In 1985 the AIDS epidemic had claimed more than 5,000 lives. A Gallup poll in June of that year established that 95% of Americans had heard of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, but most presumed that it solely affected gay men. In October actor Rock Hudson succumbed to AIDS complications, raising awareness and fears. Mainstream American media warned that the virus had entered “the general population,” suggesting that the hemophiliacs, people of color, sex workers, and homosexuals already infected fell outside that classification.
Into this maelstrom of myths and fears came the NBC television movie An Early Frost, broadcast the evening of November 11, 1985. Michael Pierson (Aidan Quinn) is a successful Chicago lawyer who strives to keep colleagues in the dark about his lover, Peter (D.W. Moffett). When Pierson is stricken with a series of illnesses, he learns he is HIV-positive. He returns home, where his mother (Gena Rowlands), father (Ben Gazzara), and grandmother (Sylvia Sidney) must deal with the dual revelation that their son is gay and has a terminal disease.
Frost was far grittier than the typical “disease of the week” films; while acknowledging homophobia, the film imparts basic medical information (stressing that HIV is not transmitted by casual contact) and makes a plea for compassion toward all those infected and affected. (The screenplay was written by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, later creators of Showtime’s Queer as Folk.) An Early Frost moved public debate on the disease forward and was nominated for 14 Emmy awards.
When he learned of the project, the Chicago-based Aidan Quinn had just drawn attention for Desperately Seeking Susan opposite Rosanna Arquette and Madonna. His agent told him about the role that several seasoned actors had turned down — among them, Jeff Daniels, who had played Richard Thomas’s lover in Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July.
Quinn had no qualms about playing a man with AIDS for several reasons. “You go with the best stories out there and the best journey you want to take,” he says. Coming from the theater, Quinn added, he knew people affected very early in the epidemic. Finally, he was eager to play opposite acting heavyweights Rowlands, Gazzara, and Sidney.
There was no dissent from management or friends, he says: “Because I wouldn’t surround myself with people that would say something like that to me. And even if they thought it, they wouldn’t say it.”