OH BROTHER!  By Dennis Hensley

There's a burger stand in the heart of West Hollywood called Hamburger Habit where gay clubbers go to grab a bite, sober up, or perhaps cry into their chili fries because they just saw their ex at the Abbey across the street with another guy.   It was there, in this epicenter of gay drama, that Matthew Rhys was brutally straight-bashed, sort of .   "This huge, muscle-y guy came up to me and went 'Gay Power!' and sort of punched me," recalls the Welsh-born actor, who plays single-and-looking gay lawyer Kevin Walker on ABC's second-year family drama Brothers and Sisters .   "Then he went 'You're gay, right'?   I went, 'No, I am not.'   He went, 'You're not ?   Oh, I feel betrayed.'   I was like, 'Sorry'."

It's not always easy sharing a face with what is arguably the most full-blooded, romantic and sexually active gay character in network TV history.   But then Rhys seems pretty unflappable.   This, after all, is an actor who suffered through eight fruitless pilot seasons in L.A. and was ready to blow off Hollywood for good just before Brothers and Sisters came along.   It takes more than a run-in at a burger joint to kill the professional buzz he gets playing one of his favorite characters to date.   "I love Kevin because in his professional life you get to play the man in charge, in control, very successful, powerful, assertive," says the 32-year old Londoner.   "And on the flipside, in his personal life, he's a bit of a puppy."   And unlike some gay portrayals that perhaps too agreeable and happy to be there to seem real, Kevin Walker can be, well, a bit of a dick sometimes, no?   Rhys lets out a laugh.   "I love his flaws," says the Royal Academy drama school grad whose past projects include the films Titus , Fakers and Very Annie Mary as well as the London stage production of The Graduate opposite Kathleen Turner.   "Kevin learns from his mistakes.   Under the dry sense of humor and the caustic repartee, he just wants to meet that one partner and he hopes that'll complete everything.   I find that quite touching about him."

It's lunchtime on the Burbank set of Brothers and Sisters and Rhys enjoying some sea bass and salad at a restaurant near the set.   His skin is a bit sun-kissed, thanks to a weekend trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico for the wedding of his old friend and former flatmate Ioan Gruffudd (Reed, the stretchy guy, from the Fantastic Four movies).   Was it a wild time?   "It was beautiful," says Rhys, "but the bachelor party in Vegas two weeks ago, that was pretty wild.   We dressed Ioan up as Buzz Lightyear and made him walk down the Strip.   I still feel emotional from it."

Rhys's clothes--aqua polo shirt, Paper Denim jeans and brown half boots from Barney's--aren't actually his, they're Kevin's, but they look good on him nonetheless.   Kevin is nothing if not tasteful.   "When it comes to Kevin's costumes, they didn't want them to sort of shout 'Gay!' " explains Rhys.   So we won't be seeing Kevin in anything from the International Male catalog?   "What's that?" Rhys asks blankly.   See, folks, he really is straight.

It's Monday, September 17, the day after Sally Field picked up the Best Actress Emmy--and got bleeped!--for her role as the Walker family matriarch, Nora and spirits on the set are high.   "Everyone's telling her to bring the Emmy in and put it in the kitchen," says Rhys, "but she's far too modest."   Field and Rhys share a special bond in that they were brought in after the original pilot was shot to replace other actors.   They have formed something of a mutual admiration society.   "Everyone just falls in love with Matthew," says Field.   "He's so funny and genuine and very, very talented."  

When it's pointed out that Field's manner and body language seemed very maternal to Rhys at a panel this summer at the L.A. gay film festival Outfest, she says, "I feel nauseatingly maternal to all of these young people.   I really feel like I'd kill anybody who'd hurt him, you know, that kind of thing."   It's similar to the intensity with which Nora relates to Kevin.   "She's very protective of him having a harder road to hoe in life because of his sexuality," says Field, "but what she's really worried about is him getting in a productive, loving relationship because he can't seem to find anybody that's of value to stay with."

