Director John Erman had been directing episodic television since the 1960s (My Favorite Martian, The Outer Limits) but had achieved acclaim for the 1977 TV miniseries Roots and 1983’s Who Will Love My Children? with Ann-Margret. The producers had hoped to woo Paul Newman for Frost, but Erman’s agent told them, “Paul Newman isn’t going to do this; why don’t you hire my client John Erman? He’s talented, he happens to be a gay man, and I think he has the sensibility to make this movie.”
From the start, Erman had to wrangle with nervous NBC executives. They wanted a dream cast to disarm controversy: Elizabeth Taylor or Audrey Hepburn as the mother, Gregory Peck as the father, and Helen Hayes as the grandmother. “‘This is not the story of an American family if you’re going to cast it this way,’” Erman says he told the top brass. “‘This is a Hollywood version of an American family, and I don’t think it’s the right way to go.’ It was a huge fight, because they were terrified to make this film.”
Coming east to continue casting the movie, Erman had Quinn read for the role of Michael Pierson. He immediately knew he had his lead. “I loved that he was a really nice guy — not a prototypical, old-fashioned, matinee idol kind of guy — who seemed to have a kind of integrity that I felt was really important.”
Quinn, in turn, praises Erman’s directorial style. “He’s really, really supportive,” Quinn says. “I really felt — I don’t know how to say it — it was like he was completely for me and loved me.”
As gay men who were suffering numerous personal losses in the epidemic, Erman and cowriters Cowen and Lipman insisted on scientific authenticity in the film script. A medical specialist was hired. Erman brought Quinn to hospitals to meet AIDS patients. On one occasion the two attended a therapy group for people with AIDS.
“And I’ll never forget laughing,” Quinn says. “The amount [of black humor] that came out of those sessions. And the amount of soulfulness. And I thought, my God, these men — they were primarily young men — had wisdom way beyond their years about life because of the situations they were in.”
“That was a terrible night because there were so many guys who were practically gone,” Erman says. “It was just people talking about their feelings and what they were going through, what their fears were.” The pair also visited a man in a New York hospital who shared his thoughts with Quinn on coping with AIDS. The next day Erman received a call: The man had died later that night.
One effort to establish medical authenticity brought unexpected results. In order to understand his character fully, Quinn underwent a typical examination given to someone suspected of HIV infection. The doctor noted that the actor’s lymph glands were swollen and his white blood cells elevated.
“And I thought, Jesus Christ! Do I have AIDS?” Quinn says. “Is this some bizarre trick of fate that here I am doing this groundbreaking thing and I actually have it myself?”
The actor lived through a couple of days of mental agony — “I was kind of freaking out” — before his HIV antibody test came back negative.