Strong Dose of Reality for ABC’s ‘One Life to Live’ : Television: The soap shows eight sections of the Names Project AIDS Quilt to conclude a summer-long plot examining homophobia and a gay teen character.
One of TV’s daytime soap operas, which daily feature characters having romances amid a backdrop of froth and fantasy, today injects a taste of bitter reality.
Today and Monday, ABC’s “One Life to Life” (which airs weekdays at 1 p.m. on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) rolls out eight sections of the Names Project AIDS Quilt as a conclusion to a summer-long plot examining homophobia and a teen character’s public declaration that he is gay. The AIDS quilt has never been displayed before in any kind of commercial or entertainment genre.
“I wanted a highly dramatic end for the homophobia story we’ve been doing all summer,” says “One Life to Live” executive producer Linda Gottlieb, who conceived the idea of featuring the quilt. “The quilt is a strong, powerful image. It’s visual; it’s powerful; it’s easily dramatized. It’s an abstraction against hatred.”
But the Names Project, the San Francisco-based organization that owns the quilt, didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity.
Andy Ilves, director of community relations for the Names Project, said that the group does not believe the quilt should be used commercially. There also was concern because the quilt is perishable, and Gottlieb wanted to shoot it outdoors, in the yard of the Church of Christ the King in New Vernon, N.J. “I thought it would lose visual impact if it was done indoors,” she explained.
The quilt is made up of 20,000 individual cloth memorials that have been sewn together, each panel made by friends and family to commemorate a loved one who has died from AIDS. The whole quilt has only been displayed four times, in Washington, since the project was started in 1987. Small sections are sent throughout the country for community display, but only on request and only indoors, according to Ilves.
Negotiations between ABC and the Names Project finally produced agreement. ABC made what a network spokesman calls “a substantial contribution” to the Names Project and also promised on-air plugs for this year’s display of the quilt in Washington from Oct. 9-11. ABC also used 130 volunteers from the New Jersey chapter of the Names Project as extras during the taping.
“But what really persuaded us was when ‘One Life to Live’ offered us the opportunity to work with them on the story,” Ilves said. “We didn’t want (the quilt) to be used as a backdrop of some story that would be AIDS-phobic. And we’re quite happy with what they’ve come up with.”
Earlier this summer on the soap, 17-year-old Billy Douglas (Ryan Philippe) confessed to minister Andrew Carpenter (Wortham Krimmer) that he was gay. Billy’s parents and the angry townspeople of Llanview, where the soap is set, charged Andrew with having an affair with the teen-ager. Stubbornly insisting on the right to privacy, Andrew has refused to disclose his sexual preference. Andrew has been beaten up and called disparaging names, and there have been several attempts to defrock him. Simultaneously, Andrew’s father, Sloan (Roy Thinnes), has been refusing to believe that Andrew’s brother, William, who died a year ago, was a victim of AIDS.
Two weeks ago, William’s former lover came to Llanview to enlist Andrew and Sloan’s help in adding a panel in William’s memory to the AIDS quilt. Sloan angrily refused at first. Now, in the two-day sequence beginning today, the quilt becomes “the means by which Andrew and his father are reunited and the town confronts its fears about gays,” Gottlieb said.
Although homosexual characters have been featured previously on “All My Children” and “As the World Turns,” neither was given as serious a spotlight as the story of young Billy (and the interlocking story of the minister) on “One Life to Life.” “I think this is a breakthrough because it shows from the inside to my satisfaction what it’s like to be gay in a hostile world,” said Freeman Gunter, a managing editor of Soap Opera Weekly and a 20-year veteran of the gay press.
Gunter said that homosexuality is hardly ever dealt with in the soap world because “it’s a strictly boy-girl, boy-girl world. Daytime sells romantic fantasies to women. . . . The networks are very uncomfortable with anything that upsets the audience in the slightest.” Thus, Billy has come out, but he’s yet to take a lover. His suspected “lover,” the Rev. Andrew, has really been having a passionate affair all along with a female character, Cassie Callison (Laura Bonnarigo). William, the brother who is being memorialized, was never an on-screen soap character.
Gottlieb says that the story presented this summer was focused specifically on homophobia, not homosexuality. “The (soap) world isn’t ready for ‘Longtime Companion’ yet,” she said, referring to the gay-themed feature film. “Our story is really about the reaction one has when you find out someone you know is gay.”
Yet even with the limitations of this story, Ilves of the Name Project feels that having the quilt on a soap opera signals a significant stride in AIDS awareness.
“I think that the fact that the recognition has come around now reflects how America is finally dealing with the AIDS epidemic,” he said. “Sure, it’s a decade after the epidemic started. But whether it’s Magic Johnson announcing he (is HIV-positive) or the quilt being on a soap opera, in 1992, at least Americans are taking this disease seriously.”
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