Though Rhys admits to being nervous coming in as the new kid, his co-workers say he had nothing to worry about

It's not for lack of trying.   Season One saw Kevin locking lips with a trio of dashing and eligible frogs on his search for Prince Charming.   First, there was Scotty (Luke MacFarlane) an adorable and self-assured cater-waiter who called Kevin on his need to "pass" as straight and his aversion to public displays of same-sex affection.   Then came Chad ( Sex and the City's Jason Lewis) a hunky, but closeted soap actor who decided to come out publicly, but then did a last minute flip-flop, opting to protect his career rather than be with Kevin.   "I think a lot of gay men fantasize about how cool it would be to date an actor," says out executive producer Greg Berlanti ( Everwood, Dawson's Creek ) who was brought in after the launch to help the show's creator, acclaimed playwright John Robin Baitz, shape his vision for small the screen.   "We wanted to show both sides of it, the wish-fulfillment and also the underbelly."

The wish-fulfillment part was memorably served up in a scene where Kevin and Chad kiss for the first time, while parked in a convertible off Mulholland Drive.   It's a moment Rhys remembers with some embarrassment.   "It was Jason's first time in the show kissing a boy," recalls the actor.   "So I thought, you know, it's just good to just make light of any situation so right before the first kiss, I said to him, 'I'm going to tell you what you had for lunch'."   Rhys cringes at the memory and takes a stab of salad.   "He just sort of stared at me," he continues, "and a plethora of emotion crossed his face, from fear to confusion to amusement.   Finally he's like, 'Please tell me you're joking'."   So what did Lewis have for lunch, a little Kim Cattrall perhaps?   "I wish I some wicked answer to that," says Rhys laughing, "but he just had a mint.   He was a consummate professional."

Kevin ended last season making out in the family pantry with Jason ( Days of Our Lives' Eric Winter), the brother of his conservative pundit sister Kitty's (Calista Flockhart) senator fiancé (Rob Lowe).   After pulling himself together and exiting the pantry, he discovers that Jason's not just a really good kisser; he's also a Methodist minister.   They don't call it a nighttime soap for nothing.  

"It's so refreshing to me to see a gay character in prime time who's issues are about romance but he's not tortured or dying of a disease," out writer Mark Perry, who has taken over as show-runner this season while Berlanti focuses on his new show, Dirty Sexy Money .   "Kevin's an equal member of the family but he gets more action on the show than anybody."

Yes, he does but what truly feels fresh about Brothers and Sisters is that Kevin doesn't just get the kissing scenes, he gets the flirty banter scene before the kissing, like--

Scotty: How did you get so cute?

Kevin: I was born this way. What's your excuse?

--and the what-the-hell-just-happened scene afterwards.   Is this what full inclusion feels like?   "You get all the scenes with Kevin," says Berlanti proudly.   "He's like every other single, romantic character I've ever been a part of working on on any show.   Kevin's revolutionary in just how regular he is."

So last year while we were getting use to a world without Will and Grace , Queer as Folk and Six Feet Under , and the number of scripted gay characters was at a 10-year low, ABC went out and gave us something we've said we always wanted--a gay series regular on a network show whose romantic and sexual life is given the same treatment as everyone else's.   Holy GLAAD Award, Batman!   How the hell did that happen?   "It takes a perfect storm," says Berlanti.   "It all really starts with Matthew's wanting to play the part as truthfully and honestly as possible.   Then you need a network that's willing to support it."   Berlanti, who oversaw the first romantic gay kiss on a network drama with Dawson's Creek in 2001, credits cable series with breaking down the walls.   "When you live in a post Six Feet Under world," he reasons, "it's kind of hard to go back to drawing gay characters like they're stereotypes again."

Given that ABC is also the network behind other GLBT-friendly shows like Ugly Betty , Desperate Housewives and the new, Dirty Sexy Money , not to mention the proud employer of out Emmy nominees T.R. Knight and Neil Patrick Harris, one has to wonder if this sea change is an ABC thing or an industry-wide thing.   "To me, as a TV viewer, there's a difference between ABC and other networks," says Berlanti, "but I do think that the attitude is changing everywhere."

