The filming schedule for An Early Frost was short, even by TV movie standards. The 20-day shoot took place mostly in a house in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. Quinn remembers the camaraderie shared by the actors and crew. Erman echoes that observation: “There was a feeling on that set that we were doing something special.”
Erman adds, “The only thing I would say I could compare it to was working on Roots — because of Alex Haley, we all knew we were doing something special.”
However, the filmmakers were dogged by executives from the network’s standards and practices division. (The script had already gone through 14 rewrites.) The standards and practices men were always on set. Primarily, they did not want the film to condone homosexuality, a message directly at odds with the director’s objectives. Most egregiously, standards and practices wanted the film to depict Peter, who may have inadvertently infected his lover, as a villain. Erman had had enough.
“I said, ‘If you persist in this, I will have to take it to the press, because this is just beyond the pale. I wouldn’t dream of playing this relationship in anything but a positive way.’” The executives backed off on that matter, but remained on set to ensure there was no physical contact between Quinn and Moffett.
The director calls the production “a smooth-sailing ship” but adds, “It was not a ship that had a million laughs in it. It was emotionally fraught every day, in one way or another.” At one point during the shoot, director of photography Woody Omens told Erman with concern, “Every time I look at you, you’re in tears.”
Erman was guided through the filming by a personal mantra. “I figured out in my head that I was making that movie for my Aunt Myrtle,” he says, alluding to his working-class aunt from Chicago. “I thought, I want to make this movie so that she will realize that gay people are just as good as anybody else.”
When the finished product was ready to screen for NBC suits, Erman steeled himself. But Steve White, the head of movies at NBC, said, “Don’t anybody touch this. It’s fine just the way it is. Leave it alone.” However, An Early Frost now faced a less receptive industry. Top advertisers refused to buy airtime. Producer Perry Lafferty, an NBC vice president, estimated a half-million-dollar loss in ad revenues.
In that era networks held screenings on both coasts and flew in TV critics from across the country. Erman recalled the New York junket, where reporter questions turned nasty. But Sylvia Sidney stood up and said, “Look, I’ve been in the business a very long time and there are not a lot of projects that I’m proud to have been involved with, but this is one of them. And this is a wonderful movie and you people don’t know what you’re talking about.”
When the film aired that November evening, apparently curiosity trumped fear and revulsion; An Early Frost drew one third of the night’s TV audience, exceeding viewers for ABC’s Monday Night Football. The film would garner critical praise and an unprecedented 14 Emmy nominations. Erman was honored by the Directors Guild of America