In 1998, one year after Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet on television, Will & Grace made its debut. The ensemble comedy series featured two gay characters—lawyer Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and aspiring actor Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes)—and their best friends, interior designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing) and eccentric socialite Karen Walker (Megan Mullally), whose fun-filled antics were enjoyed by millions of viewers for eight seasons on NBC. Here are some surprising facts about the groundbreaking series.
1. WILL AND GRACE WERE BASED ON THE SERIES' CO-CREATOR AND HIS CHILDHOOD FRIEND.
Max Mutchnick and David Kohan were inspired by Mutchnick’s friendship with voiceover casting agency owner Janet Eisenberg. Mutchnick and Eisenberg dated before Mutchnick came out of the closet in college. Kohan was a mutual friend who watched their relationship change and mature over the years.
2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY PITCHED AS AN ENSEMBLE SHOW WITH STRAIGHT COUPLES.
The only relationship NBC executive Warren Littlefield was interested in, however, was the one with the gay man living with the straight woman. It was originally set in San Francisco, and Will had both Will and Jack’s personalities. When Mutchnick and Kohan wrote the pilot, they just focused on the Will and Grace characters.
3. THE SHOW TITLE CAME FROM A BOOK.
The two creators named the show Will & Grace based on a concept in the Jewish philosophy book I and Thou by Martin Buber, in which he says that one needs the "will" to go after the presence of the Eternal and the "grace" to receive it.
4. KOHAN AND MUTCHNICK DID THEIR RESEARCH.
While waiting to hear about the fate of their show after submitting their pilot script, the two men sent Warren Littlefield faxes listing the box office numbers of The Birdcage and My Best Friend’s Wedding, two hit movies featuring gay characters.
5. SEAN HAYES THREW THE PILOT SCRIPT AWAY.
Sean Hayes was at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah when a network casting executive faxed him the pilot script for Will & Grace after seeing him in Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss. After reading the script, the actor promptly threw it away. "I laughed out loud—which is rare during pilot season,” Hayes told Entertainment Weekly. ”But I’d only been at Sundance two days, and I would have had to buy my own plane ticket [to L.A.] just to audition. So I tossed it, thinking there’d be 10,000 more sitcoms."
6. VODKA MAY HAVE FACTORED INTO DEBRA MESSING’S DECISION TO PLAY GRACE.
Mutchnick and Kohan wanted Messing so badly that they went to her house with a bottle of vodka, and spent hours pouring her shots and pitching her the show. "I'm a lightweight," said Messing. "I didn't need much to be a little giddy. By the end of the evening, they said, 'Will you do it?' I said, 'Let's talk tomorrow.'" The next day, she agreed to take the part.
7. JOHN BARROWMAN LOST OUT ON PLAYING WILL BECAUSE HE WAS "TOO STRAIGHT."
John Barrowman, who is gay, said he was told by Will & Grace producers that he was ‘too straight’ to play Will. Eric McCormack, who is straight, got the part instead.
8. MEGAN MULLALLY CHOSE PLAYING KAREN OVER PLAYING CARRIE ON THE KING OF QUEENS.
9. NICK OFFERMAN WOULD HAVE BEEN CAST AS GRACE’S BOYFRIEND NATHAN IF WOODY HARRELSON HAD TURNED DOWN THE PART.
10. HISPANIC RIGHTS GROUPS SUCCESSFULLY GOT A WORD TAKEN OUT OF AN EPISODE TWO HOURS BEFORE IT WAS SCHEDULED TO AIR.
NBC had the word “tamale” replaced with “honey” in the episode “Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner” after Hispanic rights groups and the NAACP believed the word was an ethnic slur coming from Karen to her Salvadoran maid, Rosario. Shelley Morrison, the actress who played Rosario, once said there were only two times throughout the series where she felt that Rosario was doing something demeaning. Both times, the producers changed the line or situation.
11. NBC REWARDED THE CAST WITH FREE CARS.
As a thank you for their work during the series' first season, McCormack, Messing, Hayes, and Mullally all received matching Porsche Boxster convertibles.
12. CHER'S CAMEO WAS FILMED VERY, VERY QUICKLY.
Mullally told Entertainment Weekly of the experience: “They flew her in. Like, she was sort of dropped in on a crescent moon, she did the scene, and was, like, airlifted back out. And when I met her she was in her full Cher Land drag, so I didn’t get to experience her as a person.”
13. JAMES BURROWS DIRECTED EVERY EPISODE OF THE SERIES.
The veteran director, who was behind the camera for shows like Cheers and Frasier, was the consummate pro. He even made sure that every piece of mail on Will and Grace’s coffee table was either addressed to Truman or Adler at 30 Rockefeller Place, New York, NY, to give the characters authenticity.
14. A SPINOFF STARRING KAREN WAS CONSIDERED.
NBC changed their minds when the Friends spinoff Joey didn’t last more than one full season. Instead, the network gave Mullally a talk show.
15. VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN CREDITED THE SHOW WITH EDUCATING THE AMERICAN PUBLIC ABOUT LGBT ISSUES.
While appearing on Meet the Press in 2012, years after the show ended, Biden said, “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done so far.” In 2014, The Smithsonian Institute added items from Will & Grace as part of their collection documenting the history of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.