Dack Rambo's Brave New World
OF ALL THE HIGH-PROFILE ROLES Dack Rambo has played—lecherous cosmetics mogul (Paper Dolls), long-lost family relation (Dallas) and, most recently, amiable politician (NBC’s Another World)—the unlikeliest has to be this: aging TV hunk with a life-threatening illness. Simply put, the man doesn’t look the part. At 50, he is a tanned, trim six-footer, with a boyish smile and a shock of white hair that he has had since he was 30 but that he stopped dyeing brown only two years ago. He is the picture of health…so far. Last August fate dealt Rambo a cruel blow. That’s when he learned he was HIV positive, infected with the virus that causes AIDS.
The disease is the consequence, admits the openly bisexual Rambo, of hundreds of sexual encounters with men and women going back to his 20s. “I would advise people not to do what I did,” he says now. “But I don’t apologize for any of it. I had a great time.”
As startling as his lack of regret, perhaps, is his candor in speaking out, which he began doing well before Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe announced their HIV infections. “He’s the first well-known actor I’m aware of who hasn’t tried to keep [his HIV] a secret,” says pal Morgan Fairchild (his costar on 1984’s Paper Dolls). “I think others will wait and see how he is treated. That’s why I thought it was very brave of him, because he’s really a groundbreaker.”
Going public was the last thing on Dack Rambo’s mind last Aug. 30, the morning he found out he was carrying the AIDS virus. He was in his dressing room in the New York City studio of Another World, preparing to tape his scenes as Congressman Grant Harrison, one of the soap’s most popular characters. Rambo was feeling good about himself. Just three months earlier he had successfully completed a 30-day treatment program at the Betty Ford Center for a longtime addiction to Ativan, a prescription pill for anxiety. While in group therapy at the center, Rambo also realized he was an alcoholic and for the first time was able to discuss openly what he calls his “sexual addiction.” His life, it seemed, had turned around. Then came the phone call that shattered it. On the line from Los Angeles was his manager, Jason Winters, who relayed the grim results of the AIDS blood test Rambo had taken a week earlier.
“I put down the phone and I was numb,” he says. “I remember staring at it and thinking, ‘Is this the beginning of the end?’ ” Minutes later, fighting back tears, Rambo flawlessly taped his scenes as Grant, then gathered his belongings and walked off the show, telling the producers only that he was suffering from a serious illness.
He then flew home to California and broke the news to his sister, Beverly, 48. “At first I was totally devastated,” she says. “We lost one brother [Dack’s twin, Dirk, who died at 25 when his car was struck by a drunk driver], and I didn’t think I could live with losing another.” Dack’s mother, Beatrice, 82, took it worse, he says. “She said, ‘I don’t want you to go before me.’ ” (Dack’s father, Lester, a cotton farmer, died in 1987. An older brother, Bill, 57, a chemical-manufacturing employee, lives in Sacramento.) Retreating to his Earlimart ranch in central California, not far from where he grew up, Rambo spent the next three weeks in bed, he says, “wallowing in self-pity.” A week later, concerned the tabloids would break the story first, Rambo issued a press release announcing his HIV.
Publicly, he was a model of grace in adversity, making the talk show rounds and giving newspaper interviews; privately, he admits, he was afraid “that people would throw tomatoes at my windows.” (In fact letters of support have poured in from around the world.) Rambo said he was giving up acting—from which he has earned enough over the years to be financially secure—so he could devote his full time to speaking out for AIDS education and research. Later this summer he will participate in an international AIDS telethon airing from New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. “I never really liked being an actor,” he claims now. But he admits the main reason he left Another World was concern that his costars would be “uncomfortable” working with him.
AW’s producers, who cast another actor, Mark Pinter, in his role, insist that Rambo could have gone on working as long as he was able. Still, Rambo remembers the discomfort he felt back in 1985 when he began a two-year stint on Dallas as J.R. Ewing’s cousin Jack. Although he says he had been “discreet” about his sexual preferences, he thinks the cast found out anyway and that Larry Hagman in particular ostracized him. Though Dallas insiders say it was “common knowledge” Rambo was gay, they deny he was ever shunned by Hagman (who declined to comment). “People say Larry is a nonhomophobic person, and that he may be,” says Rambo. “But he’s not my kind of person, and I wasn’t his, and that was that.”
Rambo also believes his character’s romance with Bobby’s girlfriend, Jenna Wade (Priscilla Presley), was shelved so that Presley wouldn’t have to do love scenes with him. (Presley had no comment.)
Long before Dallas, growing up in Earlimart, Dack and Dirk (born Norman and Orman) both had reputations as ladies’ men. It wasn’t until alter graduating from high school and pursuing acting careers in Los Angeles—where they were discovered by Loretta Young, got cast in her 1962 TV series and Hollywoodized their names—that the Rambo brothers began experimenting with bisexuality.
Dirk’s death in 1967 plunged his brother into despair and heavy drinking. Nevertheless, Dack found steady work in series TV (The Guns of Will Sonnett, Dirty Sally, Sword of Justice), with his most prominent role coming on Dallas. (It was during his unhappy days there, he says, that he developed his pill addiction.) All the while, he had been pursuing a promiscuous sex life. Sex in the ’60s, he recalls, “was a candy dish—you could just take your pick. I met people everywhere: at parties, on planes, driving along and meeting someone in the car next to me. I always felt fortunate I could do both [men and women], it was like having the best of both worlds.”
But as AIDS began claiming more casualties, including Hock Hudson. Rambo says he started practicing “safer” sex by phasing out intercourse. But, he says, he never used condoms. And, despite continuous pleading by his doctor and close friends, he put off getting an AIDS test until last summer. “I didn’t want to deal with the possibility I might be positive,” he says.
After learning that he was, Rambo began contacting former sex partners, most of them men. Of those, the majority, he says, “had already been tested.” One woman he informed “was tested, and she was fine,” he says. After going public, he got more calls from ex-lovers he hadn’t been able to reach. “All of them gave me great support,” he says. “There was no ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ ”
Today Rambo says he’s celibate, no longer drinks and is through with pills. Twice a day he meditates for 20 minutes. He adheres to a strict diet ill grains. He eats fresh vegetables and pasta and is a big fan of wheat grass, which he claims purifies the blood. He still shows no symptoms of AIDS, and his T-cell count remains high. “You think HIV’s a death sentence,” says Rambo, “but I don’t believe that now. I’ve never felt or looked better.”
Sister Beverly agrees: “I think he looks fabulous. And he has peace of mind now.” Indeed, having come out of the closet, he says, “I feel freer than ever before.” And he is gratified that as a result of his disclosures he has received letters from strangers telling how they have found the courage to talk about being HIV positive themselves. “That’s when I realized I had done the right thing,” he says. “This is what’s important. Whatever other people want to think about me,” he adds defiantly, “I don’t really give a damn.”
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
LORENZO BENET, LYNDON STAMBLER and MICHAEL ALEXANDER in Los Angeles