Instead of getting booted from ABC's Grey's Anatomy, Isaiah Washington's Dr. Preston Burke should become gay.
So say several gay activists in response to Washington's recent homophobic remarks. The actor used an anti-gay slur at the Golden Globes last week for the second time in three months.
"Making his character gay would be perfect, other than watching him squirm," says Larry Gross, director of USC's Annenberg School for Communication. "It has a certain poetic justice."
All the principals have followed the usual script: ABC publicly chastises Washington; Washington publicly apologizes; Washington publicly meets with gay leaders and promises to do better.
Call it the Mel Gibson-Michael Richards 12-step atonement program.
"It's part of the new culture of contrition," says Gross, a former Philadelphian. " 'Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I will reach out to you so you can educate me.' There's no sincerity. The main thing is salvaging your career."
Neil Giuliano, executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, says Washington appeared sincere when they met on the Grey's set Monday.
"He understands the enormity of this very bad situation. He was genuinely sorry. He realizes the hurt he caused not only to the gay community, but to his colleagues on the show."
Specifically, T.R. Knight, who plays baby-faced Dr. George O'Malley.
Following a dust-up on the set in October with costar Patrick Dempsey (Dr. McDreamy), Washington used the homophobic slur in reference to Knight. Washington apologized, and Knight came out of the closet.
In a backstage press conference at the Golden Globes, the Grey's cast was asked about the incident. Washington grabbed the mike and denied he had said the slur, saying the slur.
Costar Katherine Heigl (Dr. Izzie Stevens) contradicted Washington's account, as did Knight, on Ellen DeGeneres' show last Wednesday.
Washington, who played a gay man in Spike Lee's 1996 Get on the Bus, will tape a public service announcement for GLAAD "in the next couple of months," Giuliano says.
One of the hottest shows on TV, third-season Grey's averages about 18.8 million viewers to rank seventh on Nielsen's hit parade. In the show, Dr. Burke is deeply involved with Sandra Oh's Dr. Christina Yang.
Cultural critic B. Ruby Rich, a film professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, would love Dr. Preston to become a man-hound.
"It's hilarious. My only question is whether it's Isaiah Washington's punishment or his reward."
In a meeting with senior ABC executives Monday, Giuliano says he discussed how Dr. Burke's possible change in sexuality has become fodder for the blogosphere.
"Stranger things have happened with story lines," says Giuliano, a Grey's zealot. "It might be something they'd consider. I think it would be an interesting twist."
Not likely. Given Burke's relationship with Yang, odds are better that he'd be written off or killed than he'd become a switch-hitter.
"That is not part of his story line, and it wouldn't make sense for the character," an ABC rep says.
Says Joseph Adalian, TV editor of the showbiz bible, Variety: "Burke coming out would be TV's biggest cop-out since Bobby Ewing came out of that shower on Dallas 25 years ago, and we were told the whole season had been a dream."
Giuliano and Gross agree that the chances of Dr. Preston's going gay are slim and none. And as Dan Rather used to say, slim just left town.
"ABC won't do it," Gross says. "It would be a constant reminder of this incident and would keep it fresh in the minds of viewers."
Besides, Giuliano says he'd prefer that Dr. Preston stay straight and that Washington do the work.
"I don't want him [Washington] to act about this situation, I want him to be real. That's just more TV, more unreal drama. I want him to engage in the real drama of fighting anti-gay bigotry."
When Giuliano first heard about Washington's remarks, "I had to channel my own anger from outrage to getting engaged. It was difficult to do."
GLAAD considered pushing for Washington's dismissal, Giuliano says, "but he's not my employee. Let ABC deal with that." If Washington were, however, "our policies are pretty clear, and he would be fired."
L'affaire Washington is not without irony. At Sunday's announcement of nominations for the 18th annual GLAAD Media Awards, Grey's got a nod for "best single episode" for a story involving a male-to-female transsexual.
Short stuff. Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton are in talks to star in Action News, a projected sitcom from 20th Century Fox TV about two local anchors. (Anything to get Heaton off those annoying Acme commercials). Producers are Frasier's Christopher Lloyd and Steve Levitan of Just Shoot Me. . . . To mark the 10th anniversary of Fox's animated King of the Hill, FX will run a King marathon on Presidents' Day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Guest voices will include Chris Rock, Jennifer Aniston, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt and Snoop Dogg.
Contact TV columnist Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or email@example.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.