With his bookish look, fussy demeanor, and devilish 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 Blatch. 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 of the “gay best friend” years before most people knew 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‘s character from her self-titled ABC sitcom came out publicly, creating a cultural stir at a time when same-sex relationships were seldom seen in mainstream entertainment. Garson’s Stanford pushed the door open further as a gay character who talked frankly with his straight friends 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 audiences were being entertained, the actor also hoped the lovable character 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.
Stanford was Garson’s most famous role, but the actor played scores of other characters in movies and TV shows over the decades, including a regular role as the con artist, fixer, and information gatherer Mozzie on the series White Collar. He also made guest appearances on Cheers, The X-Files, Quantum Leap, NYPD Blue, and Supergirl. In film, he had supporting roles in Groundhog Day, Soapdish, and Mars Attacks!, and appeared in three comedies directed by the Farrelly brothers—There’s Something About Mary, Fever Pitch, and Kingpin.
Garson was outspoken several years ago when infighting between the other actors and co-star Kim Cattrall led to the collapse of plans for a third Sex and the City movie, but fans may get to see Sanford one more time. In a statement to Deadline mourning the actor, series creator Michael Patrick King said Garson had been working on the new HBO follow-up series And Just Like That, even while battling his illness.
Initially, Garson himself was apprehensive about the character who would make him famous. While acknowledging that Stanford was more of an embrace of stereotypes than a refutation of them, the actor was worried about how LGBTQ+ people would feel about the performance. “I didn’t want to offend the community at all, and that was a really big concern of mine, to the point where I didn’t even have HBO for the first three years because I didn’t want to see it, because I was so terrified of being offensive,” the actor told Huffington Post. “But the gay community really rose up, and said ‘We know people like this, this is real.’ And so that made me feel great, and I could start watching the show.”
Stanford was performed with compassion and empathy, even though his sense of humor was ruthless That frankness made him endearing, like a real friend who might tell you anything. Consider this exchange he had with Carrie in Season 3: “I can only stay a few minutes,” Stanford says. “I’ve got tickets to The Vagina Monologues.”
A perplexed Carrie asks him plaintively: “Why?”
His reply: “Just because I don’t eat at the restaurant doesn’t mean I can’t hear the specials.”
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