Emmys: An Oral History of the Groundbreaking TV Movie ‘An Early Frost’

On Nov. 11, 1985, NBC made history with the premiere of An Early Frost, the first feature-length film on either the big or small screen to address the ongoing AIDS crisis. The following year, on Sept. 21, 1986, the 38th Primetime Emmy Awards similarly entered the history books by awarding An Early Frost four Emmy statues — victories that not only honored a groundbreaking TV movie, but also brought increased attention to a disease that had reached its zenith by the decade’s midpoint.

As a made-for-TV movie, of course, An Early Frost had to tackle AIDS in a way that wouldn’t provoke advertisers or viewers to change the channel. That’s why it approaches the subject through the lens of two familiar TV movie genres: the family melodrama and the “disease of the week” weepie. The story revolves around Michael Pierson (Aidan Quinn), a closeted lawyer who comes out to his parents, Katherine and Nick (Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara), when he’s diagnosed with AIDS. While his mother is able to keep an open mind and heart, Michael’s gruff father flies into a rage, and his pregnant sister, Susan (Sydney Walsh), purposely avoids him out of misguided fear of contracting his illness. Advised by his doctor (Terry O’Quinn) to join a support group, a despondent Michael repairs his fragile emotional state through the friendship of another AIDS patient, Victor (John Glover), who eventually succumbs to the disease. The film ends with the Pierson family healed, even as Michael faces an uncertain future.

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Despite skittish advertisers declining to buy commercial time on the night of the movie’s premiere (NBC reportedly sacrificed $500,000 in advertising dollars by putting An Early Frost on the air), 34 million viewers tuned in, making it the most-watched program of the evening, even topping a primetime NFL game. And while it only won four Emmys, it was nominated for 14, including acting nods for Quinn, Rowlands, Gazzara, and Glover, as well as inclusion in the Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category. To mark the 30th anniversary of An Early Frost’s pioneering Emmy night, we spoke with seven of the film’s nominees to revisit their experiences creating a piece of television history that changed hearts and minds:

Aidan Quinn (Michael Pierson)
Nominated: Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special

Gena Rowlands (Katherine Pierson)
Nominated: Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Special

John Erman (Director)
Nominated: Outstanding Directing For a Miniseries Movie or a Dramatic Special

Ron Cowen & Daniel Lipman (Writers)
Won: Outstanding Writing in a Miniseries or Special

Sherman Yellen (Writer)
Won: Outstanding Writing in a Miniseries or Special

Woody Omens (Director of Photography)
Winner: Outstanding Cinematography For a Miniseries or Movie

The Plague Years
First widely observed in 1981 (although isolated cases appeared in the 1970s), the arrival of AIDS in America sparked a public health crisis that medical professionals, the government, and citizens proved ill-prepared to deal with. As the hardest hit community in the disease’s devastating first years, gay men and women became targets of hatred and fear. In the vacuum left by politicians’ flat-footed response to the crisis, artists rushed to fill the void. Author and gay activist Larry Kramer was one such early voice, speaking directly to the bigotry and ignorance of the times through his blistering play A Normal Heart, which debuted Off-Broadway in April 1985, seven months before An Early Frost premiered. Two years earlier, in 1983, playwright Sherman Yellen was commissioned to write a potential movie of the week about AIDS that would be pitched at mainstream audiences.

Sherman Yellen: A producer who worked for NBC contacted me about writing the script. I was reluctant at first, because I hated disease of the week TV movies. I always felt they fell into a certain category of soap opera that I didn’t write. But I spoke with my wife, and we remembered a trip we had taken to San Francisco the summer before. Men were literally dying in the streets; they were walking cadavers. There was a tremendous amount of fear, and my wife felt I had a responsibility to do whatever I could to get rid of that fear. I understood that it had to be a family drama, so I wrote a screenplay that was the story of a middle-class family. The son comes home to be with his parents, and the father is a macho guy who is suddenly confronted with a gay son dying of an incurable disease. Then I discovered they did not want my script and I forgot about it.

With Yellen’s script put to the side, writing partners — and life partners — Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman were hired to pen a separate screenplay. The duo says they were not made aware of the earlier version, and had no contact with Yellen before or during the writing process. The Writer’s Guild later ruled in arbitration that Yellen would be granted a “story by” credit on the film that became An Early Frost.

