You have to imagine a world where there are no gay characters on TV, in movies, in any book you read or in any conversation you have. If you heard anything about gay, it was pejorative. It was called a [slur],” he added.
In a four-decade career in film and television, Nyswaner has told the kind of queer stories that were once extremely rare in pop culture. He was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for “Philadelphia,” the landmark AIDS drama that propelled Tom Hanks to his first Oscar, and most recently wrote the screenplays for “My Policeman” and “Freeheld.”
“Fellow Travelers,” which airs on Showtime, may be Nysawner’s most ambitious project to date. An eight-part limited series adapted from Thomas Mallon’s novel of the same name, starring Matt Bomer as Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller, a dashing war hero and State Department employee. At a Republican victory party on election night 1952, she meets Tim (Jonathan Bailey), an idealistic, young, anti-communist crusader and devout Irish Catholic who takes a job in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s office.
They begin a passionate but forbidden romance at the height of the Lavender Scare, a time of intense danger for the LGBTQ+ community as McCarthy and his infamous legal advisor Roy Cohn sought to purge “subversives and deviants” from the government. The atmosphere of paranoia and the constant threat of discovery only seems to fuel their attraction to each other, and while the relationship doesn’t last, the emotional bonds between them continue.
The goal, Nyswaner said, was not to make a show about the oppression of gay people, but about “the danger of giving yourself to another human being.”
Unlike Mallon’s book, which takes place almost entirely during the 1950s, the adaptation spans the decades, from the repression of the Eisenhower era, through the liberation of Fire Island, to the agony of the AIDS epidemic. It’s both a sweeping romance – with graphic but authentic sex scenes that have already wowed audiences – and a chronicle of queer history, depicting pivotal events including the 1979 White Night riots in San Francisco.
“I’m using the book as a starting point, but I wanted to go beyond the book and follow our characters for 35 years,” said Nyswaner, the show’s executive producer, who eventually came out as a college senior in the 1970s. “And all hell broke loose,” he said with a laugh. “I felt the joy and celebration of the late 70s, the dancing and the sex. It was fantastic. And then came the tidal wave of AIDS,” a period he said he felt like a sniper was on the loose: “You didn’t know who was going to get you.”
Nyswaner not only expanded Hawk and Tim’s story beyond the narrower time frame of the book, he also made them more central to the 1950s political plot and introduced characters not present in the novel, such as a gay black journalist named Marcus Gaines (Jelani Alladin) and his lover Frankie Hines, a drag performer (Noah Ricketts).
“My job is not to treat texts as sacred. Reading and drama are very different things,” said Nyswaner, who has also written for “Homeland” and “Ray Donovan.”
Mallon was happy to take a series approach. “I never asked to see a script and I never asked to go on set, even though all my gay friends were like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ Are you going to miss the chance to meet Matt Bomer?” Mallon said.
Known for historical fiction like “Henry and Clara,” about the couple at the theater with Abraham Lincoln on the night of his assassination, Mallon gave Nyswaner just one note: Tim had to be Irish-American, as he is in the book; otherwise “nothing to him makes much sense.”
The core creative team for ‘Fellow Travelers’ consisted of multiple generations of gay men who brought their individual experiences to the source material. In addition to Nyswaner, the team included executive producer and director Daniel Minahan. Writer and executive producer Robbie Rogers, who was the first openly gay man to compete in a major North American professional sports league, before moving on to a career in film and television. and Bomer, who served as executive producer and played the elusive Hawk.
Niswaner sent the book to Rogers, who read it in a few days and was immediately intrigued by “a love story at a time when the stakes were so high,” he said. “When you have so much to lose, you hold onto love a little tighter and those intimate moments are a little more special.” Rogers was closeted for part of his career as a professional athlete and could relate to their intense fear of discovery. “I felt like if I came out, I wouldn’t be accepted by my teammates, I wouldn’t be accepted by anyone I loved,” she said.
A key part of the drama is the sexual dynamic between Hawke, who favors trying hard with strangers for any form of emotional involvement, and Tim, who is less experienced but also able to use sex to get what he wants.
The series has already garnered attention for its boundary-pushing bedroom scenes — in the premiere, Tim sucks Hawk’s toes — but shock value wasn’t really the point.
“It’s always important to me that sex scenes are not pointless, that they have a beginning, middle and end. And they tell a story, but they also reveal aspects of the characters,” said Minahan, who directed the first two episodes of “Fellow Travelers” and helped shape its look and feel. “We had a guiding principle for all of these scenes, which is that each of them would be an exchange of power.”
“If they get caught doing this, they can be arrested, they can lose their place in the community, they can lose their job,” he added “It was a vicious kind of time to be a closeted person. That’s why gender feels important, because it’s a show about people finding each other against all odds and risking everything to be together.”
Minahan also came of age in 80s New York with the threat of AIDS and could relate to the sense of mortal danger that Tim and Hawke experience on a daily basis. “My friends and I didn’t expect to live past 30, but we did. Personally, I felt like a ticking time bomb. This is a very unique experience for a young person.”
The intimate moments between Hawk and Tim are both touching and provocative. Rogers recalled being on set one day while Bomer and Bailey were filming a particularly tender slow dance scene (with their clothes off). Started to cry.
“Of course, they’re sexy, because they’re both very handsome guys and beautifully lit,” she said. “But they can share this very intimate moment inside their apartment. And I just found myself thinking about all the men and women who had to do that, couldn’t go to their prom, couldn’t have normal first dates. I hope the audience understands: Sex is very authentic, but it’s a very universal thing, people just want to spend time with their lover.”
Tellingly, perhaps, most of the creative team said they identified with the shy, reserved, devout Catholic Tim rather than the enigmatic Hawke, who keeps his religious and political beliefs as locked away as his emotions. (Nyswaner, meanwhile, calls Hawk “My ideal partner. That tells you everything you need to know about me.”)
“I was very moved by Tim Laughlin’s conflict between spirituality and sexuality. I was raised Catholic and I felt this was a very interesting portrayal of him,” said Minahan, who left involuntarily at 15 when his mother discovered letters he had written to a boy.
The TV version of Tim is, he said, “a little more than in the novel. “When he says [to Hawk], “I’m your boyfriend, right? And your boyfriend wants to go to the party.’ I predict it will be a tee in Provincetown next year.”
Mallon also believes that, for younger people, the series will be “a revelation of how bad those days were,” he said. “For a lot of older gay men, people who remember life before Stonewall, it won’t be a revelation so much as a confirmation – they’ll remember how difficult those things were.”