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27/07/2021 08:13 BST

Will & Grace: 20 Things You Didn't Know About The Hit Sitcom, Honey

From the surprising origin of the characters' names to the actors who almost got cast.

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Will & Grace made its television debut on US screens in 1998 – but it would be another three years before it made the jump across the pond.

In July 2001, the hit sitcom finally began airing on Channel 4, quickly winning praise for its hilarious, ridiculous and fast-paced sense of humour, the different relationships depicted between its central core characters and, of course, the way it put LGBTQ characters in the spotlight in a way few shows before had managed.

Eventually, Will & Grace ran for eight years, only to be revived for a reboot more than a decade after the cast took their final bows, with its acclaimed second run lasting a further three seasons.

Still revered two decades on, here are 20 facts you might not have known about the game-changing, award-winning show...

1. First of all, Will and Grace were never actually supposed to be the central characters of the show

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Eric McCormack and Debra Messing in promo shots for Will & Grace's first season

And before you ask, no, neither were Jack and Karen. In fact, when the show was first pitched, the idea was that it would revolve around three sets of couples, one of whom was a gay man and a straight woman who lived together.

However, with Mad About You nearing its end, NBC wanted a new two-header sitcom, so set creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan the task of writing a pilot putting that single pair in the spotlight.

2. Will and Grace’s relationship is based on a pair of real-life friends

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Will & Grace creator Max Mutchnik with Debra Messing and Eric McCormack

The friends in question are Max Mutchnik and his childhood friend, casting agent Janet Eisenberg. Like Will and Grace, Max and Janet were an item in their younger years, only for him to come out as gay when they were both at university. 

3. The title characters’ names actually came from a book about Jewish philosophy

The story goes that the characters’ names were found in Martin Buber’s book I and Thou, in which he writes about how people need both the “will” to pursue an afterlife and the “grace” to accept it. 

4. Although Grace’s middle name was a bit more of an inside joke

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Debra Messing and Debbie Reynolds

Grace’s full name was Grace Elizabeth Adler, supposedly because of her mother’s affinity with Elizabeth Taylor.

In real life, Grace’s mum was played by Debbie Reynolds, whose own history with Elizabeth Taylor (the former’s husband at one point leaving her for the latter) is well-documented. 

5. A lot of actors were in the running for the title characters

Among them, apparently, were John Barrowman, who claimed he was turned down for the role for not being gay enough. The part would eventually go to Eric McCormack who is straight.

Future Desperate Housewives star Nicolette Sheridan also auditioned for the part of Grace, but didn’t make the cut. Years later, she would make an appearance in Will & Grace as a love rival of the character she’d hoped to play all those years earlier.

6. Eric McCormack was the first actor cast for the show – but Debra Messing took some convincing 

In fact, producers turned up at her apartment with a bottle of vodka in the hopes of talking her round.

They poured me several shots, we spoke for several hours and they pitched me the show,” she recalled shortly after the show’s launch. “I’m a lightweight. I didn’t need much to be a little giddy. By the end of the evening, they said, ‘Will you do it?’ I said, ‘Let’s talk tomorrow’.”

Five minutes after they left her home, she called them to say she’d love to play Grace.

7. Sean Hayes almost didn’t audition at all 

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Sean Hayes performing in character in Just Jack

When Sean was first invited to audition, he didn’t want to pay for a flight to Los Angeles, so threw out the script he’d been sent.

It was only when producers persisted in asking him to come in and read for the part of Jack that he realised the opportunity might be worth forking out for.

8. While Megan Mullally originally had her eye on a different role

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Megan Mullally played Karen Walker in all 11 seasons of Will & Grace

Apparently, Megan had her eye on the role of Grace when she first auditioned, and when the character of Karen was first presented to her, she didn’t seem all that enthused.

“I didn’t want to play the bougie best friend because I didn’t think I could bring anything new to the part,” Megan told EW, pointing out that “Christine Baranski had just played the same kind of role on Cybill″.

It was only when she realised she could play up to Karen’s “weirdness” that the character started to show its true appeal to her.

9. However, no one needed any convincing when it came to rebooting the show in 2017

Apparently, it took all four of the main actors under an hour to agree to revive their old characters.

10. Several big names appeared on the show before they landed their biggest TV roles

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Neil Patrick Harris and Sean Hayes in Will & Grace

Years before How I Met Your Mother came along, Neil Patrick Harris appeared as an “ex-gay” in Will & Grace, while a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Patrick Dempsie played a love interest of Will’s in an early season. 

