On November 11, 1985, NBC aired “An Early Frost,” the first TV movie about AIDS – although its greater historical significance may lie in its depiction of gay men, which was unusually honest for the time.
The two-hour film cast Aidan Quinn as Michael, a young Chicago lawyer who discovers he has AIDS – and that he probably contracted the mysterious disease from his live-in boyfriend Peter (D.W. Moffett), who confesses he’s been unfaithful.
Michael leaves Peter and heads home to New England, where he decides to tell his parents that he’s gay and has AIDS.
Michael’s mother Katherine (Gena Rowlands) is upset but supportive; his macho father Nick (Ben Gazzara) is seemingly as anguished to discover that his son is gay as he is to learn that Michael is dying.
Michael’s grandmother (Sylvia Sidney) is more compassionate, telling him he shouldn’t feel ashamed, but his pregnant sister (Sydney Walsh) is afraid to be in the same room with him and shouts him away when he tries to hug her young son.
Of course, Michael also experiences prejudice outside the home: When he suffers a seizure, the paramedics refuse to transport him to the hospital. Later, when a new friend dies of AIDS, Michael watches a nurse toss the man’s possessions into a garbage bag, fearing contamination.
“An Early Frost” doesn’t depict Michael’s death, but it offers viewers some closure: Before the movie ends, Michael and Peter reconcile, and Nick finally accepts his son’s homosexuality.
The final scene shows a smiling Michael telling his parents he loves them as he departs for Chicago, presumably to die at Peter’s side.
“An Early Frost” – the title comes from a line of dialogue about rose blossoms being nipped prematurely – is typical of the era’s disease-of-the-week TV movies, with the on-screen doctors (including one played by “Lost’s” Terry O’Quinn) delivering dialogue that sounds like it was lifted from a waiting room brochure.
Inevitably, this dates the film: No one, for example, mentions “HIV,” which wasn’t identified as the virus that causes AIDS until six months after the broadcast.
“An Early Frost” also seems old-fashioned in its portrayal of Michael’s life in the closet: The fact that the filmmakers chose to make the character’s coming-out a major subplot underscores how being openly gay in the 1980s was the exception, not the rule.
Contrast this with contemporary series such as “Modern Family,” where another gay lawyer, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), is out to both his family and coworkers, and Kurt (Chris Colfer), “Glee’s” out-and-proud high school student.
TV’s First Gay Yuppies?
Not everything about “An Early Frost” is outdated; its depiction of Michael and Peter’s relationship was decidedly ahead of its time.
The couple may be prime time’s first gay yuppies: They share a stylish apartment, take expensive vacations and struggle to balance their personal and professional obligations (when Peter confesses his affair, he explains the indiscretion happened when Michael was busy with work).
Michael and Peter never kiss or appear together in bed, but they are affectionate.
As Steven Capsuto notes in “Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television,” the first time viewers see Peter, he is playfully waking Michael for work.
In another scene, the couple performs a variation on what Capsuto calls “one of TV’s classic spousal scenes”: Michael, half-naked, shaves, as Peter sits on the counter.
“The two do not just recite lines that say they are in love: they interact and talk like a couple. They smile spontaneously when they look into each other’s eyes,” Capsuto writes.
Michael and Peter show how far gay men have come in prime time since 1977, when television’s first regular homosexual character – “Soap’s” Jodie, played by Billy Crystal – planned a sex-change operation in order to be with his boyfriend.
The Washington Post’s Tom Shales seemed to hint at this in his review, describing Michael as being “so far removed from the stereotypical homosexual that … he is stereotypically unstereotypical.”
“An Early Frost” aired six weeks after Rock Hudson became the first major celebrity to die of complications from AIDS.
As the Advocate noted in yesterday’s tribute to the movie, AIDS had claimed just 5,000 lives by 1985, but Hudson’s death sparked hysteria, stoked by nightly news reports on the epidemic.
“An Early Frost” demonstrated prime time entertainment’s ability to educate the public in ways that broadcast journalism couldn’t – or wouldn’t, as the New York Times’ John J. O’Connor noted at the time.
“The single moment of the grandmother’s insisting on kissing her troubled grandson makes an important point far more effectively than a month of breathless newscasts,” O’Connor wrote.
“An Early Frost” is also a reminder of a time when the broadcast networks embraced “prestige projects” that addressed the issues of the day.
Before the film aired, NBC sent viewers guide to hospitals and social services agencies and held advance screenings for science reporters and public health officials.
On the night of the broadcast, Tom Brokaw hosted a late-night special about AIDS, and several NBC stations set up hotlines to answer viewers’ questions about the disease.
An Enduring Legacy
The film was seen in 20 million homes, ranking sixth for the week, and won multiple Emmys and a Golden Globe, but its greatest legacy lies in the way it humanized gay men – not only as victims of AIDS, but also as everyday people.
See for yourself: “An Early Frost” is on DVD.
Here’s the prime-time lineup for Monday, November 11, 1985:
8: “Hardcastle and McCormick” (ABC), “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” (CBS), “TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes” (NBC)
9: “Monday Night Football” (ABC), “Kate & Allie” (CBS), “An Early Frost” (NBC)
9:30: “Newhart” (CBS)
10: “Cagney & Lacey” (CBS)
For the week of November 10, 1985:
Top novel: “Texas” by James A. Michener
Top song: “Miami Vice” by Jay Hammer
Top movie: “Death Wish 3”
Top TV show: “The Cosby Show” (NBC)
In the news: Prince Charles and Princess Diana visited Washington
Captions: “An Early Frost” stars Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands and Aidan Quinn in an NBC publicity photograph (top, photographer unknown); the network’s advertisement for the movie, from TV Guide’s November 9, 1985, issue.