And unlike its precursor thirtysomething , which in 1991 suffered a costly sponsor boycott just for showing two men lying in bed together, Brothers and Sisters has ruffled nary a feather, apart from a few posts on the show's website that are usually shot down by other posters.   "I've had a lot of people come up to me and say that Kevin storyline is so real," reports Field.   "It's contemporary, like 'Come into the world, folks!' and I think people respond to that."  

"I think the world has come so far; it's not about acceptance any more, it's about existence," asserts Stephen McPherson, President of ABC Entertainment.   " We are a broadcast network looking to portray relationships in an honest and compelling way. ( Brothers and Sisters ) is a great example of just how far story and character have come."

Perry can certainly vouch for that.   He remembers the days when showing a character like Kevin was out of the question.   "I did pilot for ABC about 10 years ago called Twist ," recalls the writer, a veteran of shows like Party of Five and One Tree Hill .   "One of the characters was a closeted gay athlete.   He had always been a closeted gay athlete from the moment it was pitched and after we had shot the pilot, we got a phone call (from the network) saying that the chemistry between the athlete and one of the female stars was so good that they absolutely refused to allow me to have the character be gay.   One of my big regrets is that I actually did cave.   So Brothers and Sisters is very liberating because I can write honestly without changing the gender."

What's more, it's looking like the show's gay writers will have two characters to channel through, not just one.   In last season's finale, it was revealed that Kevin's middle-aged and presumed straight uncle Saul ( Alias's Ron Rifkin) had been sexually involved years ago with an old friend, the appropriately named Milo Peterman ( Flashdance 's Michael Nouri) who has just divorced his wife and come out as gay.   "I was married (to a woman) for 14 years," reveals Perry, "so I'm drawing from that experience when we do stories concerning Uncle Saul and what he's struggling with."

Will Season 3 also see Kevin picking up where he left off with Jason the hunky minister?   "Kevin is going to be challenged in the area of romantic commitment," says Perry cryptically.   Rhys is more forthcoming when asked about Kevin's future with Jason.   "It's tricky because when Eric came on our show he already had another show ( Viva Laughlin ).   So Kevin has to deal with the challenges that come with a long distance relationship."  

He could always turn to Scotty for comfort.   We love Scotty.   " Everyone loves Scotty," says Rhys.   "Everyone's like, 'When's Scotty coming back?'   So Scotty's back this season and he and Kevin are friends.   Everyone's always saying, 'Kevin doesn't have any gay friends,' so I have friends."

When asked who's on his wish list to play Kevin's next boyfriend, Rhys says, "The actors I grew up with and idolized were like DeNiro and Pacino but I don't know that I'd like them as Kevin's love interest.   I think that would maybe be a little freaky, you know, messing up Pacino's hair."   Of course, Rhys could probably teach Pacino a thing or two having played a gay or bisexual character five times so far in his career. "It seems to be a greater issue here than (in England)," he says, when asked if he worried about being typecast.   When I did the initial press push for Brothers and Sisters , people would ask me, 'Was it a problem for you to play gay?" and I had never encountered that question at home.   I've never been advised not to from management or anything like that.   I get ribbed sometimes by friends but it's all pretty light-hearted, never anything malicious."

Has he thought about what it is about him, apart from his good looks, his quick wit, and his bottomless talent, that makes him right for these roles, a certain sensitivity perhaps?   "I don't know," he says with a shrug.   "By definition, I think most actors are sensitive.   Maybe it's because I don't regard it as an issue.   I just regard it as any other role I'd play and I would imagine that it would help me get more work."

When asked what his first exposure to a gay person was, Rhys recalls getting a letter, when he was about 19, from his best childhood friend saying, 'I need to talk to you.'   "So we met in this rough, nasty pub in London," recalls Rhys, "and then he told me, 'I'm gay.'   I went, 'Oh yeah, okay.'   And then he's like almost offended that there wasn't shouting or an argument.   'You don't seem shocked?'   And I said, 'I'm not.'   He kept going on about it so I said 'What do you want, a medal'?"   Rhys laughs at the memory, then adds, "We're still best friends.   I tease him and say that I based Kevin entirely on him."