Ron Cowen: When we came onto the project, they gave us the one-line premise: “A young man has AIDS and has to go home and tell his parents, and he’s never told them that he’s gay.” Even 30 years ago, Dan and I thought, “The character is 30 years old. Don’t you think his parents know by now that he’s gay?” But as we started doing our research, it turned out that was very much the case. There were many, many gay men at the time who had not come out and were forced to reveal that they were gay because they had AIDS. That really was not as uncommon as we had thought.

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Daniel Lipman: When we started writing, [doctors] didn’t know anything. In fact, NBC gave us a book, which I still have in the garage somewhere, where one of the chapters said that AIDS was being brought in by mosquitoes from Long Island.

Cowen: We had a medical advisor who would take us to Santa Monica Hospital and we would meet patients in the end of life stage of AIDS. What we saw was pretty horrifying.

Lipman: We saw nurses coming in all dressed up with masks and gloves, and leaving food trays by the door because they wouldn’t go into the room, like we show in the movie. It seems unbelievable now, [but] everything in An Early Frost happened. Paramedics did refuse to take patients with AIDS. Nurses left trays outside of doors. People were ostracized — even gay people were ostracized by other gay people, who were terrified to be around them. Everything that happened in the movie was real; none of it was made up for dramatic effect.

Cowen: We didn’t want to write something angry and hostile, or accusatory. I remember at the time there were a lot of gay people who said, “This is the first movie ever made about AIDS and it’s not even about gay people, it’s a family drama.” We’re thinking, “What planet are you living on? This is 1985. This is NBC. You actually expect to see sex on NBC in 1985 between two men?” We wanted to write a family drama, because gay men have families, and at some point, you’re going to have to deal with the fact of telling your family that you’re gay. Even today, gay men still have a great deal of fear and hesitation in coming out to their families and fearing the consequences of what might happen when they tell them.

From Script to Screen
Due to the controversial subject matter, as well as ever-changing information about the disease, An Early Frost went through multiple drafts before NBC gave it a green light. Cowen and Lipman remember writing anywhere from 13 to 14 versions of the script, while the network searched for a director to attach to the project. They may have aimed too high with their first choice.

John Erman: They originally tried to get Paul Newman [to direct], and when he passed, they came to me! It was a job I was dying to do. By 1985, I had lost half of my friends. I was part of a group of people who were gay people in the industry and they just kept disappearing, and we kept going to memorial services. Every time you got any kind of a bruise, you thought you were an AIDS victim. It was terrifying, and so sad and so lonely.

Woody Omens: When I read the script, I was knocked out. To this day, it’s the best script I ever read. When I went to interview with Erman, I told him, “If you don’t hire me to shoot this movie, I’m going to kill myself.” I’m sure that isn’t what [got me hired], but he knew that I was enthusiastic at least!

Erman: In terms of casting, NBC was once again in the Paul Newman world. They wanted Elizabeth Taylor or Audrey Hepburn, people like that. And I said, “Look, these are icons, but they’re not a typical American family. Let’s get real here.” Eventually, I was able to talk them into people who you could believe were your neighbors. Gena [Rowlands] and Ben [Gazzara] were both very pragmatic, no- nonsense kind of people. They just buckled down and worked. They were a joy.

Gena Rowlands: When I first read it, I really was hesitant. It was 30 years ago, and nobody knew a whole lot about AIDS. I didn’t know anyone who had AIDS or who had been lost to AIDS. It was something I hadn’t thought a lot about at that time. The fact that having AIDS was such a disgrace then, and that whole families would break up — I was afraid it was too harsh for an audience. But then I thought that the world has to know about this, and decided to help do something about it. I’m glad I did, even though it was an extremely hard show to do.

Aidan Quinn: When I read the script, I immediately told my manager at the time that I didn’t care about negotiations or money — I wanted to do this. The fact that I heard other actors turned it down because [it meant playing a gay man] made me more inclined to do it, because it’s such a ridiculous reason to turn down a role. Actors should be able to play a variety of roles.

Erman: The network wanted him to do a screen test, and I felt that might be a problem because Aidan was a little rough around the edges in those days. I didn’t want him to be scrutinized before he was cast. I just said to the network, “No, he categorically refuses to do a test, but he’s brilliant.” Eventually, they said, “Fine.” He was the first person who ever officially got an offer.

Lipman: I give Aidan a lot of credit, because back then it was very courageous of a straight actor to play a gay role. He was also on the verge of becoming a very, very big movie star, and he still wanted to do this. It wasn’t only the fact that he was playing a gay character, but also that he was doing a television project. That was not an option for a lot of film actors at the time. They would never appear on television no matter how good the part was.