Natasha Lyonne also made an appearance as Grace’s protegée, who quickly gets swayed over to the dark side by Karen.

11. While other guest stars were already A-list gay icons

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Madonna and Megan Mullally in Will & Grace

Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Sir Elton John and, of course, Cher (twice!) are among the A-listers who played themselves in Will & Grace, while Britney Spears played a closeted Christian conservative in a memorable guest stint.

Madonna also made an appearance as a short-lived roommate of Karen Walker’s, who she ended up in a bar fight with.

12. In fact, Madonna and Cher’s popularity with the show’s fans proved to be a bit of an issue

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Sean Hayes acting alongside Cher

The story goes that both Madonna and Cher had to record their entrances multiple times as the Will & Grace studio audience were so hysterical about them being there.

13. And one guest landed their cameo in a very unusual way

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Sharon Osbourne on the set of Will & Grace

Sharon Osbourne appeared as a bartender in one scene of Will & Grace, after winning a cameo in a charity auction.

14. Producers had a different actor in mind for the role of Beverley Leslie

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Megan Mullally and Leslie Jordan

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Leslie Jordan in the role, but the character was actually written for Joan Collins. Apparently, she was all set to go, but pulled out when she found out her fight with Karen would involve having her wig snatched off.

Joan would later make an appearance in Will & Grace later down the line as another of Karen’s nemeses, this time being caught chowing down on tacos in a low-rent fast food restaurant.

Leslie Jordan went on to win Best Actor In A Comedy Series for one of his many subsequent appearances as Beverley Leslie.

14. While Rosario was originally only supposed to air in one episode – but proved so popular she became a series regular

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Megan Mullally and Shelley Morrison

Rosario was introduced in the season one finale, when she married Jack in order to get a green card. 

Over the years, Shelley Morrison grew protective of the comedy character, revealing she twice put her foot down to have scripts changed when she felt that Rosario had been “demeaned”.

16. James Burrows directed every episode of Will & Grace 

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The cast of Will & Grace with James Burrows

And he had a meticulous eye for detail. For example, every piece of mail in the characters’ apartment was specifically addressed to either Will Truman or Grace Adler at the studio’s actual address.

James’ other directing credits include Cheers, Friends, The Big Bang Theory and 2 Broke Girls. He also played himself in Lisa Kudrow’s mockumentary series The Comeback.

17. Before the reboot, various spin-offs were proposed and swiftly cancelled

Among these were a spin-off centred around Jack and Karen (which was axed when Friends off-shoot Joey didn’t do as well as predicted), and a stage musical based around Karen and Beverley Leslie. 

18. Will & Grace proved so popular that it made history at the Emmys

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Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes at the 2000 Emmys

During its initial run, all four of Will & Grace’s central cast members won Emmys, making it the first (and only) sitcom to manage this feat since The Golden Girls.

Will & Grace guest stars to win Emmys over the years include Gene Wilder, Bobby Canavale and the aforementioned Leslie Jordan.

19. In fact, the show was so impactful it even got a shout-out from future president Joe Biden

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Joe Biden

Back in 2012, during an endorsement of the introduction of marriage equality in the US, then-vice president Joe Biden said: “When things really began to change is when the social culture changes.

“I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody’s ever done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”

Debra Messing then tweeted: “I’m thrilled Biden has come out in support of gay marriage and am beyond proud of what he said #PROUD”

20. And while we’re on the subject of politics… what, oh what, is this?

 

Nothing to see here. Just future president Donald Trump dressed as a farmer, performing the Green Acres theme tune with Megan Mullally, in character as Karen, of course.

Megan has since admitted her regret over the skit, telling Stephen Colbert in 2016: “Here’s the real story. It was this dumb thing at the Emmys called Emmy Idol, it was when American Idol was the big thing. So they had people come on and do different theme songs from shows, and we did Green Acres. Hilarious.

“It’s all a big joke [but] he really wanted to win it, because people were calling in to vote... so we won it. The next day, I was in my Will & Grace dressing room, and the phone rang, and it was Donald Trump. And he said, ‘you know what? We really needed to win that thing, and we did, and you were a big part of that’.”

She later recalled in 2019: “At the time... everyone thought he was this hilarious caricature. He seemed like a harmless boob, before we discovered he was a harmful boob.”