But my favorite role encapsulating his journey as an actor was The Birdcage (1996), also starring Robin Williams, who died by suicide at age 63 in 2014.
In a new episode of Sunday Sitdown with Willie Geist, Nathan recalled how, during the press tour for The Birdcage, Robin, who he described as "a beautiful person" and "just a sensitive soul," protected him at a time when he wasn't ready to come out as gay publicly.
"I just wanted to talk about [how] I finally got a big part in a movie, and I didn't want to make it about my sexuality," Nathan said. "Although it was sort of unavoidable because of the nature of the film and the character."
Unfortunately, Oprah's line of questioning about typecasting began to lead Nathan toward prematurely discussing his sexuality. A video of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996 shows how Robin perfectly interjects to protect Nathan's privacy.
When Oprah asks if Nathan is "afraid of taking that role and being, like, typecast and people forever saying, 'Are you? Are you not?'" Robin jumps in with a hilarious impersonation of Oprah, giving him time to collect his thoughts.
Nathan added, "I don't think Oprah was trying to out me, but I said to Robin beforehand: 'I'm not prepared. I'm so scared of going out there and talking to Oprah. I'm not prepared to discuss that I'm gay on national television, I'm not ready,'" Nathan said.
Nathan explained how Robin "sort of swoops in and diverts Oprah and goes off on a tangent and protects [him] because he was a saint."
"I just wasn't ready to do that, to make this whole thing… the public side of it, the celebrity side," Nathan reflected. "'Oh, now you're a public figure, and you have to make some sort of public statement about it.' I was terrified. I wasn't ready to do that."
As for today, Nathan acknowledges our progress since he came out years ago. "It's great that everyone now feels comfortable, but homophobia is alive and well, and there are plenty of gay people who are still hiding."
I will never forget the day Nathan Lane, one of my favorite actors from Mouse Hunt and The Birdcage, publicly came out, not too long after the murder of gay American student Matthew Shepard in 1998.
Nathan continues to have an illustrious acting career. He recently starred in the 2023 Broadway show Pictures from Home and Ari Aster's upcoming A24 surrealist comedy horror Beau Is Afraid.
Watch a short version of Sunday Sitdown with Willie Geisthere, or listen to the full podcast here.