Suzanne Brockmann
Suzanne Brockmann
Bestselling novelist Suzanne Brockmann has a calendar to thank for inspiring her first play, Looking for Billy Haines, now playing at Theatre Row. In 2004, her son received a page-a-day calendar called "A Queer Year," as a gift and she would look at each new entry with him after he got home from school. When they came to one in December on actor William Haines, Brockmann was surprised that she hadn't heard of him. Not only was Haines the country's top box office draw in 1930, but in an era well before Stonewall or the gay rights movement, he didn't pretend to hide who he was.

"The legend goes Haines was told by Louis B. Mayer that he had to stay in the closet and marry a starlet if he wanted to continue acting." says Brockmann, who is also directing the show. "And he said to Mayer, I'll dump my boyfriend, if you divorce your wife.' Then he walked away from Hollywood. You hear about it and you think, 'this is such a romantic story, how come it's not part of our history.'"

As a romance novelist -- and the mother of a gay son -- Brockmann's interest and emotions were stirred. Soon, she and her husband, the novelist Ed Gaffney (who uses the pen name Will McCabe for some his of work), decided to write a play, but the pair wasn't interested in penning a conventional biodrama. Instead, the work takes place in present-day New York, where aspiring actor Jamie lands an audition for a movie about the film star. As he learns about Haines' life and career -- scenes of which play out on stage -- Jamie gets a fresh perspective on his own relationship with his closeted boyfriend. Meanwhile, Jamie's three roommates also confront relationship issues, and the actors playing them fluctuate between their parts and smaller roles.

Brockmann and Gaffney note that gathering information on Haines -- who remained with his longtime partner, Jimmie Shields, until his death in 1973 -- wasn't easy. Nor was finding the time to write the play, since Brockmann has been churning out a book or two a year in her popular "Troubleshooters" romantic suspense series since 2000. So Gaffney stepped in to help during a walk on a beach in Florida, where they now live. "I said, tell me and I'll write it. It'll be just a draft, and I might get some of it completely wrong, but I'll get some of it right and there will be a first draft," he recalls.

Jason T. Gaffney and Joseph Culinanein Looking for Billy Haines
(© Shirin Tinati)
Jason T. Gaffney and Joseph Culinane
in Looking for Billy Haines
(© Shirin Tinati)
The show is a family affair in another way as well; the couple's son, James T. Gaffney (who is openly gay) portrays Jamie. Says Ed Gaffney, "We made a big effort to make sure that gay jokes and similar messages never got delivered in our household," he notes. "We tried to make it clear that we knew people that were gay and that we thought they were terrific."

The show's other cast members -- including Joseph Cullinane, who plays Haines (and is the show's choreographer) -- are actors the couple got to know during the many years they lived in suburban Boston. "There was a theater that was right down the street from our house, so we often had like a shelter for starving actors," says Brockmann. "They'd come and hang out and we got to know some of them pretty well."

Brockmann's son has influenced her work in other ways -- notably by urging her to give one of her series' characters, gay FBI agent Jules Cassidy, a romantic story arc. She did that and more, becoming the first mainstream romance novelist to include a same-sex gay wedding in 2007's All Through the Night. "I wanted to create a character that was the same as everybody else and just happened to be gay," says Brockmann.

Billy Haines surely would be proud.