04/24/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
DAN BUTLER IS JUST NOT ON THE SAME wavelength—or even the same planet—as Bob "Bulldog" Briscoe. Unlike the maniacally macho, babe-chasing sports-caster he plays on NBC's Frasier, the 40-year-old actor is a sensitive, '90s kind of guy, very polite and given to messages like, "May great things come to you." Bulldog would gag.
And there's another important fact about Dan Butler that very definitely sets him apart from Bulldog: He is openly gay. Coming out was a long process that began nearly two decades ago when Butler first realized he was gay; the hardest part, he says, was telling his family. Now on hiatus from Frasier, he is exploring that emotional territory in his one-man autobiographical show, The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me, which opens in New York City this month.
The play earned good reviews during a recent L.A. run; The Los Angeles Times called it "inspired" and "compelling." Butler hopes it forces audiences "to examine in a good way all that misinformation about gay people." David Lee, Frasier's executive producer and one of the play's original backers,
says it does that—and more. Says Lee: "I went with trepidation: 'Oh, he's written it himself?' I left thinking his writing talent is extraordinary."
The Frasier team was already sold on his acting skills. Last season, after three guest shots, Butler became the focus of a show. Shortly afterward he signed a four-year deal guaranteeing Bulldog appearances on 13 out of 22 episodes each season. Butler relishes the role. "His offensiveness is not malicious," says Butler. "In a weird way, you admire someone who says the first thing that comes to his mind."
His sister Pam Conrad, 37, a registered nurse, says that despite their many differences, Bulldog and her brother do share an "over-the-top energy." She says that when they were growing up in Fort Wayne, Ind., with their father, Andrew, a pharmacist, and mother, Shirley, a housewife, her brother was always trying to gather relatives and neighborhood kids to put on "little vaudevilles."
By high school, he was a local superstar: class president, athlete and lead actor in school plays. He was also aware, if only vaguely, of his true sexuality. "I had girlfriends," he says, "but I always knew I was attracted to men." It didn't bother him; he simply assumed everyone felt the same way.
After graduating in 1973, he attended Purdue and San Jose State universities, dropping out to study acting in San Francisco. For the next few years he appeared in regional productions, supporting himself as a waiter. In 1980 he moved to New York City where he had roles in Biloxi Blues, True West and The Lisbon Traviata. He has since appeared on TV (Roseanne) and in films (Silence of the Lambs, Longtime Companion, Rising Sun and I Love Trouble).
Butler's personal life was evolving as well. In 1977, he says, "I had my first romance with a man." He began to be more open about his sexuality. That summer, he recalls, "I remember dancing with a man for the first time and thinking as I was on the dance floor, 'Three years ago, this would have made me sick.' " The next step was confronting his family. "I wrote my sister first and said, on one page, I was in love," he recalls. "On the top of the second, I said, 'And his name is Tommy' "
"I was shocked," says Pam, "but this was my brother Dan." His mother who later found the letter at first had trouble absorbing the news. "She kept asking, 'But what about all the women?' " says Butler, though she adjusted fairly fast. Neither she nor Butler's father who was slower to accept—have seen his show. But, Pam says, "he has offered our family a chance to be open. They are very proud of Dan."
They are also proud of his professional success on Frasier. Butler has just bought a two-bedroom Hollywood house, where he lives happily alone (although he says he is involved in a relationship). In fact, his only worry at the moment is that coming out may affect his career; he has been asked to audition for a lot of gay parts lately. But he hopes he can help erase cliches by talking openly about gay issues.
"We type people," he says. "A jock couldn't like musical scores, and a gay man won't do sports. It's foolish. That's what I love about Bulldog. He reminds me to be a kid and play. We can waste years being stuck in a point of view."
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles