Photo: ABC via Getty Images
LGBT visibility has certainly become a hot-button issue in entertainment. Today, we understand the importance of allowing the humanity of LGBT individuals and couples to shine through the blight of stigma and ignorance. Shows such as Modern Family, Orange Is the New Black, and Transparent have rightly been praised for authentic depictions of same-sex couples and trans individuals in loving and (mostly) functional relationships. But long before actors such as Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Laverne Cox were around, the path was laid out as part of The ABC Movie of the Week. On November 1, 1972, That Certain Summer became the first television-movie to offer a sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality and, with an all-star cast of Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen, it was a pretty big deal.
The story, written by Emmy award-winning duo William Link and Richard Levison, revolves around the divorced Doug (played by Holbrook), his partner Gary (played by Sheen), and Doug’s teenage son Nick (played by Scott Jacoby). Nick, unable to understand why his parents divorced, spends a summer holiday with his father. Doug initially tries to keep his relationship with Gary hidden, but Nick soon realizes the truth and runs away. When Gary finally catches up with his son, he bares all and the two have an emotionally wrought and frank discussion.
“A lot of people — most people, I guess — think it’s wrong. They say it’s a sickness. They say it’s something that has to be cured. I don’t know. I do know it isn’t easy. If I had a choice, it’s not something I’d pick for myself. But it’s the only way I can live. Gary and I have a kind of marriage. We … we love each other.”
While Doug isn’t completely successful in getting his son to understand, the film handles such a scenario remarkably well for the time. The American Psychiatric Association wouldn’t remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1973. Where the topic had been broached in popular culture previously, it was hardly ever done in a way that appeared to condone a homosexual lifestyle. Despite a strong working relationship with NBC, Link and Levison had to look to ABC in order to gain approval for the script. Even with the support of executive Barry Diller, the writers were forced to include Holbrook’s above quote that some people saw homosexuality as a sickness. There was even pressure to remove Doug’s line saying that he and Gary “love each other,” but the writers fought successfully to keep it included.
Written by the team who masterminded Mannix and Murder, She Wrote and directed by two-time Emmy award-winner Lamont Johnson, the film was, content aside, going to attract attention. Both Holbrook and Sheen were relatively new to Hollywood and, as is so often commented upon today, were advised against playing gay characters. After initially turning down the role, Holbrook accepted after recognizing his own struggles as a recent divorcée reflected in the character of Doug. In a 2007 interview with The Dallas Voice, Sheen reminisced on what a “huge hit” the film was, and discussed the thought process behind his acceptance of the role of Gary.
“I’d robbed banks and kidnapped children and raped women and murdered people, you know, in any number of shows. Now I was going to play a gay guy and that was like considered a career ender. Oh, for Christ’s sake! What kind of culture do we live in?”
Such exasperation is certainly shared on a much wider level today than in 1972, with actors constantly maneuvering questions about the effects of being open in Hollywood or playing gay roles. Both Holbrook and Sheen went on to pursue hugely successful careers, and the young Scott Jacoby won an Emmy for his portrayal of Nick. Incredibly, the overall feedback was remarkably positive. In total, That Certain Summer was nominated for seven Emmy Awards, winning one, and took home the Golden Globe for Best Movie Made for TV.
The Paley Center For Media recently announced that That Certain Summer would be one of many new additions to its media collection in celebration of television’s impact on LGBT equality. A special 2014 Los Angeles Gala will be held on November 12, with special presenters including Portia de Rossi, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Sean Hayes, and Jason Collins. The Paley Center celebrates That Certain Summer as having demonstrated the more progressive element of television, noting its success at “educating and enlightening a select few and giving others a little bit of hope.”
Watch the emotional scene where Doug comes out to his son, Nick, on The Paley Center website.