How TV movies saved my life
by David Craig
This past May, HBO aired The Normal Heart. Based on a play by Larry Kramer and inspired by his own experiences as an AIDS activist, the story describes a group of gay men who were involved in the very early years of the AIDS struggle. The narrative indicts those cultural forces that failed to respond quickly or in a humanitarian fashion. As their gay friends and lovers were left to die, the characters are overwrought with anger and grief.
For audiences unaware of these events, this story may come as a revelation. After all, four decades have passed since the LGBT Stonewall riots, and the story of our movement remains locked in the closet. LGBT education and history is still not mandatory, except in California. This is why The Normal Heart represents more than a TV movie. It’s an opportunity to educate audiences in living rooms and classrooms. To speak to that LGBT teenager who suspects that his or her life has no meaning. Perhaps even save them from making fatal decisions which, to this day, still disproportionally affects LGBT youth.
Is this possible? Could a TV movie save lives? The answer is an unequivocal yes, because they saved mine. Twice.
I grew up in the South in the 1970s and was raised as both an evangelical Christian and a conservative Jew. Whether in church, temple, or school, I understood that homosexuality was the worst of sins. Like most LGBT youth, I lived in fear of being discovered and contemplated suicide.
So I remained hidden. However, by the time I was a college sophomore, the mask had worn thin. I was tormented, and to escape turned on the TV in my dorm room. At that moment, CBS premiered Making Love, a romantic drama about a married gay man who falls in love with an openly gay and proud man. The program was a revelation, suggesting a future that I could never have imagined. Over the next month, I came out to my friends and family.
But fate and timing were perhaps cruel, or at least ironic. Because at that exact moment, the world was discovering this disease called AIDS and I understood that “the love that dare not speak its name” may also kill me. I was terrified of dating, having sex, or falling in love.
But in the fall of 1985, along with 25 million viewers, I watched An Early Frost. Inspired by real life events, this powerful, ground-breaking, TV movie featured a gay man revealing to his family that he is gay and has AIDS. The film taught a lesson about unconditional love, as well as the importance of safe sex, which I credit for saving my life. Again.
Soon, LGBT TV movies began to reflect my life. Like the characters in Making Love and later Tales of the City, I discovered a community of openly gay men in Los Angeles. I also fell in love and, as in An Early Frost, helped my partner find the courage to tell his parents that he had the virus. As in PBS’ Longtime Companion, I watched the disease kill most of my closest friends, including my partner, who died in 1992 at the age of 27.
It may come as no surprise that for the past three decades, I helped create over twenty TV movies.
Some of these have reached millions, garnered numerous awards, and been distributed to schools for free across the nation.
I am proud to have made two LGBT-themed TV movies. In early 1993, I met Dorothy Hajdys, who had just discovered that her son had been brutally murdered by his fellow sailors because he was gay. Worse even, the Navy was attempting to cover up the crime as this was the height of the battle over gays in the military. I reached out to Dorothy and she agreed to meet. I asked for permission to try and tell her story but she made me promise to make this movie for television because “where I come from, people believe TV.” And there it was, with complete clarity. At first, the networks turned us down. But two years later, as an executive at Lifetime, I convinced the network to tell Dorothy’s story. Any Mother’s Son became the second most watched program in Lifetime history.
In 2006, I helped conceive and produce Wedding Wars for A&E Networks. Inspired by Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (think A Day Without a Mexican), the story featured a gay man who goes on strike to fight for marriage equality. We had the dream team of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron and their associates as producer. Our brilliant screenwriter, Stephen Mazur, took our original concept and turned the story into a emotional and humorous tale of two brothers, courageously portrayed by John Stamos and Eric Dane, whose differences are overcome by their love as brother. Director Jim Fall, whose film Trick remains of the most loved LGBT films of all time, delivered a funny, poignant, and meaningful story that far exceeded my own imagination.
As Fall stated in The Advocate, the program “was kind of subversive, because it really was an entertaining comedy. But the politics are clear in the movie and so I think a lot of people watched it as sheer entertainment but there’s an explicit political agenda going on. It was a very clever way, I think. Kind of a spoonful of sugar thing.” A heaping spoonful, indeed. Fall’s comments describe how TV movies have the potential to use entertainment to deliver a progressive social message to mass audiences. In fact, that’s what some TV movies have achieved since they debuted in the 1970s, which I will discuss in Part 2.Tags: An Early Frost (TV film), David Craig, Dorothy Hadjys, Hollywood, LGBT, LGBT-themed movies, Long form television, Onset of AIDS, Television producer, The Normal Heart (film), Using entertainment to deliver a social message to mass audiences