LOS ANGELES — When the A&E network suspended “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson for disparaging gay people, it may have followed a time-honored TV tradition of quickly silencing a star who, for better or worse, speaks his mind. But in doing so it also ruffled the feathers of possibly millions of fans of its most popular show.
Fourteen hours after it was learned that Robertson had been placed on indefinite “hiatus” for telling GQ magazine, among other things, that gays are headed to hell, more than a half-million people liked an impromptu Facebook page demanding the show be boycotted until he returns.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who had her picture taken with Robertson just last month, complained that his free-speech rights were being trampled. Bobby Jindal, governor of the state of Louisiana, where the show is filmed, complained that Miley Cyrus got a pass for twerking on TV while Phil got shown the door.
T-shirts, of course, went on the market with the words “I Don’t Give a Duck About A or E, Bring Back Phil.”
“It’s a show that is promoting clean living and good moral values, and that’s something we need more of today,” one of the program’s many fans, Rick Peter of Vernon, British Columbia, Canada, told The Associated Press.
It’s also a show that 67-year-old Robertson, who sports a beard that seemingly should qualify him for immediate membership in the rock group ZZ Top, is at the center of.
When or if he’ll return — or if he’ll ever really go away, however — is an open question.
“Duck Dynasty” is on hiatus until Jan. 15, and a network spokesman said Thursday that nine of next season’s 10 episodes have already been filmed. That means Robertson likely isn’t needed in front of the camera before next March, by which time this whole crisis may have blown over.
And blow over it will, eventually, says veteran Hollywood crisis publicist Howard Bragman, who added that Robertson will likely return to the show as well, perhaps after making a heartfelt apology.
“There’s too much money at stake,” said Bragman, vice president of reputation.com. “Although he plays kind of a hick on TV, I don’t think he’s dumb. I think he gets what’s at stake here. And I hope people on his team, the network and his producers get the message that what he did was wrong. “
The Robertson family released a statement on the Duck Commander website Thursday evening in which they expressed thanks for prayers and support. The statement said though some of Robertson’s comments were coarse, “his beliefs are grounded” in the Bible and he “is a Godly man.”
“We are disappointed that Phil has been placed on hiatus for expressing his faith,” the statement said. “We have had a successful working relationship with A&E but as a family, we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm. We are in discussions with A&E to see what that means for the future of Duck Dynasty.”
Robertson and his extended family became wealthy manufacturing duck calls and were turned into TV and pop culture stars by “Duck Dynasty,” which has set cable ratings records for a non-fiction series.
“Duck Dynasty” is often the highest-rated cable show on television, and an episode last August that drew nearly 12 million viewers was the highest-rated of any show, cable or broadcast, that week.
Asked his definition of sinful behavior by GQ, Robertson replied, “Start with homosexual behavior and just go from there.”
Then he continued, “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
Although his suspension won quick praise from gay rights groups, it offended people like Peter, who says conservative views like his are often overlooked by Hollywood and the news media.
“I think we’re getting a little bit tired of that pro-gay sentiment that’s out there in the media and it’s time to fight back,” he said.
Randy Schmidt of Illinois agreed, saying that while gay people can be happy that some states have granted them the right to marry, “I find it unnecessary to flaunt it all over the media.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what conservative fans may think, said another veteran crisis publicist, Michael Levine. A&E had no choice but to suspend Robertson, he said. If the network didn’t, it would have had to deal with complaints from gay rights groups that would have made advertisers skittish and damaged the “Duck Dynasty” brand.
“The advertisers, the brand, people would stop buying ‘Duck Dynasty’ merchandise,” he said. “At a certain point the brand just becomes radioactive.”
This isn’t the first time, of course, that someone has been taken off a popular show for remarks or behavior away from the cameras.
Isiah Washington was fired from “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2007 for referring to one of his show’s gay actors with a pejorative.
More recently, Charlie Sheen’s erratic behavior got him tossed from “Two And a Half Men,” even though the show was a hit and he was the star.
But the interesting thing about this controversy, said Bragman, who himself is gay, is that it seems to be occurring during a time when American culture is undergoing a profound shift in its feelings toward gay rights.
“The tide has turned in that there’s an inevitability to gay marriage and gay rights in this country,” he said, noting that New Mexico’s highest court coincidentally upheld same-sex marriage rights on Thursday, the day after A&E’s announcement.
“This is taking place during an interesting cultural touchstone moment,” he added.