Erman: I had been given this edict by the censors that Michael and his lover Peter [played by D.W. Moffett] were not allowed to touch each other. The first day of shooting, we did an argument scene where the two of them were walking down the street near Michael’s house. In the course of the scene they resolve their differences, and as they walked away from the camera, Aidan put his arm around Moffett’s shoulder the way a brother would do. The censor was standing right next to me, and he put his head in his hand. It was just hilarious. They wanted Peter to be portrayed in a negative light; they said it would be better if it wasn’t a happy relationship.

Lipman: The thing that distressed us a little bit was the network was very intent on balance between gay characters and straight characters. For instance, there was a scene where D.W. Moffett and Aidan Quinn were in bed. Of course, they couldn’t be in bed together, so Moffett was in bed with his shirt off and Aidan was walking around. Obviously, he had just gotten out of bed!

Quinn: Being a young purist at the time, they had to keep the censors away from me. It just drove me crazy. I think I asked them to leave once. It was too hard to just do the scenes normally with those suits peering over the video monitor or the camera with disapproval and fear.

Erman: The censors went crazy about the grandmother [played by Sylvia Sidney] saying to Michael, “I like your friend,” when she meets Peter. They said, “That’s tacit approval from another generation, and it’s not acceptable.” I actually threatened them. I said, “If you continue with this, I’m going to go to the newspapers and the media and tell them what’s going on. You better come to your senses.” They talked to the network and they calmed down.

Cowen: One of the biggest conflicts in this movie was Sylvia’s character telling Michael to give her a kiss. They didn’t want that to happen! One of the people at NBC actually called the head of the CDC to make sure that the kiss was safe — that you could actually kiss someone on the cheek. Sylvia, god bless her, said, “If I don’t kiss the kid, I walk.”

Quinn: Sylvia won that battle for us. She stood up to them and exposed their whole hypocrisy. She was great. [Ed. Note: Sylvia Sidney passed away in 1999.]

Rowlands: I trusted John, because I knew he was a wonderful director. He made a lot of things very easy for me to understand. I thought Ben was wonderful in the scene where he finds out that Michael is gay and he nearly attacks his son. I wonder if it’s harder for men to understand that, because they expect their sons to be boxers and wrestlers. But I thought that Ben was wonderful in expressing that, and that Aidan was marvelous in everything he did. [Ed. Note: Ben Gazzara died in 2012.]

Omens: I love the scene when Peter is outside, and Michael looks through the window and you see his face in the glass. That comes to my mind often. If you look at that film, it’s very simply photographed. It verges on being more documentary-like, but is totally controlled and subtle. The story is what gets the attention, and you get out of the way.

Quinn: There’s a scene where I’m opening a door, seeing my mother playing piano and going straight upstairs to my room. [During shooting], I thought, “Oh, thank god! I can relax and not have to worry about real emotion here!” But John was looking for something, and he came over and whispered in my ear, “What is this scene about?” He didn’t give me the answer, just asked the question. And I realized as the cameras were about to roll that as I walk in and see my mother, it’s me thinking this could be the last time I ever see her do this. It’s me saying goodbye, even if she didn’t see me. And that should have been playing on my face and my heart. It was one of the best pieces of direction I’ve ever been given.

Yellen: There were two big differences in my script. First, Michael is abandoned by his lover, because one of the sad things I found in my research is that for many of these guys, their life partners ran away from fear of contagion. And secondly, he dies at the end and his father delivers a eulogy. I thought it was very important for the family to confront the death of their son.

Lipman: We felt it was essential that the audience come away with some hope. In the film, he kisses his parents goodbye and gets in a cab and drives away into the darkness. That suggests something, but he doesn’t die [onscreen] — we refused to do that. To this day, we think that was a really good decision.

Rowlands: I’m not sure that Michael lived. There’s a scene with a doctor where he says that he’s never known anyone with AIDS who has survived. That would not be true now, but 30 years ago, it was. When Michael rides off in that taxi at the end and it disappears into the darkness, it does affect you.

