Fighting for Life


It is a town near hysteria. Since Rock Hudson’s confession, actresses have been shunning love scenes with gay co-stars. Two actors are starting private blood banks. In a world known for easy sexuality, even a social kiss is suspect. ‘This is the last stop, honey, right in your own home,’ says Cher, who has lost three friends to AIDS and wonders every day who will be next Cher is hardly alone in her concern. From sound stage to the party circuit, from the power lunch to the privacy of the bedroom, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome has become Topic A. Like the nation’s other major urban centers—New York, San Francisco, Chicago—Los Angeles has been hard hit by the affliction (1,092 cases and 568 deaths), and Rock Hudson has brought Hollywood into a particularly harsh and unwelcome spotlight. The show business community is being forced to scrutinize its practices as well as its performers. Faced with spiraling statistics, few medical facts and many myths, Hollywood has reacted with both unreasoning fear and admirable courage. The danger is that fear could get the upper hand. “There is a great deal of confusion and hysteria in Hollywood right now,” says Dack (Dallas) Rambo, “and there are a lot of rumors flying around. The only person who hasn’t been accused of having AIDS is Minnie Mouse.”

As the AIDS menace becomes increasingly palpable, a kiss is no longer just a kiss. “Everything has changed on the social scene,” observes Beverly Hills publisher David Gordon. “At a recent party, people were air-kissing. They were joking about it, but they weren’t kissing.” Says producer Tony Bill: “I have heard people saying incredible things, like they’re nervous about going to the bathroom. People are wondering about going into swimming pools.” Casual sex is becoming a thing of the past. “We in Hollywood really live life faster than in other communities,” says Rambo. “We all have reasons to be worried, unless you’ve been sequestered in a monastery for 20 years.”

Others worry that the AIDS scare could lead to punitive measures against homosexuals, who are most at risk to the disease, and contribute to the spread of homophobia in Hollywood. “Gays aren’t being invited to parties anymore,” insists one gay resident, and Cher, for one, objects. “There are many talented, creative gays in this business,” she says. “That’s the bottom line. There is simply no room for prejudice.”

How Hollywood reacts to the AIDS crisis may set an example for the rest of the nation; happily there are as many signs of compassion as of fear. This week the industry’s most conspicuous gesture of concern—a $500-a-ticket, sold-out benefit to be attended by 2,500 at the Bonaventure Hotel—will also provide its most dramatic demonstration of support for AIDS victims. Two and a half years ago, says Rambo, he could not snare a single colleague for an AIDS benefit. Spearheaded by Hudson’s beloved colleague Elizabeth Taylor, the September 19 gala includes among its 23 honorary co-chairpersons Diahann Carroll, Burt Lancaster, Shirley MacLaine, Bette Midler and Burt Reynolds. The event is expected to yield at least $1 million for the AIDS Project Los Angeles, which provides support services for AIDS victims. “It is the facts, not the myths, that hopefully will bring together the world to fight the AIDS nightmare,” says Taylor, who has worked hard to mobilize celebrity support. Taylor told one entertainer enlisted for the show, “If you are famous and you don’t help others through your fame, then you don’t deserve it.” Says gay activist Peter Scott, “I thought Rock Hudson would go to his grave without revealing he had AIDS. But his revelation has turned loose more energy and money in the entertainment industry for AIDS than anyone ever imagined.”

In the aftermath of Hudson’s announcement, AIDS is no longer an underground, underreported disease. “Now everybody knows someone who has AIDS,” says gay author Michael (The Happy Hustler) Kearns. But in Hollywood many already did. While a recent magazine poll showed that 96 percent of Americans personally knew no one suffering from AIDS, such diverse Hollywood figures as Phyllis Diller, Melba Moore and Mamie Van Doren acknowledge losing at least one friend to the disease. Ted Danson mentions four afflicted colleagues. Tony Perkins keeps the phone numbers of friends with AIDS on his bulletin board “so I won’t forget to call,” he says.

Of course, the citizens of Hudson’s home base don’t have a franchise on compassion and concern about AIDS. But gay men, who comprise about 75 percent of AIDS victims nationally, have long found in Hollywood more tolerance and opportunities than Main Street America has offered. Consequently, while Hollywood is united in its escalating concern over AIDS, it is divided over the professional and social consequences of the epidemic. In a town that remembers too well the McCarthy blacklisting of the early 1950s, the word witch-hunt is anathema. But in an industry that daily writes bedroom intimacy into a script, fear of AIDS is an occupational hazard. “Anyone who thinks they’re safe because they’re not gay is just hanging on to a fantasy,” says Suzanne Somers. Such fears, worries Ron Najman, media director of the National Gay Task Force, can lead to gross overreaction. “You can’t get AIDS from being in the clinch with a gay actor. It’s not a gay disease. The Hudson illness is going to give the unhinged and the bigots an excuse.”

