In 2023, anti-drag laws are being debated in at least 14 states, including Tennessee, the first to officially ban “adult cabaret performances” — which includes male or female impersonations — in public spaces or in the presence of children. But in 1980, drag formed the centerpiece of a new ABC sitcom.
Bosom Buddies is notable for being the first big break for Tom Hanks, then 24, and paired him with relative newcomer Peter Scolari, then 25. They played Kip Wilson and Henry Desmond, respectively — two pals who assume female alter-egos named Buffy and Hildegard in order to live in an affordable women’s hotel in New York City. The show was conceived almost by accident by Thomas L. Miller and Robert L. Boyett, the duo behind a raft of 1970s hit sitcoms including Happy Days, Mork & Mindy and Laverne & Shirley.
Buddies was pitched to ABC as a male version of the latter, reminiscent of “a sophisticated Billy Wilder comedy.” Asked to elaborate, Miller and Boyett mentioned Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis’ rapport in 1959’s Some Like It Hot, leading ABC to order a pilot on the condition that the series also feature drag. With several key female parts already cast — including Holland Taylor as their ad agency boss — producers scoured New York, Chicago and Los Angeles for a couple of unknowns to play Kip and Henry.
“One of them was this kid they found out of New York who was understudying off-Broadway,” recalls Buddies director Joel Zwick of Hanks. “This was a guy with no real experience, but he knew exactly what he did well, and he just did it.”
The show, which filmed at Paramount’s Stage 25 (later home to Cheers and Frasier), launched to strong ratings but was hampered by the 1980 SAG strike and network schedule tinkering. Then it lost some magic at the start of the second season, when Kip reveals his ruse to love interest Sonny (Donna Dixon). The comedy was not renewed. Even so, it remains beloved to many, including Hanks, who stayed close to his co-star until Scolari’s death in October 2021 from leukemia.
Of the current wave of anti-drag legislation, Zwick, 81, says: “They claim children are going to be hurt by drag shows. Well, might I suggest the parents don’t take their children to that drag show? The kid probably has no idea it’s not a woman anyway.”
This story first appeared in the March 16 issue of magazine. Click here to subscribe.