Political thriller and romance drama Fellow Travelers is now streaming in the UK on Paramount+.
Against a rapidly evolving backdrop of political upheaval and civil unrest, we follow a gay couple across four decades of their lives, while also examining the difficulties queer people living in America in the last century faced.
According to writer and creator, Ron Nyswaner, the series was “meticulously researched” and features a lot of fascinating historical detail.
“That’s something I think is really important”, Nyswaner told HuffPost UK last week. “If it’s being presented as a part of history... we weren’t guessing, it was meticulously researched.”
You may have caught yourself watching the series and wondering, like me, which characters are based on real people, and how closely the depictions mirror real life. Well, never fear! Here’s everything you need to know about the Fellow Travelers characters that are based on real people...
Will Brill as Roy Cohn
Cohn was a New York lawyer who became well known for his involvement in the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The trial is mentioned in the series, but the main focus of Cohn’s character in Fellow Travelers is his work as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Together, they attempted to weed out communist sympathisers in the US government. His secret sexual relationship with David Schine is also a key storyline in the series.
Cohn was said to be aggressive and ruthless in his personal and professional life. After the downfall of McCarthy in the mid-1950s, Cohn’s reputation deteriorated, but he would later go on to represent the likes of Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch and mobster Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno.
The series heavily implies that Cohn’s relationship with Schine was an open secret in government circles. Cohn was rumoured to be gay but never spoke about his sexuality publicly. Though he died from AIDS-related complications, Cohn claimed up until his death that he had liver disease. He is remembered by the AIDS Memorial Quilt as “Roy Cohn. Bully. Coward. Victim.”
This description is said to have prompted playwright Tony Kushner to become interested in Cohn, who is a key character in Kushner’s magnum opus, Angels in America.
Chris Bauer as Senator Joseph R. McCarthy
If you’ve heard of the term “McCarthyism”, you’re already on the road to knowing who this guy is. Joe McCarthy came to power in 1947 as the Republican Senator from Wisconsin, but it wasn’t until 1950 that his crusade against communists really picked up steam.
In the series, we see McCarthy and Roy Cohn carry out hearing after hearing in order to expose communists and other “loyalty risks” supposedly lurking in the US federal government. In real life, McCarthy spent almost five years championing the interrogation and subsequent dismissal of communists and LGBTQ+ people, the latter of whom were seen as “deviants” and communist sympathisers. 2,000 government employees lost their jobs as a result of these investigations.
It was his attack upon the US army that led to his downfall in 1954. McCarthy’s credibility began to slide when he took on the armed services, and after television broadcasts of the Army–McCarthy hearings, the general public’s opinion of him changed. Many felt McCarthy’s bolshy tactics in court were “indecent” and “unbecoming”. His popularity quickly faded and he was censured by the US Senate later that year.
McCarthy died in 1957. Though he married his secretary Jean Kerr (who appears in the series played by Christine Horne) many alleged that McCarthy was gay. There is a moment in the series when an army lieutenant accuses Senator McCarthy of “committing sodomy”, which is explained away as a retaliation by gay men who are “bitter” over McCarthy’s investigations and mirrors what played out in real life.
Matt Visser as David Schine
David Schine was a member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations – helmed by Senator McCarthy – and the heir to the Schine Hotel Corporation. He was hired to the Subcommittee by Roy Cohn, with whom many suspected Schine was having a secret sexual relationship.
Schine indeed published a pamphlet against communism when at University that he distributed to those staying at his father’s hotels. He became a key figure in the Army–McCarthy hearings when McCarthy’s opponents passed information to journalists about Cohn attempting to prevent Schine from being drafted. It was also said that Cohn tried to get the Army to grant Schine – who was used to living extravagantly – special privileges.
Schine later returned to his family business before becoming a film actor and producer. He died in a plane crash in 1996 that also killed his wife and son.
There a several other historical figures that crop up in the series, including Langston Hughes (played by Brian Dunstan), Robert Kennedy (played by Ben Sanders) and Stormé DeLarverie (played by Chelsea Russell).
Other key players in the series – including Hawkins Fuller, Tim Laughlin, Marcus Hooks, Frankie Hines, Lucy Smith, Senator Wesley Smith and Mary Johnson – are not based on real people, but are either drawn from the novel or invented by Nyswaner.
The series has so far debuted to astounding reviews and an extremely positive reaction from audiences. Praise, in particular, has been given to Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey for their searing performances as Hawkins Fuller and Tim Laughlin.