The producer had been a close friend of Donna Mills for 18 years. When the Knots Landing co-star went to the hospital, she didn’t recognize him. “He was in a coma, and his weight had deteriorated beyond belief,” says Mills. “I knew my friend was seriously ill, but we all thought he’d survive. He died that afternoon. He was barely 40.” Mills didn’t learn until that day that AIDS felled her friend. “I loved him and I still miss him very much. But if I am being totally honest, I have to say to myself, ‘Would I have gone to that hospital if I had known he had AIDS?’ I wonder.”

You can measure the importance of a subject in Hollywood by the velocity of the rumors it provokes. Judging by that barometer, AIDS has turned a one-industry town into a one-theme town. “Where people once only talked about films, they’re now talking about people,” says movie publicity consultant Stuart Fink. Not all the talk has been healthy. Burt Reynolds has recently spent more time denying he has AIDS than he has making movies. “Anyone who looks even vaguely out of sorts is said by people to have AIDS,” says novelist Jackie Collins.

Given so few facts and so much misinformation, hysteria has sometimes colored professional conduct. After one star who was rumored to be sick appeared on The Tonight Show, makeup artists for the program reportedly burned the brushes that had been used on him. According to industry gossip, one prime-time actress has requested no kissing scenes with the gay actor who plays her husband. Says Morgan Fairchild, now on Falcon Crest, “There is a backlash now that is totally unfounded. I have actress friends who are saying I won’t do this or that part opposite that actor because he is gay and I don’t want to get AIDS. What are we going to do? Refuse to do love scenes and play only nuns? The simple fact is that acting is the only profession where kissing is a requirement—except, of course, for prostitution.”

On the TV shows that sell steamy sex, caution prevails, particularly among the blondes who have made a TV career of bed-hopping. “AIDS has spread so much that I don’t want to kiss anyone new on the show. Straight. Gay. Anybody,” says Donna Mills. “Let’s face it. I don’t know who he’s been with or who his girl or boyfriend has been with. I know Ted Shackelford [her co-star] is safe. I’ve been kissing him for four years, and so there isn’t much point in stopping now. I would definitely think twice before agreeing to become involved with a new character on the show.”

The daytime soaps, which frequent the bedroom more regularly than their nighttime counterparts, are particular centers of anxiety. Last week the producers of CBS’ The Young and the Restless brought a doctor on the set to dispel myths about AIDS and how it is spread. While appearing on ABC’s The Edge of Night, actress Sharon Gabet learned that one of her on-camera lovers had died of AIDS after leaving the show. Gabet, who was pregnant at the time, now refuses to discuss the issue.

This furor might not have reached such a fevered pitch if Dynasty hadn’t pivoted last season on whether or not Rock Hudson would ever kiss Linda Evans. Since Hudson has revealed that he knew for a year that he had AIDS, even such strong supporters as Joan Rivers and Cher have questioned his professional ethics. Says Cher, “I strongly believe that Rock Hudson should have been more responsible toward Linda Evans. I mean, here was an unsuspecting working actress doing her job. Why should she be put at risk?”

Although doctors have insisted that Evans is not at risk, producers who do not protect their performers could find themselves susceptible to a lawsuit. Even the Screen Actors Guild could not successfully fight mandatory blood tests, according to union president Ed Asner. “We might decry it publicly, but I don’t know if we could keep the clause out of a contract,” he says.

AIDS has also dramatically affected and afflicted the seamier fringes of the industry. Ironically, the makers of both straight and gay pornographic films report a boost in sales (“More people are cuddling up with their VCRs,” says one moviemaker) and a decline in willing performers. “A lot of hot men who would normally want to be in porn films are deciding to forgo stardom because they don’t want to be dead stars,” says Al Parker, the writer-producer-actor of more than 25 porn films, whose best friend was diagnosed as having AIDS three years ago. Even a veteran like Parker is turning his entrepreneurial instincts elsewhere. “I’m taking all the money I’ve made in this industry and getting into the footwear line,” he says. “If my shoes take off, I’ll be out of the porn biz tomorrow.”

Says porn producer Russ Mitchell, “We think AIDS or fear of AIDS may finally do something to us that the police have been trying to do for the last 15 years—put us out of business.”

In a town that rivals only Washington, D.C. for turning party-going into performance art, the AIDS epidemic has altered social etiquette even more than professional conduct. At parties these days finger food is considered by some the sign of a thoughtless hostess. On the town Joan Rivers now drinks her Perrier from a bottle instead of a glass. Shirlee Fonda wondered aloud recently if sweat on the mats at her exercise studio could put her at risk. Even some male hustlers are advertising their business in newspapers with a disclaimer: “No contact.” Says Tony Bill, “It reminds me of the polio hysteria of the 1950s.”

AIDS doctors consider such behavior as unnecessary as it is extreme. Unlike the polio virus, the host-to-host AIDS virus is extraordinarily fragile outside the body. “In the last few years mothers of gay men have been taking care of their sick sons, kissing and being kissed by them, and not a single one has come down with AIDS,” says Dr. Joel Weisman, a pioneer in AIDS diagnosis. Agrees psychologist Alan Pinka: “The facts have to be repeated over and over again. AIDS cannot be spread by casual contact.” According to Dr. Michael Roth, who treats AIDS patients in Santa Monica, “You definitely cannot get it from a casual screen kiss or from an exercise mat, a chlorinated pool, a party dip, a paper plate or from being in a hospital room with a bedridden AIDS patient. Worry of this nature serves no realistic purpose but to drive everyone crazy.”

