W e do give money to AIDS and the homeless and the blind. But we're not obligated to hire the victims of the various diseases or causes we support. It all boils down to business . . . dollars and cents . . . and those with an illness or the potential for becoming ill are an economic risk.
These words come from a well-known Hollywood producer who felt it wise not to have his name mentioned. His thoughts came in the aftermath of a scathing indictment of the entertainment industry by actor Brad Davis.
The 41-year-old actor died of complications from AIDS two weeks ago today. Two days after his death his widow, Susan Bluestein, made public a book proposal that her late husband had written about his life as a secret AIDS patient. After its publication in The Times, the proposal became an open letter to Hollywood and subsequently the world. Davis charged the entertainment industry with hypocrisy and bias toward AIDS patients. He said that while Hollywood lends support through benefits and high-profile fund-raising, there remains an atmosphere in which a person commits career suicide if he or she might be ill, or has tested positive for the AIDS virus.
Davis, the star of the film "Midnight Express," said he had to keep his medical condition secret for six years just to be able to work and support his wife and child.
Not since the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS in October, 1985, has Hollywood been forced to face up to the AIDS crisis in such a dramatic way. Then it was the shocking disclosure that the actor who had played the red-blooded American leading man could be stricken with the disease. Hudson's illness had come to public attention that summer, and Hollywood's elite gathered for the first show business fund-raiser just before his death. All the money raised at the benefit, organized by Elizabeth Taylor, was donated to AIDS Project Los Angeles.
Now, with Davis' death, the industry was shocked by a public indictment by one of its own and has had to deal with the debate that the letter set off. By coincidence, Davis' words came just days before this year's APLA fund-raiser.
The crux of the debate centers on the precarious balance between the realities of business and the images and illusion that Hollywood depends upon. In addition, Brad Davis' death seems to have reignited a fire under Hollywood about the AIDS epidemic and homophobia.
In the 10 years since the death toll from AIDS began mounting, it's been customary to pick up the daily entertainment trade newspapers, read the front page stories, check the price of your company's stock and turn to the obituaries. There, you can learn how many more AIDS deaths there have been, or try to figure out the code phrases that in some cases attempt to disguise the cause of death.
Ten years of this can numb you.
Or it can make you angry. As actress Bette Midler told the audience honoring her at last Sunday's star-studded AIDS Project Los Angeles benefit: "I didn't head for the hills when this thing hit . . . ," referring to some in show business who pretended the disease didn't exist. "For the last 10 years I have worked on behalf of people with AIDS because I could not stand idly by, just wringing my hands while my friends shriveled up and died."
"Brad Davis' remarks are indicative of a problem that is not confined to Hollywood," said Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Peter Guber, as he recalled that Davis was a part of his earliest success--Guber produced the Oscar-nominated "Midnight Express," in which Davis starred.
"Davis was right when he said that Hollywood is scared or anxious of people who have HIV or AIDS. But I think that it's no more prevalent in the movie or TV business than it is in the world at large.
"The real question is, can (show business) become more enlightened? It's not easy, because (show business) is people. And they have concerns like the rest of society. They can give all the benefits in the world, but when the people go home at night and find out their neighbor has AIDS, their first thought is 'What is that going to mean for me?' "
In the case of the movie business, Guber said the industry has to wonder, "If an actor or director has HIV, how does it affect the other actors, or the cast insurance? These are real pragmatic considerations."
"You have to make the assessment yourself about illness, drug abusers or alcoholism," said director-producer Oliver Stone. Stone believes each instance must be considered separately and casting remain the prerogative of the director. "The director's relationship with actors is a very ad-hoc one that you can't make rules about," Stone said. "If there were rules, the artistic license could be threatened."
"The terrible thing about Brad Davis, and I suspect, many others, is that fear made him keep this a secret," said Barry Diller, the chairman of Fox Inc., parent of 20th Century Fox Film Corp. "I believe it's the obligation of this industry on every level and in every way to make sure those fears are baseless," he added.