Erman: When the network saw the film, they loved it. Then we brought the movie to New York and screened it for critics and got a very negative response. Most of them were right-wing Republicans, and they were making a lot of derogatory remarks. Sylvia was at the screening, and she got up and said, “I don’t know what’s the matter with you people. I’ve been in this business for over 50 years and I can’t tell you that I’ve ever been prouder of being in something than I am in this. It’s beautiful.” Some of the reviewers changed their minds, but then some gay people didn’t think we’d gone far enough, and some straight people thought we went too far. So it was not a situation where we felt that we were embraced by everybody.

Lipman: All the sponsors pulled out of the first broadcast. The only sponsors we had were NBC promoting their shows. Halfway through, we had one sponsor, which was the King James Bible. I’ll never forget that, because we were watching the film with some family and friends and all of a sudden we’re watching an ad for the King James Bible, which was really bizarre. But we beat Monday Night Football! And when they aired it again the following April, it did very well.

Rowlands: After the movie aired, I was at a spa with a bunch of friends and a woman kept looking at me from another table. When I got up to leave, she came over and said, “I want to tell you how much that movie meant to me. It kept me from making a terrible mistake in my own life.” That touched me enormously. I feel like she was talking about her own family, and a mistake she could have made that she always would have regretted. You never know what people feel about the shows you’ve done until someone comes up and tells you. It’s wonderful when they do.

The Room Where it Happened
Despite some dissenting opinions, the overall public and industry reaction to An Early Frost was largely positive. Heading into Emmy night with stellar ratings and 14 nominations, the film seemed poised to be one of the evening’s big winners. But it didn’t exactly play out like that; when the telecast ended, An Early Frost had won only four out of 14 statues, including awards for writing, cinematography, editing, and sound mixing.

Erman: We were absolutely thrilled by the nominations, and we all thought we were going to win. Everybody was calling me all day long saying, “I hope you have your speech ready.” All the directors I knew were calling me. It seemed like it was going to just be a slam-dunk.

Quinn: I was certain I wasn’t going to win, so I didn’t prepare anything. Dustin Hoffman had been nominated for Death of a Salesman, and there was huge applause for him after his clip was shown. But then they showed my clip and all of a sudden the applause was even bigger! And I suddenly got absolutely terrified; I’m shy about public speaking. So when they said that Dustin was the winner, the camera was on me and you could see me breaking into a big smile and saying to my wife, “Thank god.” Thirty years later, and I’ve never been nominated for Best Actor at the Emmys again. If I ever am, I’ll be saying “Thank god” for a different reason.

Omens: I had nominations for two different shows, An Early Frost and an episode of Alfred Hitchock Presents. It’s always a highlight, because I’m getting recognition for something that I believed in. But you don’t know what will happen until you go. I never think about those things. In a way, it’s a little silly. I think there should be nominations, but there should be no final awards. But that doesn’t make drama, does it? I think An Early Frost deserved a category that honored everybody, the entire production team. Everybody who made that film made it special.

Rowlands: Someone told me that I was nominated, but I don’t really remember. It wasn’t important in that sense. What was important was the film itself. I’m glad the writers won. They were writing about a subject that wasn’t a popular subject at the time, and they did a very good job. It provided a lot of understanding about how a mother or a father would feel.

Lipman: It was a very strange experience because this was a big break for us in our career, yet it was also something that we regretted we had to do. Even winning an Emmy for it. We had a very dear friend who died around the night of the Emmys. So there we were winning an Emmy for this, knowing that our friend had just passed away.

Cowen: We have video of the speech somewhere at home. We worked very hard on it to make sure we thanked all the appropriate people, all the AIDS patients we interviewed, some of whom spent the last weeks of their lives with us. I do remember, funnily enough, that they told everyone that if there are more than one of you who goes up to accept the award, only one of you is allowed to speak. Dan and I were concerned about that. We were going, “Should we flip a coin?” The way we got around the rule is for each of us to say a sentence. He’d say one, and then I’d say one. We only did one speech, but each of us took the next sentence.

Lipman: We were the first [from An Early Frost] to win, and they ushered us back to the press pit. They said, “Before we ask you guys anything, it looks like everyone else is going to win, so why don’t we wait and we’ll get everyone together.” We stood there and watched as each category was lost. Usually when they whisk you back to the press area, there’s a lot of excitement, but all the excitement just drained out of everyone. Finally, after the fifth or sixth loss, they said, “All right, we have the writers.” They thought they’d have Gena, Ben, and Sylvia back there, too.

