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Hayes, Sean (b. 1970)  
 
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Actor Sean Hayes gained renown and awards for his role as a gay character on the hit comedy series Will & Grace (1998-2006), but while the show was on the air he declined to comment on his own sexual orientation, sharing the fear of many performers before him that it might harm his career. He did not come out publicly as a gay man until 2010.

Hayes grew up in difficult circumstances. The youngest of five children, born June 6, 1970 in Chicago, he spent his youth in the suburb of Glen Ellyn. His mother, the director of a food bank, struggled to support the family while his father was only intermittently present in their lives and finally abandoned them completely before Hayes reached his teens.

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Hayes took an early interest in both music and acting. At age five, he talked his mother into letting him try out for a television commercial. A local talent agent signed up all five of the Hayes siblings, and such auditions became a part of their family life. "Looking back," Hayes told Ari Karpel of The Advocate, "it was probably for some extra money."

In high school Hayes participated in theater and gymnastics. He also discovered that he could ingratiate himself to his classmates by amusing them with physical humor, his signature move being tripping.

Nevertheless, he rarely socialized with classmates outside of school; instead, his companions were the characters on the television shows—sitcoms and sketch comedy in particular—that he loved to watch.

Hayes had studied piano from a young age and dreamed of a career as a classical pianist. After graduating from high school in 1988 he enrolled at Illinois State University but quit when he was three classes short of earning his degree because, he told Cindy Pearlman of the Chicago Sun-Times, "I just said, 'I can't do it. Either you can play piano or you can't. No one cares if you have a diploma in it.'"

Hayes returned to Chicago, where he was hired as the musical director of the Pheasant Run Theater. He found, however, that he yearned to be on stage instead of leading the orchestra, and so he headed to Hollywood in 1995.

He won a starring role in Bruce Schwartz's made-for-television movie A&P (1996), but his face—if not his name—became familiar to viewers who saw him in widely aired commercials for major companies. The attractive young actor was frequently paired with equally comely young women in spots that used plot-lines with the possibility of heterosexual romance to entice consumers to buy a variety of products, including snack food, soft drinks, and cat litter.

Hayes landed a starring role in Tommy O'Haver's indie film Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998), in which he played a photographer who longs for romance with a male model whom he has hired to pose in still photos re-imaging classic cinematic love scenes with gay male couples. In black-and-white dream sequences, Billy imagines himself and Gabriel, the object of his desire, living out famous romantic interludes in movies, all of which—as it could not have been otherwise at the time—had originally involved heterosexual couples.

Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to enthusiastic reviews. It caught the attention of the gay press, but in interviews Hayes declined to comment on his own sexual orientation.

The film also piqued the interest of openly gay writer Max Mutchnick and his business partner David Kohan who were in the process of developing a sitcom entitled Will & Grace. The co-creators called Hayes at Sundance to ask him to come to Los Angeles to read for the role of the male lead, a gay character.

Hayes declined to do so. As he explained to Amy Longsdorf of the Bergen County, New Jersey Record, "I didn't have money to fly home to L.A. just for an audition because, at that point, I'd been to 10,000 auditions, and I figured, 'It doesn't matter if I miss another one.'"

Straight actor Eric McCormack was soon cast as Will, but the role of Jack, his flamboyant friend, was still open when Hayes returned to California. He won the part and joined a cast that also included Debra Messing as Grace, Will's straight best friend and roommate, and Megan Mullally as Grace's friend Karen.

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Sean Hayes (right) with Eric McCormack in an NBC publicity photograph for the final season of Will and Grace in 2006.
  
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