Focus : Learning How to Live and Die Together : OPPOSITES BECOME 'ROOMMATES' IN NBC DRAMA ABOUT AIDS AS THE ULTIMATE EQUALIZER

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When executive producer Michael Filerman was casting his movie "Roommates," airing Monday on NBC, he wanted two special actors to play the leads. And he got them.

The drama--inspired by a true story--deals with a heterosexual ex-convict who had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and a gay, wealthy, Harvard-educated professional, also dealing with the disease, who become unlikely roommates at a hospice for people with AIDS.

Both Filerman and the network knew the subject matter was a hard sell. "NBC felt because the subject matter, unfortunately still to advertisers, has a sense of some controversy to it, they felt having feature actors in it who normally don't do television would give it a sense of more import that would not frighten advertisers away.

So feature actors Randy Quaid ("The Paper," "The Last Picture Show" and "The Last Detail") was cast to play the burly homophobe Jim Flynn, and Eric Stoltz ("Mask," "The Waterdance" and "Some Kind of Wonderful") the dying gay man, Bill Thomas.

Filerman says he always envisioned Stoltz in the role of Thomas. "I've always been an Eric Stoltz fan," says Filerman. "I watched his career and admired his choices. I just thought he would be really good for this. He read the material and said, 'Yes, I like this.' So that made him even more endearing to me."

Stoltz wanted to do "Roommates" for a couple of reasons. "I liked the script and I knew Randy was doing it," he says. "I respect him tremendously." Ten years ago, the two appeared in the teen comedy "The Wild Life."

"Roommates" marks the first time in a decade that the 30ish Stoltz has made a network TV movie. He recently appeared in the TNT cable movies "Foreign Affairs" and "Heart of Justice."

"I did a TV movie in 1983 called 'A Killer in the Family' with Robert Mitchum," says the personable actor, over a vegetarian lunch at Pasadena's Ritz-Carlton Hotel. "He played my father. He's a hoot, isn't he? I love working with those old Hollywood legends."

And sometimes they leave him speechless, like the time he forgot his lines while working with Vincent Price on "Heart of Justice."

"I totally went up, and we had to cut," he says. "I looked at him and said, 'Forgive me. I was just looking at you and thinking, 'Oh my God, that's Vincent Price.' He said, 'It's all right dear boy. The same thing happened to me when I worked with Ronald Colman.' "

Before production began on "Roommates," Stoltz and Quaid visited hospices in Los Angeles and Vancouver, where the film was shot.

"They were really quite amazing places," says Stoltz, nibbling at his pasta. "In Vancouver, there was quite a lovely old Victorian home where they had created a schedule where one person would cook and one person would do this and that. Then as they got sicker, they would go to a different hospice that had more hospital facilities. I think Canada is far more advanced than we are about dealing with their health problems."

Stoltz discovered that the majority of hospice residents were quite open about talking about their illnesses. Several patients worked as extras.

"I think they were a little bit excited that we were doing something to show people that they were still human beings and had lives. A few of them were quite insistent that we do not talk down to them or reduce them to stereotypes."

Meeting these people, Stoltz says, made him want to do his best work possible. "I felt I'd a responsibility to these people and to represent them as accurately as possible. I can't say it was a happy responsibility. I remember having quite disturbing dreams. But anytime you do a role where you confront a disturbing issue, especially your own mortality, it leaves you feeling disturbed, sad and strange."

Stoltz acknowledges that it's difficult to play a reserved, quiet character like Thomas. "Deep down you wish you had taken the showier part because it's so much more fun chewing the scenery and letting it all hang out, as it were. But I think Randy was more suited for that role than I would have been because he looks like a big, blustery dockworker and I look much more like a lawyer and a pianist."

The slight, redheaded actor has been working nonstop during the past year. Currently in production on MGM's 'Fluke," Stoltz can be seen now on the big screen in "Naked in New York." He also recently produced "'Sleep With Me," with Meg Tilly. Last year, he produced "Bodies, Rest and Motion," in which he co-starred with girlfriend Bridget Fonda.

"I like producing and, surprisingly enough, I'm kind of good at it and would like to produce more," he says. Stoltz also will be seen later this year in "Killing Zoe," Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" and "God's Army," with Christopher Walken.

Stoltz sighs. "It's way too many movies to have coming out," he quips. "I try to do as much work in as little time as possible. It's the American way. I don't have time to live a life. I'm too busy working. I'm defined by my work."

"Roommates" airs Monday at 9 p.m on NBC.

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