Ryan Phillippe Broke TV Boundaries Playing the First Openly Gay Teenager on Daytime TV in ‘One Life to Live’

Ryan Phillippe is known for his long marriage to Reese Witherspoon and his many film roles. Still, few realize that he got his start on the soap opera One Life to Live playing Billy Douglas in 1993 and has the distinction of being the first openly gay teenager on daytime TV. While One Life to Live is no longer on the air and is greatly missed by fans, Phillippe’s role, and its groundbreaking history, survive. Phillippe has an exciting history from daytime teen heartthrob to today, as does One Life to Live, and how it paved the way for LGBTQ roles on daytime television.

Ryan Phillippe smiling, holding a microphone
Ryan Phillippe | Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Who is Ryan Phillippe?

Phillippe was born in New Castle, Delaware, in 1974. Billy Douglas was his first role, and he played the character from 1992-1993. When asked about the importance of the part by TooFab, he said he wasn’t really aware of the impact at the time, but “I realize it now, certainly. At the time I was 17,” There had never been a gay teenager portrayed on television at that point. It was before Will & Grace before Ellen came out, it’s before any of that stuff.” 

He played some small parts on TV before being cast in the iconic ’90s film, I Know What You Did Last Summer, then onto 54 in and, Cruel Intentions. His new fame as a heartthrob made him a bit nervous and he was unsure how to handle it. But he persevered making several movies, including Crash (2005), which won the Oscar for Best Picture, and the war film Flags of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood.

In 2014, Phillippe focused on his directorial debut, Catch Hell, an indie thriller, before returning to TV as a recurring character on Damages. In 2015, he starred in Secrets and Lies. His next major role was in the thriller drama series Shooter before being cast in February in the new ABC crime drama series Big Sky.

One Life to Live-A short history:

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One Life to Live was a popular daytime soap opera airing on ABC for over 40 years. The show happened in the fictional town of Llanview, Pennsylvania, and was one of the most diverse daytime soap operas of its day. Over its 40-year history, One Life to Live explored economic inequality, mental illness, interracial marriage and was the first to have an openly gay teenage character.

Billy Douglas was a groundbreaking character

Phillippe was warned by many not to play the character at the height of the AIDS crisis and nearly declined. According to Soap Central, Phillippe said “I thought, ‘What is my family going to think? What about my friends?’ But I realized that for [the character] Billy, the torment is a hundred times that.” The character was caught between the homophobia of his father, Walter Douglas, and his feeling for Rick Mitchell (Joe Fiske).

When Phillippe played the character, homophobia was rampant in the US. Being the first teen character to come out on television, he opened the door for other iconic characters like Rickie Vasquez, who was portrayed by Wilson Cruz on My So-Called Life, and Ross Werkman (Mitchell Anderson) on Party of Five. Opening the door for a generation of young people to come out of the closet, but without Billy Douglas leading the way, it may have never happened.