Scheduling HBO’s production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart for Memorial Day Weekend makes perfect sense: the play is a memorial to those dead and gone in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Kramer, who was surrounded by dying friends in the early 1980s, wrote The Normal Heart to galvanize the gay community, the health bureaucracy, and the public at large. It debuted at New York’s Public Theater in 1985, creating a major stir. None other than Barbra Streisand bought the film rights, hoping to play the key role of the female doctor who sympathetically confronts the crisis. But for ten long years she couldn’t find funding. Now, at long last, HBO will broadcast a full-length version on Sunday, May 25, with Julia Roberts as the doctor, and Mark Ruffalo filling the role of Kramer’s own alter ego, activist Ned Weeks.
I saw The Normal Heart in a tiny L.A. theatre, the Las Palmas, soon after it played New York. The cast featured Oscar-winner Richard Dreyfuss as Weeks and a pre-Misery Kathy Bates as the doctor. But the actor I’ll never forget was Bruce Davison, who dramatically succumbed to AIDS onstage, mere inches from those of us in the front row.
Davison has had a long movie career, starting as a teenage rapist in 1969’s Last Summer and spanning everything from Willard (1971) to Short Cuts (1993) to X-Men (2000). For Longtime Companion, the landmark 1989 feature film about the impact of the AIDS epidemic on a circle of friends, he won many awards, and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. But that was still in the future when I talked to Bruce during the run of The Normal Heart.
I was then writing for the Los Angeles Times. Drama editor Dan Sullivan had charged me with a series of articles tied to various holiday periods. For Christmas, he suggested I ask several actors how they felt about appearing on stage during a season when everyone else was home trimming the tree. It was a thrill to chat with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, in residence at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre in Foxfire. I loved the opportunity to meet Nancy Kwan too. But when I spoke to Bruce Davison, the conversation ended up changing HIS life. Here’s how it happened.
Bruce, a lively talker, told me he was delighted that The Normal Heart would be closed on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. He viewed his brief holiday from the show as “24 hours out of the trenches. I’d like to be with someone and share it. If you know of a beautiful woman with a turkey . . . .” Continuing the interview, I alluded to flame-haired actress Lisa Pelikan, who had told me she was glad to be working at Christmas to distract from a recent break-up. Bruce was immediately interested: they’d never met, but she was exactly the kind of beautiful woman he had in mind. It was none of my business, certainly, but I encouraged him to look her up. From what I later heard, he bought a ticket to her play, then rushed backstage afterwards, exclaiming, “I’ve heard you’re single!” When I saw Bruce a few weeks later, he said, “Thank you for Lisa.”
They wed on July 4, 1986 (I received a formal announcement), and eventually had a son named Ethan. Of course, in Hollywood nothing good ever lasts. Bruce and Lisa divorced after twenty years, and are now both attached to others. Still, I treasure the memory of the time that I, a mild-mannered reporter, got to play Cupid.