LOS ANGELES X — LOS ANGELES -- For Samantha Stevens, the perky housewife-witch on TV's "Bewitched," coming out of the closet would have been a one-second affair. With a twitch of her nose, she would have been home free.
For actor Dick Sargent, who played Samantha's husband, Darren, from 1969-72, it has taken four decades.
"I wish I had come out sooner," says Sargent, 61, who publicly declared himself gay on National Coming Out Day two weeks ago. "I've been hiding my whole life, and I realized, dammit, it was just time to stop.
"As an actor, I have heard anti-gay jokes my whole life, from people in every level of the entertainment industry. In the old days, I'd turn the other cheek. Now I say, 'You'd better be careful.'"
Sargent's revelation -- on the heels of actor Brad Davis' death from AIDS a month ago -- has rocked Hollywood. (In an open letter to the industry, released by his wife after his death, Davis said he contracted the disease through drug use.)
"People admire what [Sargent's] done and are supportive of it, sure," says one high-powered publicist who has several closeted gay clients. "But for many gay actors, it's just not an option. Public homosexuality in the entertainment industry is still, sadly, a big taboo that equates with unemployment."
"It's funny, I never thought this was such a big deal," says Sargent, who has become something of a cause celebre since his announcement. "But I guess it really is, because I'm the only American gay actor to come out before he died." (Ian McKellen, an English actor, came out publicly in 1988.)
"Will my coming out motivate other actors? God, I hope so. This, along with the Brad Davis thing, I hope will make people in this industry a little bit more honest about themselves. But face it, it's also going to scare some people too."
And Sargent, for all his soul-searching and public bravura, is scared as well. Being gay in Hollywood "is still," he says, "the kiss of death."
"Financially, I'm OK, I've done well with real estate. That doesn't make my act as brave as you would think. But my money will eventually run out. And me coming out, I think, does kill my chances at employment as an actor.
"They will not hire you for a job if you are publicly gay, I don't care what they say," Sargent continues. "The TV sponsors are so spooked about being involved with any controversy that they will certainly pull their funds from a show if a known gay actor is involved."
Sargent -- mild-mannered, affable and quite like the character he played on "Bewitched" -- grew up in Carmel, Calif. In his late teens, he took theater classes in New York. He says he realized he was gay shortly after he turned 21.
"But that was during the '40s, when being gay was thought to be a psychological disorder, and people just didn't talk about it," he says. "I came close to having a nervous breakdown. It certainly wasn't a choice."