To that end, Diller joined with Sidney Sheinberg, president of MCA Inc., at last Sunday's APLA fund-raiser to reveal the formation of a new ad-hoc organization called Hollywood Supports, to be made up of industry leaders and companies. With an initial pledge of $125,000 from Diller, Sheinberg and their companies, the group plans to solicit more executive-level contributions. These will be donated to AIDS Project Los Angeles for programs aimed specifically at members of the entertainment industry who have AIDS or are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus thought to cause AIDS, and for AIDS education.
Sheinberg, who received a "Commitment to Life" award from APLA, acknowledged in his remarks that Davis' death brought home the problem of discrimination and was instrumental in the creation of Hollywood Supports.
But as Sheinberg and a host of others also have acknowledged, fear, for the present, nevertheless exists.
One prominent casting director, who didn't want her name used, said: "Going public about AIDS? It's not a question that comes up. Even if you had cancer, you don't want to run around telling people.
"I think everyone would do what Brad did. If there's no way he can give it to someone else, then what do you have to gain from announcing it?" she observed.
Davis' associates, however, say that attitude misses the point. Davis did not so much want to run around and tell people as to feel safe filing insurance claims under his own name or attending support groups for solace--without the gossip mill getting hold of his story.
"Is there fear, hypocrisy, prejudice? Sure," said Richard Fischoff, a senior vice president at TriStar Pictures. " But I believe for everyone who would have refused to hire Brad and taken the path of least resistance, there are others who would have signed him up. People in this industry aren't without compassion. They would work with him--if he was HIV positive . . . though not if he were really sick.
"The larger issue is the fear and isolation that actors such as he were forced to live with because of his belief that he was unemployable," Fischoff said.
"It's too strong to say that an actor who tests HIV positive would be blackballed, but his opportunities would, no doubt, be greatly limited," said John Levey, director of casting for Warner Bros Television. "AIDS, in most people's minds, is like a horror film. Everyone is terrified and phobic. Though there is an enormous civil rights issue at stake--a person's right to work--there are also some valid concerns."
Levey saw Davis for a major role in "The Babe Ruth Story" this past June. "I would have cast Brad, sick or not, if he was right for the job. A TV series, though, is something else--a tremendous economic investment in which the studio, producers, networks, have a right to know of any condition which might jeopardize an actor's ability to fulfill the terms of a five-year contract."
Levey said Davis was "wise not to tell people. Everyone on the planet Earth is phobic on the subject of terminal illness and AIDS in particular."
Director Joel Schumacher ("Flatliners" and the upcoming HBO movie based on Randy Shilts' book "And the Band Played On" about the origins of AIDS) said he has seen many people "hide the fact that they are HIV positive. I am not so sure if they revealed it if they wouldn't have gotten tremendous support and tremendous love and friendship. I have not found the movie community homophobic or nonsupportive of AIDS and people with AIDS."
Schumacher, in fact, thinks it's quite the opposite. "People in show business came out very early and raised money and put themselves out there. I think that every agency, every studio and every company has been touched by loss from AIDS.
"I think it was very courageous when Elizabeth Glaser came forward and explained the situation with herself and her children (about being infected with HIV) and I think that people were not just moved, but moved to try to do something, to support them on some level."
But like many others, Schumacher also believes "there are people who have been discriminated against and there also is a fearful atmosphere."
That is the view of stage actor Michael Kearns, who came out as HIV positive on national television on Monday. Kearns charged that Hollywood's neglect of AIDS as a theme in movies doesn't surprise him. "There seems to be this expectation that Hollywood should be more evolved than the rest of the world. But Hollywood is less evolved. They focus on the lowest common denominator, particularly in television, which assumes the viewer is homophobic, racist, sexist and stupid."
Kearns puts much of the blame for the relative invisibility of gay themes in Hollywood's film and TV product, as well as the lack of openly gay actors, let alone openly HIV-positive ones--on "self-hatred" by gays in the industry who are "closeted."
Often, dealing with AIDS is a case of trying to do the right thing faced with the imperatives of the business.
