It's been a dozen years since Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen shattered the TV barriers by portraying homosexual lovers in "That Certain Summer." Yet the producers of "Consenting Adult," a new TV movie airing Monday on ABC, believe their film on the subject is still daring in its own way.
"That Certain Summer" hung its story on Holbrook's character having to tell his teen-age son about his new relationship. In "Consenting Adult," the situation is reversed: A teen-age boy (Barry Tubb) reveals to his parents (Marlo Thomas and, coincidentally, Sheen) that he is gay.
What's significant in the difference between the two movies, maintains co-producer Ray Aghayan, is the attitude.
"At the end of 'That Certain Summer,' the father cries and apologizes to the son," Aghayan explained in an interview. "The son here really accepts his homosexuality and thinks it's terrific. There is an unguilty, positive attitude to this film."
Aghayan said he doesn't know if that's why it took him nearly 10 years to get the movie made.
He first acquired the rights to Laura Z. Hobson's novel of the same name in 1975. He tried to drum up interest in it for a feature film, then as a television movie, with no results. The rights lapsed, but he picked them up again in 1979 and, with partner David Lawrence, enlisted the support of producer Martin Starger. Finally, late in 1983, they convinced ABC to make the film.
Asked what he thought brought about the change of heart at the network, Aghayan said, "I think the times are a little different. And there were different people at ABC."
He acknowledged, however, that what may have been the stumbling block for "Consenting Adult" all those years was not the subject matter itself but the fact that it isn't dealt with in a supercharged, controversial way.
"The movie is not so much about the boy as it is about the boy connected to his parents, particularly his mother," he said.
Indeed, the film focuses much of its attention on how the parents deal with their only son's revelation over a period of about a year. The mother wants the young man, a college swimming star, to find a "cure." The father becomes angry and withdraws from his son's life.
Thomas, 46, playing the mother of a grown child for the first time, said one of the reasons she chose to make the film was that "I thought (her character) acted so much the way most mothers would act. She wanted to fix it. She got her kid through chicken pox and other problems and she'd fix this too."
She was also struck, the actress said, by the broader implications of the film: "It's also about unconditional love."
Loving people means accepting them the way they are, she said, noting that she's learned from her experiences as a daughter, wife and stepmother that those closest to her don't always share her values, make the choices that she would make in their place or live up to the expectations she has of them.
"The fact that my father (Danny Thomas) voted for President Reagan is very hard on me," she said, only half joking.
Sheen, 44, echoed Thomas' views of the film. "The whole show is about being receptive to love, no matter how it arrives," he said.
Still, he conceded that that's easier said than done.
Despite being identified with a variety of liberal causes and having starred in "That Certain Summer," Sheen said that if one of his three sons came to him and said he was gay, his initial reaction probably wouldn't differ much from his character in "Consenting Adult."
"I would be deeply offended and troubled because I'd be afraid they would never be happy," he said.
But he has accepted the homosexuality of friends whom he knows to be "good and decent people," Sheen added. "I would hope that I would be big enough with my children as I would with my friends," he said.
Asked if he thought "homophobia" was at the root of his concerns and those of his character in the movie, the actor said yes, that he believes the principal negative feeling that heterosexual men have about homosexuality is "the fear that they may be the same."
"And, in fact, that is true," Sheen added. "We are all homosexuals, just as we are all heterosexuals. It's part of human nature in all of us; it's just accented one way or another in each person. So we have to recognize and accept it."
Acceptance: That, Aghayan said, is the message he hopes viewers will take from "Consenting Adult."
"You just have to leave people alone to be themselves," he explained. "You can't make people over in your own image. You have to let them be what they are if you're going to love them."