LGBT TV movies, series and specials are part of our cultural landscape. They are frequently awarded with Emmys, Golden Globes, Critics Choice and SAG Awards. But this acceptance was a long time coming. Here’s a look back at the landmark telefilms that paved the way.
Do you know the first TV movie that featured a gay character? No, it wasn’t 1972’s “That Certain Summer.”
It was a drama called “South” that was produced by England’s ITV and aired on that network on Nov. 24, 1959. Set in the Antebellum South, the drama revolved around a handsome Polish army lieutenant living in the South who is torn between his love for a plantation owner’s niece or a hunky blond officer. “South” was incredibly daring for its time, especially since it would be eight years before homosexuality was legalized in England and Wales with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967.
It would be a full 13 years before American broadcast television aired its first gay-themed TV movie. Airing Nov. 1, 1972 on ABC, “That Certain Summer” was a big hit with critics and audiences. I remember watching it my freshman year in college-I was 17 at the time, and then watched it the following June when it was repeated. I’m sure it has dated over the decades, but am confident that the haunting performances of Hal Holbrook, Martin Sheen, Scott Jacoby and Hope Lange are still as strong and memorable as they were 48 years ago.
Directed by Lamont Johnson and penned by Richard Levinson and William Link of “Columbo” fame, the drama revolves around a divorced man (Holbrook) living in San Francisco awaiting his teenage son’s (Jacoby) annual summer visit. His son spends the rest of the year with his mother (Lange) in Los Angeles. His son doesn’t know his father is gay and has been living with his life partner (Sheen) for several years. And he’s not willing to tell him, so his partner moves out before his son arrives. But soon, his son finds evidence of his father’s “secret” life.
The film was nominated for seven Emmys, winning a supporting actor Emmy for Jacoby. And Johnson won the Directors Guild of America honor.
Holbrook told me in a 2012 interview for the L.A. Times that he initially turned the film down. And not because of the subject matter. “I was married to my second wife, Carol Rossen, then and we were driving to our country house on Long Island. She said, ‘What did you do about that movie?’ I said, “It’s interesting subject, but nothing happens.’ She said, ‘What’s the story about?’ Holbrook told her. “Finally, I started to think, ‘This isn’t bad.’ I finished the story and she said, ‘Are you out of your mind Holbrook? When you get to the house you are going to pick up the phone and call the director.’”
You may not remember “Sidney Shorr: A Girl’s Best Friend,” a sweet comedy-drama that aired Oct. 5, 1981 on NBC. Tony Randall finds himself in another odd couple situation so to speak. He plays a wealthy gay New Yorker who befriends a pregnant struggling actress (Lorna Patterson) and invites her and her soon-to-be born daughter to live with him. Oliver Hailey was Emmy-nominated for his script and won the WGA.
Three weeks later, NBC premiered the series version “Love, Sidney,” which ran for two seasons. This time around, though, Randall’s sexuality was watered down. The Moral Majority got their knickers in a twist with the concept of the series depicting a gay lead character in such a positive light. So, his sexuality was implied. Sidney was now more of a confirmed old bachelor. Patterson wasn’t available for the series, so the great Swoosie Kurtz took over the role. Kurtz was nominated twice for the Emmy and the series earned an Emmy nomination for outstanding comedy series in 1982.
A month after Rock Hudson became the first high-profile person to die of AIDS, NBC premiered “An Early Frost” on Nov. 11, 1985. The drama was the first major movie TV that dealt with AIDS. Written by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman and directed by John Erman, “An Early Frost” stars Aidan Quinn as a young Chicago attorney who returns to his home to tell his family that not only is he gay but has AIDS. Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands and Sylvia Sidney also starred in the film that attracted 34 million people and strong reviews with the Washington Post’s Tom Shales declaring it “the most important TV movie of the year.”
“An Early Frost” received 14 Emmy nominations and won four including outstanding writing. It also won the Peabody; Sidney picked up a Golden Globe and Erman won the DGA honor. But because there was so prejudice and fear at the time regarding the diseases, advertisers were nervous, and sponsorship was difficult. NBC ended up losing some half a million on the film.
Critics were decidedly divided on ABC’s “Second Serve,” which aired May 13, 1986. Vanessa Redgrave starred as Renee Richards, the retired eye surgeon, tennis professional and transgender woman. The film was based on her 1983 autobiography, “Second Serve: The Renee Richards Story” she wrote with John Ames. John Leonard of New York magazine found it “calm and matter-of-fact and perhaps too tidy.” But he adored Redgrave stating that she manages to “transsex both ways. She embodies, with the fine bones of that face and the twitching of her various limbs, every internal contradiction of the polymorphously perverse. The film was nominated for three Emmys including one for Redgrave and won two for hairstyling and makeup.
Because he was Donald Trump’s lawyer for years, the controversial attorney Roy Cohn has been the subject of two recent documentaries. But neither was as good as HBO’s “Citizen Cohn,” which premiered Aug. 22, 1992 on the cable network. The acclaimed production was a scathing look at the pit bull of an attorney who died of AIDs while always denying he was gay and had he disease. Written by David Franzoni and directed by Frank Pierson, “Citizen Cohn” was galvanized by the no-holds-barred turn by James Wood as Cohn. The film earned 12 Emmy nominations winning three craft awards. “Citizen Cohn” also won the Peabody.
HBO earned even more acclaim with the premiere Sept. 11, 1993 of the epic “And the Band Played On,” based on Randy Shilts’ best-selling chronicle of the early years of the AIDs epidemic and how a small group of people fought prejudice, infighting and politics while battling the disease. When I saw “And the Band Plays On” at the academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house because the film ends with the names and photos of all the people who had died of the disease. It was heartbreaking
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode and adapted by Arnold Schulman, the film featured a who’s who of Hollywood including Anjelica Huston, Matthew Modine, Richard Gere, Alan Alda, Ian McKellen, Steve Martin, Phil Collins and Lily Tomlin. Nominated for 14 Emmys, “And the Band Played On” won three including for outstanding television movie. The production also won the Humanitas Award.
Doing the movie was an emotional experience for the actors. Huston confessed in a 1993 piece I did on the film for the Los Angeles Times that “it was on the morning of the death of a dear friend of mine that I went to work. I also had my hairdresser with me, who had been my hairdresser in films for eight years, who told me that day he had AIDS. It was the most heart-wrenching day. I just had the talk with my friend in the trailer because I went on to do this part. I didn’t think I could get through the day . It was tremendously hard.”
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