Erman: It was quite a night. When they would read out the names of the people who did win, we would look at each other. I was sitting with Gena because her husband wasn’t well enough to come, and we just looked at each other like, “What is going on?” It’s hard to be rational about all that. The Emmys are, in the long run, just a feather in your cap. But at the time, we were all pretty deflated by that experience.

Quinn: If it was a year or two later, I think we would have swept the Emmys. But this was so new, that we got the honor of being nominated, but were almost shut out. I was disappointed for the other actors that didn’t win. I thought for sure that John Glover would win. I mean, c’mon!

Lipman: Should I tell our Milton Berle story? At that Emmy ceremony, they were honoring people like Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar, and Imogene Coca. These names mean nothing to people now, but to us it was like, “We grew up watching you!” Before the end of the ceremony, all of the winners were told during the commercial break to line up backstage and come onstage. So we’re standing there onstage with all of these legendary people, and next to us is Milton Berle. We’re holding our Emmys and the announcer says, “Thank you for joining us for the 38th Annual Emmy Awards!” Everyone’s applauding, and Milton Berle is shaking our hand saying, “Fellas, congratulations. You really deserved it. You wrote a wonderful film. I’m so proud of you.” Then the director said, “Cut, we’re off!” And Milton Berle drops our hand and says, “Who gives a s–t about you and your Emmy.” He walks away and turns around and says, “Just kidding! Just kidding!” It was hilarious. So that was our Emmy experience.

Beyond Frost
In the years after An Early Frost, more films and filmmakers used the power of narrative storytelling — and the reach offered by television and movies — to destigmatize AIDS, whether in made-for-TV movies like 1989’s The Ryan White Story or in such theatrical features as 1992’s Philadelphia. (The latter film, of course, won Tom Hanks critical raves — and an Oscar — for playing a role strikingly similar to Quinn’s, a gay lawyer dying of AIDS.) This coincided with news of some of the first successful HIV/AIDS treatments. To this day, there is no cure, but men and women with AIDS are able to lead longer lives.

Erman: I think the film broke down barriers because the average audience looked at Aidan and Don [Moffett] and said, “These aren’t sissies. There aren’t pansies who are flying around the room. These are just two guys.” I felt that if the film was the kind of movie that my aunt in Chicago could watch comfortably, then I had succeeded. I wanted the movie to appeal to the middle classes because there was no sense in making it for gay people. The gay people already knew what was going on, and the religious right wasn’t going to enjoy it anyway. I wanted more people to accept the two guys as just human beings and not gay men, and I felt that we were very successful with that.

Quinn: I cannot tell you how many times people clasp my hand in the street and say, “Thank you for doing that; it’s what allowed me to come out to my parents.” Or “That’s what helped my brother as he was dying.” I still get it occasionally. For the millions of people who watched that night, it provided a huge education.

Yellen: I do believe the film did tremendous good in the world, and I recognize that good. I’ve gone to weddings with my wife, and people would come over to me and say, “You were associated with An Early Frost?” and tell me how much it meant to their lives. I believe the guys who wrote the screenplay did well by the subject and served the American community very well.

Omens: I believe that An Early Frost had an immediate effect in lowering the hysteria over AIDS, and putting it in perspective. It helped doctors, it helped patients, it helped the general public. It’s a phenomenal piece of work for what it accomplished.

Rowlands: I wish they would show it on TV again, with somebody explaining how different things were 30 years ago. How much prejudice there was, and how whole families could be destroyed by this. [Ed Note: An Early Frost was released on DVD in 2006, but is currently out of print.]

Cowen: On the one hand it was a wonderful experience, until you start thinking how many people died for this project to exist. Then it doesn’t feel so wonderful. And I think one has to realize that a lot of what we wrote about in An Early Frost is still very accurate to what’s going on today. I recently read how the House of Representatives was trying to pass a non-discriminatory bill towards gay people. They shot the bill down by one vote. The Republicans were running around on the House floor saying, “We need one more vote. Come on, let’s go. Anybody. Come on.” The Democrats were shouting, “Shame, shame!” There are now drugs that mean very few people still die of AIDS, but in terms of human, emotional advances, I think things go much more slowly. Human nature doesn’t move at quite the same speed.

Lipman: This experience is when Ron and I began to realize the power of television. I remember this one letter we received from a young man with AIDS. His father had completely rejected him, and he was in the hospital when his parents came over to see him, and they started watching An Early Frost in the hospital. By the end of the film, the father was laying in bed with his son with his arms around him.

The 68th Primetime Emmy Awards will air Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT on ABC.