Fear kept Olympic diver Greg Louganis from telling the world when he learned in 1988 that he was HIV positive. It also forced elementary school teacher Tom Bradley to keep silent for eight years after he tested positive for HIV.
But after his insurance company refused to pay for an experimental bone marrow transplant from his twin brother Bob, Tom Bradley was forced to go public in order to save his life. Though the Bradleys won their court battle, it was too late. Tom had developed an infection and was not able to have the transplant.
"My Brother's Keeper," premiering Sunday on CBS, is the heartbreaking, inspirational story of Tom and Bob Bradley and the small Long Island community that rallied to help the brothers. John Lithgow stars in a dual role as Tom and Bob Bradley.
Tom's condition "was a secret in my family," says Bob Bradley, who teaches sixth grade at the Bayport-Bluepoint Middle School in Suffolk County, Long Island. They both taught fifth grade but at separate schools. After Tom's death from complications of AIDS in 1991, Bob transferred to the sixth grade.
"Nobody knew (about his illness) except myself and my significant other and my brother's best friend," says Bradley, who is also gay. "Of course, he did not want that secret out."
In order to bring attention to the insurance company's refusal to pay the $150,000 for the operation, the brothers took their story to the press.
"For a long time the lawyers were talking to my brother and myself that you really have to go public with this story," he says. "Tom would say to me, 'My worry is about you' and my response would be to him, 'We have to do everything we can to save your life.' But we were both terrified our careers would be over once it hit the press. This was a year or two after the Ryan White story and what happened to him and how he was persecuted. Long Island tends to be generally conservative."
Instead, their fears were unfounded. The town of Bayport united behind them. Their students went door to door gathering names on petitions urging the insurance company to pay for the transplant. The community held fund-raisers, including a "Tom Bradley Day" carnival.
Emmy Award-winning producer-director Glenn Jordan ("Barbarians at the Gate") doesn't see "My Brother's Keeper" as a "disease" movie. "I think if there's a hero, it's the community. I think it makes such a wonderful story. It's an inspirational American story."
And a story that deeply moved Lithgow. "I think almost any story dealing with AIDS is unavoidably sad, but the fact that there is this flash of hope makes it even more devastating," says Lithgow, during a break in the filming on a residential street in Monrovia.
"My experience reading the script (by Gregory Goodell)....I have never been so moved, almost tortured by the script. I have, like almost anyone in the entertainment business, lost a lot of friends to AIDS, so I couldn't help connecting the tragedy of the story with the people I have known who have died."
Lithgow lost more than 15 pounds to play Tom Bradley and then added padding for his scenes as Bob. "We've had to labor quite hard to make (one actor) two," Lithgow says with a smile.
Thanks to sophisticated split-screen technology, viewers will almost forget one actor is playing both parts. "I think one of the things that is most successful in the picture is after the first five minutes you always know which twin you are looking at," says Jordan, who first learned about the Bradleys' story when he read Tom's obituary in the New York Times.
"It's not because they look slightly different," Jordan adds. "It's because of the way John plays it. It is because of the difference in the characters."
Bob Bradley has seen the film several times. "It's a very painful movie for me," he acknowledges. "It relives part of my life in which it was a roller coaster ride for my brother and myself. I find the film to be very authentic."
As is Lithgow's performance. Bradley says he "brilliantly" captured them both. "Tom was more pensive, far more serious. He was the analytic one. I was the emotional one. That was always the case. He was dealing with this disease for so many years. He handled it much differently than I would. I would have needed all the emotional support I could get. He used to say, 'You are my support group. I don't need anybody else but you.' "
Tom Bradley would have loved the fact that Lithgow is playing him. Several years before the court case in 1990, they had seen Lithgow on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning "M. Butterfly."
"He was impressed," recalls Bradley. "He went back to see the play two more times. Lithgow was one of his favorite actors. I think it was after he came back from Johns Hopkins (Oncology Center) and had been approached (by a producer about movie rights) he said, 'If a movie would ever be made, I would like to have John Lithgow play me.' I told that to Glenn Jordan."
The film, Jordan says, was a real labor of love for everyone. The cast and crew would often break into tears after intensely emotional scenes. "It became something of a joke," Jordan says. "The script supervisor and I'd look at each other and burst into tears and say, 'I can't take this one more minute.' But we kept right on until the last day. When you work on material that you just feel so passionately about, it just does that to you."
"My Brother's Keeper" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.