Profile in Courage, Anger : Brad Davis Battled AIDS, Hollywood Indifference
Eight weeks ago, upon returning home from a Fourth of July weekend at the beach with his wife and daughter, actor Brad Davis pulled out a yellow legal pad and drafted a proposal for a book he never got the chance to write.
“The purpose of this book is to reveal what it’s like to be infected with HIV, to be receiving treatment, and having to remain anonymous at all costs--chronicling how I have done this for over six years,” wrote Davis in spare and simple prose.
“This may not be such a novel premise,” the actor conceded. “Nobody wants to walk down the street with a sign saying ‘AIDS’ pinned to his or her shirt.”
“The difference,” wrote Davis, the boyishly handsome actor who won a Golden Globe award for his role as hashish smuggler Billy Hayes in “Midnight Express,” “is I am a recognizable celebrity.”
Then came Davis’ indictment of the industry he had dreamed of entering since he was a 5-year-old boy in Florida.
“I make my money in an industry that professes to care very much about the fight against AIDS--that gives umpteen benefits and charity affairs with proceeds going to research and care,” Davis wrote. “But in actual fact, if an actor is even rumored to have HIV he gets no support on an individual basis. He does not work.”
Davis, who was 41, succumbed to AIDS complications at his Studio City home on Sunday. He got his wish and worked until June, when he starred in the cable TV drama “A Habitation of Dragons.” With him at the time of his death were his wife of 15 years, casting director Susan Bluestein, 45, and their 8-year-old daughter, Alexandra.
Though Davis was surrounded by loved ones when he died, Brad and Susan were very much alone and isolated with their awful secret for most of the six years they knew the actor was infected. Even after they widened the circle in 1989, Susan said, only seven people knew that Brad Davis had AIDS until just days before his death. (Susan and Alexandra have been tested repeatedly and been found free of the virus.)
So closely did the family guard their secret that it was only on Saturday, the day before he died, that a weakened Davis called his longtime friend director John Erman and told him.
Monday, the day after Brad died, Susan contacted The Times through family friend Larry Kramer, the playwright and AIDS activist, in order to fulfill a vow she had made to her husband. “He wanted our story told, and he wanted it told with integrity,” she said. “He wanted it told before the scandal sheets got hold of it.”
Susan went so far as to authorize Davis’ physician, Dr. Joel Weisman, to speak about his case and to provide The Times with Brad’s book proposal. “These were Brad’s words, the most recent words he had on the subject,” Susan said.
What emerged is a portrait of personal courage, and terror, that speaks volumes about how far Hollywood, and the nation, still need to go to confront an epidemic that has stolen so many of their best and brightest. It is a tale of clandestine late-night visits to medical clinics and hospitalizations as “Robert Davis” paid out-of-pocket because the patient was afraid he’d be discovered if he filed insurance claims as Brad.
Constantly, Davis wrote, there was the anxiety that “somehow the gossip mill would get hold of me and that would be that: I’d be one more pariah in Hollywood who could never get a job.” Fearing for his livelihood, Davis denied himself the solace that support groups can bring to people with AIDS and HIV infection, and may have shortened his life by seeking treatment so late in the course of his disease.
“Brad lived a life of sheer, utter hell for six years,” said Kramer, whose 1985 AIDS play, “The Normal Heart” featured Davis as an hysterical and passionate Kramer-like character named Ned Weeks. “He managed to work by keeping this all a secret for six years, but at the cost of a dreadful, dreadful strain that probably shortened his life.”
“This proves everything that everyone has said about how awful Hollywood is in its reaction to AIDS,” added Kramer, who has been close friends with Davis and his wife since 1972. “We’ve got Broadway Cares in New York, but what are they doing to help their own in Hollywood? Nothing.”
As his health ebbed, Davis’ determination to speak out grew. “Brad did not want to be one more faceless person to die of AIDS,” said Susan, choking back tears. “He did not want George Bush to be able to keep on saying, as he said last week, that he cares more about the unemployed than he does about people with AIDS.”
Davis himself had scornful words for Ronald Reagan, who, when asked to address the health crisis, said he wouldn’t do anything to condone homosexuality. “What an unbelievably ignorant, arrogant, bigoted position,” wrote Davis. “How could he possibly think that his opinion on homosexuality had anything to do with a devastating disease that was ravaging people, reducing them to skeletons and killing them?” he wrote.
