This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The news that Charlie Sheen is HIV-positive has brought the immunodeficiency virus back into Hollywood headlines — but not with the same impact An Early Frost had in 1985. Other TV shows had addressed HIV, the virus that causes AIDS but is now not always fatal and is treatable, as a plotline. An episode of CBS’ Trapper John, M.D. devoted to the subject aired a week before Frost‘s Nov. 11 showing. Showtime’s Brothers introduced an HIV-positive character in 1985, but Frost was the first made-for-TV movie with HIV/AIDS at its center. The NBC film focuses on a young Chicago lawyer (Aidan Quinn) who learns he has AIDS and goes home to Pennsylvania to tell his parents (Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara).
THR called it “a sensitive and powerful fictional scenario” in its review. “It was one of the more rewarding, or most rewarding, jobs I ever had because of the effect it had on elevating the education about the AIDS epidemic,” says Quinn, now 56. “I get stopped on the street to this day, like an old woman will grab my hand and say it really helped her understand her son.” The movie was a critical and ratings success, but advertisers shied away. The late Perry Lafferty, the net-work’s senior vp movies, once said: “The first time it aired, NBC lost $600,000. Brandon [Tartikoff, then-network president] decided to broadcast it again about six months later. That time, it lost $1 million.”