With his bookish look, fussy demeanor, and sly smile, Willie Garson worked for a decade playing unnamed characters like “Nitwit Executive,” “Corporate Guy,” and “Annoying Guy” before breaking through with his career defining role: Sex and the City‘s nattily dressed confidante and best friend Stanford Blanch. Armed with a razor wit and equally sharp skepticism about the dating scene, “Stanny” often joined Sarah Jessica Parker‘s Carrie Bradshaw and her trio of girlfriends in navigating the men of Manhattan. From 1998 to 2004, and over two feature films, Garson, who died Tuesday at age 57, played the part long before everyone had a real-life friend or relative who was comfortable being out.
Garson’s first appearance as Stanford, in the 1998 pilot for Sex and the City, arrived just a year after Ellen Degeneres came out while starring in her self-titled ABC sitcom, creating a cultural stir at a time when same-sex relationships were seldom seen in mainstream entertainment. Garson’s Stanford was a gay character who talked frankly with his straight friend about sex, dating, rejection, insecurity, and the eternal conundrum of the male mind. As the world changed, so did he. In the 2010 movie sequel Sex and the City 2, Stanford settled down and married his longtime rival, Anthony, in a ceremony officiated by no less than Liza Minnelli. That was five years before the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
Garson, who reportedly had been battling cancer, was not gay himself, but took pride in playing a character who could make audiences laugh with Stanford rather than at him. While being entertained, the actor also hoped it would make viewers more accepting and tolerant. “It was also very important to the show to show someone having fun being gay, being proud, open and comfortable with who they are,” he told The Huffington Post in 2016.
“You know, we’d just come through the [AIDS] crisis and every representation of gay was kind of dark, and spoken in hushed tones,” Garson added. “But Stanford was like, ‘Hey, I’m gay. Really gay. Super gay. And I’m happy about it, I’m looking for a boyfriend, looking for a husband,’ and it was very open, and different to what had been shown before.”
Garson’s death was confirmed on social media by his son, Nathen Garson: “You always were the toughest and funniest and smartest person I’ve known. I’m glad you shared your love with me. I’ll never forget it or lose it. I love you so much papa,” Nathen wrote on Instagram.
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