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Billy Bean's Secret

(This story was published in 2006).

The unspoken secret of the new game show "I've Got a Secret" is the cast, which includes former Major League Baseball player Billy Bean.

The show, which debuted April 17 at 11:30 p.m. Eastern on the Game Show Network (check your local cable or satellite listings) is an update on the TV classic that first aired in 1952. The premise is simple: A guest has a secret that the four panelists need to guess; the host and the audience are clued in to the secret.

Clockwise from left: Jermaine Taylor, Bil Dwyer, Frank DeCaro, Suzanne Westenhoefer and Billy Bean

The twist here is that all four panelists are gay or lesbian: Bean, who played pro baseball from 1987-95; Frank DeCaro (host of a Sirius radio show); comedienne Suzanne Westenhoefer and dancer and actor Jermaine Taylor. The host is Bil Dwyer, who is not gay.

The producers are not publicizing the orientation of the panel, but they are not hiding it either since there is no need. As Bean said, each panelist is being who they are and not playing a role. The show is unscripted and was filmed live before a studio audience; the only scenes reshot during a filming I attended were simply to get better inflections of the mystery guests saying "yes" or "no" to panelist questions.

"Why should we have to come forward if we're not promoting a lie?" Bean said. "How many gay people have had a chance to be completely themselves on TV? We've been guarded and monitored forever. I enjoyed just being myself."

The show, which will run five nights a week, works because of the guests and the funny byplay between the panelists. In a sense, Bean plays the straight guy here, smartly not attempting to outquip DeCaro, Taylor or Westenhoefer. DeCaro joked that Bean, 41 and still terrific-looking, wasn't "gay, he only likes sex with men."

When Bean auditioned for the role last year in Los Angeles, he said the producers were "looking for some kind of a jock-y guy on the conservative [in demeanor] end of the gay community." They found their man in the former Tiger, Dodger and Padre who played both first base and the outfield, yet is also erudite and thoughtful.

A low level of suggestive banter fuels the show. In the episode I watched, there were references to Amish beauty pageants, farm animals and comments on how hot looking two of the mystery guests were. DeCaro invited one guest, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner (he jumped off the world's tallest building), to sit next to him on the desk. Many of the guests also have unusual talents they display, be it baton twirling or breaking pencils with their butt cheeks. It's all done in good fun and with a wink and is the kind of stuff you want to watch at 11:30 at night.

The show also played to each panelists' strengths. For example, Bean was the only one who had a clue about sports. On one episode, Bean said all the panelists had to be blindfolded when the guest was Mike Eruzione, star of the 1980 U.S. gold medal-winning hockey team. The producers assumed correctly that Bean would recognize Eruzione on sight; the other three panelists had no clue who Eruzione was.

In contrast, panelist Taylor started crying on another episode when blindfolds were removed and he saw the guest was Martha Wash, who sang "It's Raining Men." Bean said he had no idea who she was, with or without his blindfold.

Bean said that some guests caught on to the panel's sexual orientation and played along, while others were somewhat clueless. Actor Lorenzo Lamas apparently has lousy gaydar, because Bean said he was flirting with Westenhoefer "big time."

The Game Show Network has shot 50 episodes of the series (10 weeks' worth) and whether or not it gets its run extended, Bean hopes that having four gay people just being themselves will make some difference in the cultural landscape.

"If we can be ourselves on TV five nights a week and not be programmed by writers … we are going to be doing a service. There's some good that can come out of the experience."