“Could I pull it off as a straight guy…. could I be a believable gay man?”

50 years on, Joe Hasham reflects on his ground-breaking role as TV's first gay character, as part of a new documentary on the Queer History of Australian TV.

When actor Joe Hasham was asked how he would feel about playing a gay character in Number 96 in 1971, producers and writers could tell he was hesitant.

But not because he was repelled by the idea. Back then the portrayal of LGBT characters in show business was as effeminate men or as victims.

“I think they must have seen me stall a little bit and they said, ‘Oh, is there something wrong?’ I said, ‘Well, no, it’s not what you think’.. it’s just that in those days I had a lot of queer friends. I have a lot of gay friends now. My biggest concern with doing 96 was that I didn’t want to portray anything that would let them down,” he tells TV Tonight.

“To me, it was ‘Ok so the character’s gay, big deal.’ My concern was, could I pull it off as a straight guy, without going into the cliche, limp wrist and all of that sort of thing. Could I be a believable gay man?

“I think in a funny sort of way, that probably helped me get the part.”

Hasham’s desire to play the role authentic would marry perfectly with what creator David Sale had in mind, along with producers Don Cash & Bill Harmon and script editor Johnny Whyte.

His portrayal of gay lawyer Don Finlayson would become ground-breaking, not just on Australian TV, but in LGBTQI+ television globally.

Finlayson was to become the world’s first ongoing, sympathetic gay character on television worldwide, one of several Australian achievements featured in a new documentary, Outrageous: The Queer History Of Aussie TV. The film by TV historian Andrew Mercado highlights the world’s first gay, lesbian and bisexual characters, and the first transgender character to be played by a trans actor.

Number 96 was a TV phenomenon running from 1972 – 1977 with audacious characters and storylines, promoted by 0-10 network as the night “Australian television loses its virginity.”

“I was the kind of actor that was the right type, at the right time. When I graduated from NIDA, the big stars were people like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. They’re not your typical blonde-haired, blue eyed, leading men. I think I fit into that continental sort of look. I never had a week out of work. I was very fortunate, and then when Number 96 came along it just just ridiculous -the whole world changed for me,” he recalls.

Hasham would stay with the series for 6 seasons, with Don Finlayson seen as a stable touchstone for many of the apartment block’s wild characters.

“Don was just a normal fella, who happened to be gay,” he explains.

“Everyone knew that this character -amidst this mad house, that was Number 96– was almost a stabilising factor. Everyone came to him with their problems. And I think David Sale especially, and Johnny Whyte, both felt that they did not in any way want to create something that was not real.”

Don was involved in romances, notably with Dudley Butterfield, played by actor Chard Hayward and later John Orcsik.

“Chard is a delightful human being is, and that persona that he portrayed on Number 96 is nothing like him. he’s not ‘twee’ at all. He’s very much a ladies man,” Hasham continues.

“He was a delight to work with. Obviously, because of the characters we were playing, we became very close. So being naked or half-naked or, or having intimate scenes with him wasn’t a problem at all.

“The kissing scene with John Orcsik was a beautiful scene, but I think in the movie, or when it went to air they cut it or they edited or censored it somehow. But we had no qualms. John was a very muscular, beautiful man. So you had these two straight guys in bed, sticking their tongues down each other’s throats. But I felt it was my job and I wanted to make it as real as possible.”

On the night of one famous coming out to Bev (Abigail), Hasham was watching the show with his Lebanese parents. What they saw on screen shocked them in 1972.

“My father got up, started pacing around the room and he said, ‘You’re playing a poofter? Why can’t you play someone normal, like a murderer?'” he recalls.

It’s a comment that he still finds startling and unforgettable.

“But after a couple of months, when they realised that that my character was doing so much for the gay cause, I became the white-haired boy of the Lebanese community! They all ended up loving me!”

Don Finlayson would go on to become one of the show’s most-loved characters, having a profound effect on gay men watching the show in the privacy of 1970s conservatism. Justice Michael Kirby, who also features in Outrageous, once thanked Hasham for making he and his partner not feel like they were the only gays in the village.

“Don Finlayson became a hero to the queer community and also became a hero, I think to to Australians, because he grew up through the series. He made it okay, very normal to be gay. I think a lot of Australians thought, ‘Ok, that’s what it’s like.’

“Mothers would write to me and say, ‘I’ve got a daughter that can straighten you out.’ But I also had fathers -and these were the most touching things- writing to me saying, ‘I think my son is gay. Can you please offer me some advice?’

“I felt this burden of responsibility and it all stems back to why I was a little bit hesitant at the start.”

In more recent years Finlayson lives in Malaysia where he ran a post-production company, before returning to theatre.

“We built our own theatre here. Now we have the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Center, which has three theatres: a 500 seater, a 200 seater and a 100 seater. We have nine studios for rehearsals, and we also joined hands with Taylor’s University and we now have a performing arts degree program,” he says.

