Finding out shortly before her father's death that he was a closeted gay man made Molly Shannon's heart break for him.
It also shed light on James Shannon's struggles with alcohol for much of his life, which contributed to a car crash when Shannon was 4 that killed her mother, younger sister and cousin.
The "Saturday Night Live" alumna writes about this surprising revelation in her new memoir, "Hello, Molly!" She recalled in an interview on “The Howard Stern Show" Tuesday how she found out her father was gay.
"I felt so much compassion," she said. "Kind of the pieces of the story all coming together. It’s tragic."
She had her first inkling about her father's sexuality in 2001, when he was visiting her in New York City as she ended her six-year run on "SNL." She said he met "a straight college boy" while drinking at a bar at Grand Central Terminal and then showed up drunk with the stranger to Shannon's apartment in the West Village.
Shannon was surprised because her father had been sober "for a few years," and she was so angry she made him stay in a hotel. She then called her manager, Steven Levy, a gay man who also lost a parent when he was young. He had formed a close connection with Shannon's father over the years.
"Steven, in that conversation when I complained about my dad, said, 'You’re being too hard on him Molly, you’re being too hard on him. You don’t understand, he’s given up so much for you girls, so much for you and Mary,'" she told Stern. "And he kept repeating, and I go, ‘What are you saying? Are you saying he’s gay?'
"And he was like, ‘I don’t want to tell you! He’s going to tell you.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I couldn’t believe it."
Shannon believes her mother may have also known about his sexuality before her death.
"I think he had tried to tell my mom before that," she said. "He said, 'I saw this psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist told me I’m a latent homosexual,' and she said, 'Oh, that psychiatrist never should’ve told you that.'"
Shannon also asked her father point-blank while they were at a hotel during downtime for her press junket for the 2001 romantic comedy "Serendipity." He was 72 at the time, and Shannon said he died about six months later.
"I just one day asked him by the pool, 'Have you ever thought you might be gay?'" she said. "And he just said, ‘Most definitely.'"
That revelation made his issues with alcohol more understandable to Shannon.
"So of course you’re going to drink," Shannon said. "Imagine if you couldn’t be who you were sexually. It’s horrible."
Shannon told NPR that she then asked him when he first knew he was gay.
"And he’s like, oh, Molly, I knew in grade school. I’d go on double dates, and I would look at the boy. And I liked this one boy who was from Poland, and I liked the way his hand held a cigarette. He looked so manly," Shannon said. "And I would look at the J.C. Penney catalogs and see the macho men in their undershirts."
He told his daughter that he had sexual encounters with men on sales trips and at truck stops.
"And I was happy for him," Shannon told NPR. "And it was such an honor that he came out to me. And I think it was a relief for him to be able to tell me."
Shannon believes he often dealt with the anguish of his closeted life by drinking heavily. She told Stern her father was driving under the influence when he got in a crash that killed her mother, younger sister and cousin while she survived.
Shannon said her father had been drinking at an all-day family party and had asked her mother to drive on the day of the crash.
"It's before Mothers Against Drunk Driving, friends don't let friends drive drunk — we have so much more awareness now," Shannon said to Stern. "This was 1969. Not that I'm trying to bail him out, I take this very seriously. I did not grow up blaming him."
He also suffered serious injuries in the accident.
"He really tried his hardest raising us, and he had to learn to walk again after the car accident with braces on his legs, so I admired him," Shannon said. "He tried really hard. ... He felt so guilty."