Like his small-screen alter ego Kevin, Rhys is single in Los Angeles, after a break-up just a few months ago.   Surely, with his looks, a hit TV show and that accent, he must have no trouble getting dates.   "The accent thing is a myth," he insists.   "Girls will go, 'Where are you from?'   And I go, 'I'm from Wales.'   And they go, 'Oh,' and then they move on."   Rhys tosses his napkin on his plate then continues, "The world of dating is definitely different here.   I'm like a kid in the candy store because every prom queen moves here yet I'm not quite sure what the rules are, like how long do have you date before you stop dating other people?   And all your friends want to set you up."   Has playing gay ever affected his past relationships?   "No, it's great," he insists.   "When you're in a relationship with a girl, you go to set and you go, 'I'm going to make out with Jason Lewis.'   And they go, 'Oh, you lucky thing,' and they feel totally secure about it.   But if you go to set and you have to make out with a hot blonde girl, then you have the argument."

If there's a behind-the-scenes love story to ferret out at Brothers and Sisters , it's got to be the three-way platonic man crush that's formed between Rhys and his on-screen brothers, Balthazar Getty and Dave Annable.   "They've all adopted each other," says Sally Field.   "It's completely weird.   They go on vacations together, they go out together then come back and say, 'Oh we had great time last night.'   And just like the mother, I'm like, 'What about me ?'"

"We like to mess with each other," says Rhys.   "I was out with Dave Annabelle and twice in one night, girls come up and ask, 'Is he gay?' about me.   And Dave goes, 'Yeah.'   So I started a revenge plot.   When girls come up to me and say, 'Does Dave Annabelle have a girlfriend?' I go, 'No, because I guess he'd be interested in the other kind, which is ironic because I'm the one who plays the gay brother'."

Rhys plays gay again in upcoming film Love and Other Disasters a Breakfast at Tiffany's homage that stars Brittany Murphy.   This time, he does one of his gayest things ever; delivers a Whitney-Houston-on-crack joke.   "They thought about taking it out because she was having all those problems," he says, "but we kept it in."  

His ballsiest film role to date, though, would have to be the project he shot this summer, playing poet Dylan Thomas opposite Keira Knightly in a biopic tentatively titled The Edge of Love .   "He's such a Welsh hero," says Rhys who will also soon be seen wooing Mischa Barton in the Italian-set indie Virgin Territory .   "Everyone in Wales is like, 'Oh my God, you're going to be the person to play Dylan Thomas?'   I was like, 'Stop saying that!'"

Just then, a headsetted P.A. shows up at the table and tells Rhys he's needed back on set in ten minutes, just enough time for a lightning round of final questions.   Does he feel pressure to be buff for the show?   "I did when I had to take my shirt off with Jason Lewis."   How much does he actually eat during the show's massive family dinner scenes?   "I'm always hungry so I'll go for it.   I did a morning of chocolate muffins once, which was stupid because by midday you want to kill someone."   When did he fall in love with acting?   "When I was like 17 and played Elvis in the school musical Elvis.   That was seminal in that I thought there's something in this."   What does he miss the most about the UK?   "The humor.   I love American humor but it's different.   Sometimes I crack a joke and no one gets it."   What's the gayest thing about him?   "I have developed a newfound love for beauty products since being on the show.   I don't know if that's gay or metro-sexual."   Does he see a difference, as an actor, between kissing a guy and kissing a girl?  

This one Rhys takes a moment to think through.     "I remember the first time I kissed a guy onstage in rehearsals for a play feeling like near - electric shock," he recalls.   "I was like 'What's that?'   It was because had a beard.   Also when you kiss a girl you slightly take control, you know, you assert a role."   Rhys pantomimes putting his arms around someone, and says, "With two guys you're like..." Jockeying for control?   "Yeah, yeah," he says, dusting the crumbs from his work clothes.   "Some people say kissing's more intimate than sex, and I sort of agree.   It's like the ultimate, intimate thing."