It is the unwavering conviction of those who knew Davis--respected individuals with decades of collective experience in the entertainment industry--that the talented actor would have been unemployable had he gone public with his secret.
“He was absolutely justified in his fear that he wouldn’t find work if it had been known he had HIV,” said producer Rick Rosenberg, who made “Robert Kennedy and His Times,” in which Davis starred.
“This town would be terrified to have an HIV-positive actor in a leading role,” Rosenberg said. “An educated producer or director might do it, but would the insurance company say OK? Would the money people? No. And on television, the advertisers might panic.”
Hollywood’s ambivalent reaction about AIDS has been evident ever since Rock Hudson’s publicists disclosed his AIDS diagnosis shortly before he died in 1985. His death led Elizabeth Taylor to co-found the American Foundation for AIDS Research. But there were also sensational stories about Hudson kissing co-star Linda Evans on “Dynasty.” And, critics note, no major star has ever publicly acknowledged being HIV-positive.
“It would be an extraordinarily difficult thing for an actor to overcome,” said personal manager Barry Krost, who represents singer Sarah Brightman. “If it were a star--and Davis qualifies--the tabloids would get hold of it,” imperiling a film’s financing and distribution.
Given Davis’ reputation as a risk-taker and his convictions about the AIDS issue, the role of openly HIV-positive Hollywood conscience on AIDS is one that the young star might have been expected to relish. But Davis, who sought out chancy roles, simply felt he could not take a risk with his livelihood.
“Yes, the silence must be broken,” said Rodger McFarlane, executive director of Broadway Cares, a New York organization that provides financial, practical and emotional support to theater people stricken with AIDS. “But Brad had a wife and a child and a mortgage, and--like any actor--he never knew when he would work again.”
It is telling that while he worked in Hollywood, when Davis finally reached out for help in 1989 he turned to New York. There, McFarlane worked tirelessly to hook Davis up with a doctor, Weisman, who would go to great lengths to protect his famous patient’s identity.
“The arrangement I had with Brad was this: ‘When you’re too sick to work, or when you’ve lost your looks and can’t work, you’ll pay me back by going public,’ ” McFarlane said.
“I’ll be a hero later,” McFarlane recalled Davis saying. “I’ve got Alexandra to feed now.”
Nor was Brad Davis alone in his terror. “There are lots of others out there like him--big names, names you’d recognize,” said McFarlane.
“It’s not just people up on the screen,” added Weisman, whose Sherman Oaks practice cares for many people infected with HIV in the entertainment industry. “It is also people in the crafts. The crux of the issue is: If you are perceived to have AIDS or cancer, you’re unhirable. You don’t get a picture.”
Weisman knows a thing or two about AIDS. In 1981, he co-authored the first article about a mysterious pneumonia in five Los Angeles gay men for a Centers for Disease Control publication, and he currently serves as chairman of the board of the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
Weisman speaks from personal knowledge when he says that the secrecy around AIDS is costing lives. “We do a great injustice for future research and care when well-known faces die of AIDS and they are recorded as having died of something else,” he said.
And, he added, “in Brad’s case, the delay in seeking treatment . . . probably cost him years of vitality and life.” Weisman began caring for Davis in early 1989; before that, the actor felt healthy and did not seek care for his HIV infection even though he had known about it since 1985.
“Until January, 1989, I felt great, took no medication, told no one,” Davis wrote in his book proposal.
The actor had learned that he was infected with the often fatal virus in the fall of 1985 in a transatlantic phone call from Susan while he was in Rome filming the miniseries “Blood Ties.”
“I had given blood at Cedars Sinai before I left in September and they had sent a letter to my house announcing that I was HIV positive,” Davis wrote. “A really sensitive and caring thing to do, don’t you think. . . ?
“After going through the terror of waiting to find out if my wife and my daughter were infected--which miraculously they were not--I settled into accepting my condition without a lot of trauma. . . . Had my family been infected I would have totally fallen apart, but there is a saying ‘We are never given more than we can handle.’ ”
The saying comes from Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization from which Davis drew peace, strength and serenity after he joined and became sober in 1981. Before that, Davis wrote, “I was a total drug addict--an alcoholic and I.V. drug user--a user of just about any kind of drug I could get. And I was sexually very promiscuous. I’ve never known any addicts who weren’t.”