Still, the changes at social gatherings suggest that message has not sunk in. “I prefer a distant handshake,” says Donna Mills, who doesn’t share food any more either. “If a passing joint gets to a gay, that’s where it dies,” says Newt Dieter of the Gay Media Task Force. Even the most effusive types are modifying behavior. “I still kiss most of my friends on the mouth,” says Cher. “But I don’t think it would be wrong to say to some of my friends, ‘Look, I love you but I am going to kiss you on the cheek because I want to protect myself.’ ”

At least two Hollywood performers have begun to take fairly excessive forms of self-protection. George Hamilton has started storing his own blood in case he needs a transfusion, which is known to be a source of AIDS infection. John Matuszak, the former football star who will play a gay entrepreneur on the new ABC series Hollywood Beat, is doing the same. “If I were in a car crash, getting AIDS from blood is the last thing I’d want to worry about,” he says. His girlfriend, Stephanie Cozart, is also planning to store her blood—just in case.

As throughout the country, the AIDS epidemic is also affecting behavior behind closed doors for both straight and gay society in Hollywood. “Many of my heterosexual friends are examining their lives and rethinking the way they have lived,” says producer Frank Yablans. Safe sex is now the highest concept in town. One gay nighttime soap star has forfeited physical contact for telephone sex. “Out here,” says a gay $1,000-a-week hustler, “our realities are other people’s fantasies. The requests I get now are different. People are much more into fantasy than they used to be. Talking and costumes. Dressing like a construction worker is big now.”

But the crisis has also provoked more subtle and more substantial changes in the social strata. One top Hollywood executive, who is gay, notes a new everyday concern and curiosity from his colleagues: “Straight friends and business acquaintances who never before discussed my sexuality are now asking me very direct questions like, ‘What kind of sex should I avoid?’ On a more emotional level, they want to know how I’m dealing with the terror. I’ve told them I have a good friend who is dying. I was just discussing cremation and memorial services with him. I tell them about him because I’ve made a conscious decision to let people know this isn’t just happening to strangers but to people I know and love. My experience has been there’s remarkable empathy over what’s happening.”

The man in the Los Angeles bar sits on empty beer cartons against a wall and tells a commonplace story. “I had seen this guy only once before in my life. But I was at his house visiting his roommate when he came in after he’d gotten his diagnosis. He went to the bathroom, closed the door, and you could hear him crying over the running water. I knocked on the door and went in. I put my arms around him, and we both cried. He kept saying that it’s not fair because he’s only 24. I lay on the bathroom floor for two hours holding this guy I’d only seen once before in my life and crying.”

As this week’s benefit demonstrates, Rock Hudson’s diagnosis has put the town in an uncharacteristic position: Instead of peddling fantasies, Hollywood is now trying to sell a nightmarish reality to its patrons. And while the industry currently harbors the most famous AIDS victim, that distinction will pass too. Inevitably another profession in the public eye will claim its first famous victim. Many in Hollywood expect the town’s high-profile counterpart on the East Coast—Washington, D.C.—to produce the next headline-maker.

Like members of the medical profession and high-risk groups before them, celebrities are now speaking out about the slow pace of government spending for AIDS research and education. “I just don’t understand why the government didn’t take a stronger stand early on,” says Cher. Adds Ed Asner, “Government leadership was not what it could have been when AIDS was primarily a disease that occurred among homosexuals.”

In the short term Hollywood is embracing AIDS as a dramatic subject as well as a cause. Although no movie studio has yet risked turning the Broadway hit As Is into a film, the AIDS-related drama is being produced for cable’s Showtime later this year. In the fall NBC will air a TV movie starring Aidan (Desperately Seeking Susan) Quinn as an attorney with AIDS. Even such a middlebrow series as Trapper John, M.D. will examine the subject this season.

The long-term reverberations of AIDS in Hollywood are far more elusive. Talk of a blacklist hasn’t evaporated, but such a list hasn’t materialized either. Gay activist Peter Scott maintains, “Discrimination against people with AIDS is like discrimination against blacks in the ’30s and ’40s. It was so normal…that no one even noticed they were being discriminatory or bigoted.”

In the dream factory the AIDS crisis has yielded a new dream—and possibly a new understanding. “I have this fantasy,” says Michael Kearns. “Tomorrow they discover a cure for AIDS, and Hudson recovers. I wonder, would he be ostracized from the business? Would he be relegated to playing screaming queens? Or would he simply be allowed to continue his career as an openly gay actor? Would he simply be respected?”

—Written by Scot Haller, reported by James Grant, Johnny Greene, Frank Sanello and the Los Angeles Bureau

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