“We started the Actor’s Studio in 1989. It’s been a tough battle as you can appreciate, but it’s wonderful. It’s kept me young, I hope!”

Benjamin Law, Andrew Mercado, Sarah Walker, Shane Jenek.

During a current visit to Australia, Hasham will participate in a Q+A with Andrew Mercado along with a screening of a Number 96 episode, part of a double bill with Outrageous.

Fifty years on, Hasham says he never tires of questions about Don Finlayson because of what it achieved for the LGBT community.

“When I made the decision to do Number 96 it was probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, not just for my career, but for me personally. It has given me a purpose that I never thought ever existed inside me. So no, I don’t tire of it at all,” he insists.

“Because I am a huge supporter of it living life the way that we are intended to live it, individually.”

Mardi Gras Film Festival : 6:30pm Thursday Feb 17 Event Cinemas, Sydney.
World Premiere: Outrageous: The Queer History of Australian TV with Benjamin Law, Sarah Walker, Carlotta, Michael Kirby and Keiynan Lonsdale.
Number 96: TV’s First LGBT Show + discussion between Joe Hasham, scriptwriter Sarah Walker and TV historian Andrew Mercado.

Tix are selling fast at Queerscreen.

10 Responses

  1. I would ask my Mum how come Don didn’t have a girlfriend. She just replied that “he didn’t like girls”, which 8 or 9 year old me didn’t understand. From what I saw, he got along really well with all the girls….

  2. Total respect for this actor for taking a role that could’ve killed his career especially as homosexuality was not long legalised and most people’s idea of a gay man was Mr Humphrey’s on are you being served. I was a young kid in the 70’s so I didn’t fully get how brave he was until the 80’s when I realised I was gay. Great role model even in the wacky goings on in number 96 thank you sir.

  3. It was amazing I always asked questions to my mum about what was going on and she always answered, including answering back then, because of Don Finlayson, that it was okay to be homosexual. Yet decades later my parents wouldn’t vote for marriage equality. It’s really hard to reconcile that the very person who explained to me that there was nothing strange about being a gay man, changed so much. Just getting older should not change thy much.

  4. Even though I’m a bit young to remember this TV series , ive heard about the storyline since i was a kid.

    Love these interviews David, it adds to the rich tapestry of groundbreaking characters in early Australian drama that if not reported on now may disappear forever. Thankyou for your efforts and the interviwees in making these stories come to life.

  5. Showing my age now and proud to do so, this was one of the best around in that era, but I always thought Arnold Feather (Jeff Kevin) was secretly gay because he was attracted to Robyn Ross (Carlotta) a transgender who he eventually married but the producers thought Don and Dudley where enough for the viewers to get their heads around at the time. None the less there were some great Australian actors and actresses in the show at the time and it certainly was groundbreaking especially those who secretly watched it and didn’t want to admit they did.

    1. Was a good and ground breaking show, which I watched as an 11 year old (born May 1961 so ten for a couple of months) on my black and white portable in my bedroom, which if done today would have had some aspects of the community screaming Woke. One only has to look at how some shows now are said that of and they’re tame in comparison, the new Quantum Leap being one of those shows and this weeks episode in the USA has undeservedly got a ton of it (Ep 12: Let Them Play).

      Wonder how much watching shows like that early on played into me being open to whatever about people living life and loving as they feel suits them as long as they’re doing so without harming/hurting others of course.

      1. I’m a “boomer” and “counterculture” (love, protect, peace and all that) and loved the show, I’ve even got a Number 96 cookbook, tickets from the movie which my friends and I lined up in George Street Sydney to see plus a vinyl record some of the cast recorded floating in some obscure place in the house, but the best bit for me was Dudley deciding to leave and becoming a ladies man, why?, only those in the know really know why. To each his own I say and why not. Those were the days. 😂

        1. Dudley becoming a ladies man was a lot more complex than I originally realised. Turns out he was always bisexual, and had several “encounters” with women while living with Don, including his ex-wife (who turned up with his baby son), Don’s sister Carol (Paula Duncan) and his “second cousin” Jaja (Anya Saleky). But just because he fell in love with someone else, it didn’t necessarily result in him being able to “perform” for them!
          PS When you find that ticket snub, please post it on the Number 96 Facebook page, what a collectors item!

          1. Andrew I will endeavour to find the stub, I am aware Dudley was bi, poor Don ended up with a boyfriend Joshua (Shane Porters) who was a cult leader, Dudley got machine gunned down in a Wine bar (a disco called Duddles) there was also a Nazi biker gang, a blackmailer with schizophrenia, a bomber blowing up the deli, all of which fascinated me because I was intrigued who made all this stuff up. Chaos abound all in one show, just loved it.

Leave a Reply