A well-known director tells of this experience with a member of his production team during the filming of a major studio motion picture earlier this year:
"In our initial interview he had told me that his mother had died of cancer and that he had successfully fought cancer. So at first I did not know if the cancer was returning. But as time went by and he became thinner and thinner, I did think it was AIDS.
"It seemed to look like AIDS to me. I do think that terminal illness is similar, though. And also since he had not shared anything with me, I wanted to respect his privacy.
"However, when I saw him becoming weakened and distracted, I broke that silence and I asked him if he was ill, which he denied profusely.
"Then I had had a meeting with the studio executives and also the producers. And I said, 'I think that (the individual) has AIDS or cancer. And obviously he has chosen this film to be his last film, and what I want all of us to do is to honor that and to support him through it.' That we would never mention it.'
"But the problem was it was filtering down into all the other departments and creating havoc. Not because of his illness, but because the work really wasn't getting taken care of. So I expressed my concerns to his agent. (The individual) had not confided in him either. So obviously this is part of the same syndrome, which is he did not feel that he would be loved and accepted . . . .
"I eventually had to unfortunately replace him before we started shooting because he was very talented but his ability to focus on the logistics of the job was getting difficult. . . . I had one last conversation with him where I said, 'If you're ill please tell me, because I can help you, and I need to know because there are too many things happening here that I need to step in on. . . . But you have to assist me by including me.'
"And he said he was not ill at all and was extremely closed about discussing it any further."
The man died a few months ago.
Even if you aren't ill, AIDS is so prevalent these days that gay men in Hollywood say even an absence from work or illness not related to HIV or AIDS can leave them under a cloud of suspicion.
Four years ago, for example, Disney senior vice president Gary Barton was hospitalized for aseptic meningitis and returned to work two weeks later.
"While I was in the hospital, an agent called me and said: 'It's times like this we have to stick together,' " Barton recalled. Barton asked the agent what he meant and was told: "Well, I heard you're in the hospital with AIDS."
"I felt panicked because I thought: 'I'm going back to work and people think I have AIDS,' " said Barton, who left Disney a year later and now lives in New York. "Even today, when I go to L.A., people come up and say, 'God, you look great!' And I want to say: 'What? As opposed to dead?' "
Barton said he has tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus but has never had an AIDS-related opportunistic infection and has a stable immune system. He continues actively pursing projects as an independent producer.
But Barton is outspoken in his belief that Hollywood has a responsibility to educate the country about AIDS and to help reduce the stigma. "If you make Nikes or computers, there's not a lot you can do to make a difference. But in the TV or film business, there is." He noted that in 10 years there has not been one major studio motion picture about AIDS. (Last year's "Longtime Companion" was a small independent project.)
Producer Howard Rosenman, who was involved with the Oscar-winning AIDS documentary "Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt," said Davis' fear was, "unfortunately a justified fear."
Addressing the two personalities of Hollywood, he said: "I'm one of those people who really doesn't think there's homophobia in the industry--backstage. But there is a homophobia about the people who are up there on the screen that comes from the executives or agents.
"When people see a man kissing a woman on the screen, and they know he would rather be making love to a man, they instinctively know," Rosenman said.
"That's a commercial reality."
Off screen, there's another commercial reality.
Once an actor is determined by the director or producer to be right for a job, one of the first items on the agenda is a simple physical exam.
This includes a list of questions about past medical history and any current physical impairment or disease, but no questions involving AIDS specifically. If an actor lies he is ultimately responsible for any loss incurred.
"Our primary concern isn't the nature of the ailment but whether the actor will be able to complete his film duties," said Shirley Griffith, a senior vice president of Albert G. Ruben & Co., a company that arranges entertainment insurance for film and TV producers. "The only stigma that I can see is from fellow actors who don't want to work with a romantic lead because of ignorance about how the disease is transmitted."