Though Susan has said that Davis apparently contracted the virus by sharing needles with people who later died of AIDS, Davis in his book proposal wrote the media’s and public’s fascination with how specific individuals contracted the virus is “very disturbing.”
“There are many different ways to contract the virus, and each carries its own degree of judgment or compassion,” he wrote. “Gays (are) the most heavily judged, receiving the least compassion. One step up are the I.V. drug users, then heterosexual promiscuity, women who get it from infected husbands, transfusions and the ultimate in no judgment and total compassion, babies born with the virus.
“The problem with this is if there are ‘innocent’ victims then there must be guilty victims,” Davis wrote.
The fight against AIDS will be hampered, Davis wrote, until “that kind of judgment is suspended” and it is widely recognized that no people with AIDS “deserve to have this disease and (that) all (of them) deserve only compassion and support.”
But Davis’ support team consisted only of Susan, Kramer, McFarlane, Weisman, a physician’s assistant who came to the house to draw blood and perform other routine procedures, a therapist and Mark Senak, the director of client services at AIDS Project Los Angeles.
Senak, who had met Davis briefly backstage in 1985 during the New York run of “The Normal Heart,” recalled getting a phone call from a desperate and frightened Davis shortly after Senak moved to Los Angeles in 1989.
Recalled Senak, who had been director of legal services for Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York: “I thought to myself, is this what it is going to be like out in Los Angeles, brokering medical services for people needing anonymity?”
Senak said Davis’ reluctance to file insurance claims “is not exclusive to Brad. I find it with clients time and time again. People are so afraid of losing their insurance.”
Of course, Susan was Brad’s most devoted source of support. “He was the great love of my life, that is the truth,” she said, tears welling up. “He was not going to be one more person with this disease to be abandoned.”
The couple met in 1971 when Davis was signed by agent Stark Hesseltine, for whom she worked as a secretary and who had previously discovered such talents as Robert Redford, Elizabeth Ashley and Blythe Danner.
“He came into the office while I was typing, sat on my desk and said: ‘You want to have some eggs on Thursday?’ ” Susan laughed.
The then-struggling actor “never had any money,” she recalled. “He just ate what was cheap.”
“He was skinny and funny and Southern,” she said. “I said yes because he was so sweet.” They moved in together shortly thereafter and were wed five years later.
Davis’ big break came in the film “Midnight Express” but, his wife said, he was too young to handle success and drank heavily and abused drugs.
“He was not a closet drunk,” she recalled. “He made scenes in public many places, many times. He was wild.”
By 1981, Davis’ career was “completely shattered,” she said. “He hit bottom. He couldn’t get a job in this town. And then he (joined AA and) got sober.”
Davis first heard about AIDS in 1982 when his friend, Larry Kramer, told him about what was then known as “gay cancer.”
Wrote Davis: “In the back of my head a little voice said: ‘Whew! At least this is one horror I don’t have to worry about coming to rest in my lap.’ That may sound cold, but having nearly died so many times during the drug years, my instinct for my own survival was now very keen.”
By 1983, “confident that the 10-year nightmare of addiction was over,” wrote Davis, Susan gave birth to Alexandra, “the joy of our lives.”
“I was working again,” he wrote. “Everything seemed to be turning around.”
But there would be no happy ending. Saturday night at 8:30, Davis called his longtime friend Erman, who directed the actor in “When the Time Comes,” a film about assisted suicide.
“This very weak voice said, ‘It’s Brad,’ ” Erman recalled. “I was having people to dinner so I said, ‘I’ll call you tomorrow.’ He said: ‘No you can’t.’
“I said, ‘Brad, you’ve got to talk up, I can’t hear you’ . . . and then he said, ‘I just want to tell you I’m very sick, I have AIDS and I just want to say goodby to you.’
“I said, ‘I can’t say goodby, I’m not ready to say goodby. Can I call you?’ He said, ‘No, I’ll call you.’ I was afraid to call Susan because he had told me not to call.”
Monday morning, a message on Erman’s answering machine announced to him that Davis died Sunday.