Back in May 2000, Dawson’s Creek took an important risk during its season 3 finale. Actors Kerr Smith and Adam Kaufman shared the first-ever loving kiss between two men on primetime television. It took a lot of work to get there: “A day before filming, the WB asked if the scene could be shot from across the street. They didn’t want it to be ‘too passionate,’ ” says Dare Me showrunner Gina Fattore, who cowrote the episode.
After two decades, the players involved take Us Weekly back to the lip-lock that helped revolutionize pop culture.
Dawson’s Creek — a drama about a group of teens on a quest to find themselves — covered many coming-of-age subjects, like sexuality, which for some is still considered a taboo topic. So when high schooler Jack McPhee (Smith) came out in season 2, a natural narrative followed: Jack fell for openly gay college heartthrob Ethan (Kaufman), and his feelings led to a fateful and groundbreaking kiss in an episode titled “True Love.”
Fattore, saw the scene coming: “Everybody asks questions when they’re a teenager — gay or straight — and on this show, you’re going to agonize over them at great length, using very big words, and then suck it up and face your fears in the season finale,” she says in the latest issue of Us, on newsstands now. “All the characters did that in this episode, so naturally, Jack would too.”
The premise was solidified, but the kismet kiss wasn’t easy for the team, led by showrunner Greg Berlanti, to execute. The WB network had voiced its concerns, but “there was no backup plan,” Fattore remembers.
“The main thing I remember is Greg calling me that morning and yelling at me like he was an old-time movie mogul: ‘This has to be a real kiss! I want to see passion,’” she recalls. “He couldn’t be on set that day, but the scene was so important to him, and I knew that I had to be his eyes and ears, and make sure the footage we got would work.”
And, oh, did it! For Smith, 48, who’d joined the series a year prior, “it was scary” to be part of the first heartfelt male TV kiss. His character muttered, “I finally have the courage to do this” as he grabbed Ethan’s face and kissed him in public, proving he was ready to be out.
As a couple, the two characters didn’t work out — Ethan already had a boyfriend, much to Jack’s embarrassment — but the kiss affected everyone and led to a touching moment of acceptance from Jack’s father (played by the late David Dukes). The nationwide impact was even greater: “Nobody had really done it before, and I was being asked to do this,” Smith recalls exclusively to Us. “I said, ‘All right, let’s make some history. Let’s change the way people think.’”
Kaufman, 46, who’d auditioned for several roles on Kevin Williamson‘s show before landing the part, didn’t realize how colossal the scene was until years later, when he met a man who got emotional while recalling his own coming-out experience. “[The scene] gave millions of people a story line that was reflective of their reality,” he shares with Us. “I’m so honored to have been a part of that.”
Fattore had a similar realization when a friend felt comfortable enough to tell her he was “more like Jack than Pacey [Joshua Jackson],” and she couldn’t be more grateful. “There were so few positive representations of gay people in pop culture. We knew we had to be thoughtful and get it right. At the time, I think we did,” she notes.
As for Smith, seeing same-sex onscreen couples is now a regular occurrence — he stars as Holden Honey on Riverdale, a show with multiple LGBTQ characters.
“Look at any show today — comedy or drama — you’re going to have gay, lesbian and transgender characters. That’s the way it should be,” the Fosters alum says. “That was the goal back then. In society, we’ve made that transition and I’m very proud we did that.”
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