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'Prayers for Bobby' profiles the making of a gay activist
Good things come to those who wait . . . and wait . . . and wait.
Just ask David Permut, Daniel Sladek and Chris Taaffe, who have jointly struggled for nearly 12 years to bring the emotionally charged family drama "Prayers for Bobby" to television. The result, on which the trio shares executive producer credit (along with Stanley M. Brooks), premieres at 9 tonight on Lifetime.
The project's long journey began in 1996 when Taaffe, then an actor also working in TV production, happened upon the Leroy Aarons' book on which the TV movie is based at a West Hollywood bookstore. He was immediately drawn into the chronicle of a suburban California mother's transformation from religious zealot and homophobe to prominent gay activist after the suicide of her 20-year-old gay son, Bobby.
Taaffe recommended the book to Sladek, a movie producer and former production executive, who read it and was equally enthusiastic. Envisioning a feature film, Sladek brought the book to Permut, a higher-profile producer with studio credits ("Dragnet," "Face/Off").
"I thought it was a magnificent book. It just resonated on so many levels," said Permut during a group interview in his Century City office along with Sladek and Taaffe. "Being a blind optimist, I thought we'd be in production within a year."
It certainly didn't work out that way. After more than a decade of near misses, during which time Aarons died, the movie finally found a permanent home at Lifetime. At the same time, another deal was wrapping up to finance an under-$2-million "Bobby" feature film.
But Lifetime's guaranteed wide audience, including those "middle-American" mothers the producers always felt might most benefit from experiencing Mary Griffith's cautionary tale, ultimately trumped going the riskier independent movie route.
Finally, with a green light, the production found itself butting up against the end of last year's writers strike. Speed became the order of the day and first up was casting for the pivotal role of Mary. During its previous stages of development, the part was to be played at one time or another by Susan Sarandon (not long after her Oscar win for "Dead Man Walking"), Sela Ward and Christine Lahti.
"It was a big deal, making a movie about gay rights and teen suicide -- not to mention the concept of questioning one's religious faith -- especially on network television," said Taaffe.
But luckily the producers were still able to attract another major actress: three-time Oscar nominee and two-time Golden Globe award winner Sigourney Weaver. "I felt it was a very universal story, and, especially as a mother, I really wanted to be a part of it," said the actress by phone from Manhattan.
Weaver traveled to the Griffiths' Walnut Creek, Calif., home -- the same house Bobby grew up in -- to meet Mary and get the family's "blessing."
"I had a lot of questions," said Weaver. "I wanted to be sure that I could tell Mary's story, that I understood it. I needed to sit down with her myself and ask, 'Who were you that you could so close your eyes and ears to what Bobby was suffering?' She was very generous with me, very forthcoming."
Nonetheless, Weaver faced the daunting task of humanizing someone many might consider reprehensible, given Mary's rejection of her son's homosexuality and its tragic consequences.
"It wasn't my goal to judge Mary, to make her sympathetic or unsympathetic. I was there to tell the story as accurately as I could," said Weaver. "It was about a mother trying to find her way, who loved her son so much but was a victim of misinformation -- from books and from the church."
Negative viewer perception has been a concern for the real Mary Griffith, now 74. "I didn't realize until I saw the [completed] movie just how far over the top I really was," said Griffith. "My saving grace is the fact that, back then, I didn't know what I was doing."
The telefilm, which was shot in tax-friendly Michigan over 20 swift days, costars Ryan Kelley ("Mean Creek") as Bobby, "The Tudors' " Henry Czerny as Bobby's father and Dan Butler (TV's "Frasier") as a helpful gay minister. Versatile filmmaker Russell Mulcahy ("Highlander," "Swimming Upstream") directed.
Weaver hopes in particular that gay youth who watch the film will be "reassured that homosexuality is natural, that this is part of life, that they may have to fight to be who they are, but they're also fighting to educate us."
Griffith thinks the movie will offer validation for parents of gays and lesbians as well. "They have to know it's OK to challenge their religious beliefs and church doctrine, especially when the health and welfare of their child is on the line," she said.
Sladek took it one step further: "I would hope in my heart that if this movie had existed -- and was on television -- and Bobby Griffith, at his most trapped and isolated, could have seen it, that he would be alive today."