By Joanne Kaufman
Updated February 01, 1988 12:00 PM

The moment someone on a soap opera coughs, faints or comments about a recent spate of blinding headaches, the audience knows that it’s just a matter of time before the character succumbs to a Mysterious Fatal Disease unknown to the editors of Merck’s Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. Last month, however, something far more consequential happened on NBC’s Another World. Singer Dawn Rollo, played by Barbara Bush, was diagnosed as having an all-too-familiar, all-too-real disease—AIDS. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome has been dealt with on prime-time shows and TV movies, but Bush’s role marks the first time that daytime soaps—usually in the vanguard when it comes to social problems—have tackled the supersensitive issue.

“Everybody said it was too depressing,” says one of Another World’s head writers, Thorn Racina, who wanted to do an AIDS story line two years ago when he was writing for Days of Our Lives. “People didn’t know enough about it. Now the time is right.” Racina, who has drawn much of Bush’s character and plot from a close woman friend of his who has AIDS, believes “just about everybody’s life in America is affected by it—or will be. AIDS is timely and it provides a dramatic story.”

This hasn’t been lost on rival soaps. An AIDS story line was introduced in September on ABC’s All My Children, and CBS’ The Young and the Restless will soon follow suit. Are we seeing the trivialization of a tragedy? Dr. Mathilde Krim, co-head of the New York branch of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, doesn’t think so. “I’m not worried that these stories are on soap operas,” says Krim. “It’s hard to convince people that there’s a new disease around. These programs help viewers understand that AIDS is part of the present reality.”

Playing the first female AIDS patient on daytime TV, Bush agrees. “My character is a virgin,” says the 24-year-old actress. “I hope it’s going to erase the myth that it’s only a gay disease or that only people who do drugs get it.” Barbara says her first reaction if she were to learn that she had AIDS would be “shock, fear, then acceptance. I’m going to play all those stages on the show. I want people to see the torments AIDS patients go through.”

Bush’s character, introduced on the show in August, first came down with a persistent cold, then checked into the hospital for what everyone, including boyfriend Scott LaSalle (Hank Cheyne), thought was pneumonia. But she was told she’d contracted AIDS through her mother, a prostitute and intravenous drug user from whom she’d received a blood transfusion five years earlier. Yes, this is a somewhat sugar-coated version, but enough biting realism remains. The character will die sometime in the next few months.

“The role is a challenge and a big responsibility,” says Bush. “The best part of it is that the show isn’t going to focus that much on someone dying of AIDS, but focus more on the quality of life after the diagnosis. My character is very resilient, and that’s what the public is going to see.”

Born in Capreol, Ont., more than 200 miles north of Toronto, Bush displays the same optimism under adversity. Her family was divided in 1966, when her parents separated. Her older brother, Robert, went to live with their father. Barbara, then 3, stayed with her mother, a real estate operator. They were constantly moving. “I was always the new kid in school,” says Barbara. She also had to adjust to her mother’s three marriages. Bush, who concedes that her mother lacked judgment in the matter of husbands, says, “I probably went through more than your average child. I went through stages of jealousy. I was hungry for the love of a real father. But my mother had love in abundance, and I learned a lot from being in different families. I grew up fast and learned to be my own judge.”

Bush was 16 before she saw her father and brother again. She calls the reunion, which took place near the home of her paternal grandparents, “emotionally scarring—so much pent-up feeling had to come out.” While she’s now close with Robert, her relations with her father—Howard Bush, employed at a fiberglass company—have been more restrained. “I think we both wished we knew each other better,” says Barbara. “Once, he told me he loved me and was sorry about anything he might have caused. But I have no bad feelings. He’s my dad.”

An intense, impassionate personality, even when she was young, Bush began putting on variety shows at age 5, charging the neighbors 15 cents to attend. When she was 16, the producers of a Canadian docudrama called Teen Mother chose her to play the lead. Hooked on acting, Bush moved on her own to Toronto the following year. “Anyone but Barbara would’ve been too young, but she was ready,” says her mother, Jean Chretien, who’s been happily married for seven years to her fourth husband. “You could drop her in the middle of China and she’d get a job.”

Bush made several appearances in a Canadian TV series, The Edison Twins, then played Carol Burnett’s bratty daughter in the 1983 HBO film Between Friends. Moving to New York in 1985, Barbara found an apartment and worked as a waitress and commercial actress. An aspiring singer as well, she joined forces with producer friend Roger Greenawalt and cut a demo that helped her land the part in Another World.

Bush, 5’8″ and normally 131 lbs., has lost 11 lbs. so far from the trauma of taping her AIDS scenes. “They take a lot out of me,” she says. “In rehearsal I’m talking about death all the time.” But she’s also gained a few things since taking the role—a compassion for AIDS patients and an awareness of safe sex. “Not that I was promiscuous to begin with,” adds Barbara, who is seeing someone special, though she refuses to talk about him. She’s also developed a heightened sense of responsibility. “I want people to really miss my character when she goes,” says Bush. “If I can move people and educate them about this disease at the same time, then I’ve done my job…I really wanted to do this right—it’s important to me.”

—Written by Joanne Kaufman, reported by Toby Kahn