Tanya Karn, a risk manager at the Walt Disney Co., said: "From my experience . . . and I've worked at Columbia and MCA prior to Disney . . . I don't think a person testing HIV positive would have his or her employability affected. If someone has been hospitalized repeatedly in the recent past for AIDS, however, that's another question . . . but still, it wouldn't be treated any differently than a heart ailment or a drug or alcohol problem."
Agreed Lee Proimos, a senior vice president of the Fireman's Fund, another leading Hollywood insurer: "If a doctor says that AIDS or testing HIV positive won't impair the ability of an actor to perform, medically he's sound by our standards. I've never seen anyone with AIDS or someone HIV positive turned down."
While that may be the case on the record, any actor would have to deal with the public's perception that being HIV positive is the same as being gay--though being HIV positive doesn't necessarily mean a person is gay.
Gay comedian Terry Sweeney said he has doubts about the viability of openly HIV-positive actors being hired. "It's a step in the right direction, but we haven't even supported gay people who are well, much less anyone with AIDS," Sweeney said.
"I came out and announced I was gay a few years ago, and I still haven't seen any rush to hire me. I can't see Hollywood rushing to hire someone with AIDS. Right now, it's not realistic."
Sweeney's feelings are underlined by Westside Los Angeles AIDS specialist Dr. Stephen J. Gabin, whose clients include a number of celebrities.
"We have patients who wish to be completely private about their condition and fear being seen by anyone. AIDS has such a special connotation in the wider community that people take even greater pains to keep that information private. So we have them come through a special entrance and sit in a private waiting room."
Gabin said the situation at his office is not unlike that at offices of several of his medical colleagues who also have high-profile HIV and AIDs patients.
"Yes, the tabloids call my staff. But we are quite fluent in the art of getting rid of them. We never give out any names."
With the spread of the epidemic, Hollywood, as it has in so many causes, has marshaled its talents in support of AIDS causes. One knowledgeable source estimated that last Sunday night's all-star APLA benefit alone, with talent and production support largely donated, represented several millions of dollars in contributions by companies and individuals. According to APLA officials, the major entertainment companies purchased large blocks of the 6,000 seats in the Universal Amphitheatre, assuring a sellout crowd and $1 million in funds.
But the contributions don't stop there. Today, for instance, Paramount Pictures throws open its famous studio gates to thousands of volunteer walkers who will gather at the Melrose Avenue lot for an annual walkathon, that is expected to generate about $2 million for APLA. While APLA, with its $14-million annual budget and status as California's largest AIDS service organization, is a major beneficiary of Hollywood fund-raising efforts, it's not alone.
All of the show business unions and guilds joined three years ago to form Hollywood Helps in order to provide financial assistance to persons with AIDS who have worked in the entertainment industry in any capacity.
The group's executive director, Walter J. Hanna, said so far Hollywood Helps has distributed $300,000 to persons in need. "As a result of the articles on Brad Davis," Hanna said, "Hollywood Helps will become more vocal. Our board was incensed by the attitude that people are unable to work if they are known to be a person with AIDS."
In August, Hanna said Hollywood Helps decided to commit its money directly to an organization already in the fund distribution business, Aid for AIDS, which was founded in 1983 to provide financial assistance to persons with AIDS in L.A. County who are not covered by insurance. In the last year Aid for AIDS distributed $370,000.
"When it comes to AIDS, people are giving a lot of money and time and energy to this disease," said Kathryn Swingle, west coast director of human services for the Actors' Fund.
"We are here and we do help. It's a shame Davis didn't come through our doors and maybe we could have made it easier for him to get help. We've been here since 1986."
The Actors Fund is financed purely through benefits given by actors and individual donations. Like other show business organizations, such as Equity Fights AIDS and Broadway Cares, the Actors Fund offers financial assistance and other services to people with AIDS.
"It's important for one's integrity to continue to work. So we help them to continue," Swingle said. "We'll supplement their income so they can work some of the time. So they don't have to hit bottom.
"It's important to let that community know. So they don't have to keep it to themselves. They need to know there are places to go and feel safe. I'm sorry that Brad felt alone and that there was nowhere to turn.'