In November 1985, President Ronald Reagan had only recently mentioned the word AIDS in public. Rock Hudson, the first major celebrity to die of (publicly diagnosed) AIDS, had passed away just a month before. Although the epidemic had claimed thousands of lives and sickened thousands more, there were almost no publicly available resources to help AIDS sufferers understand what was happening to them, or their friends and family to understand how to help.
It’s a demonstration of how bad things were that An Early Frost, a made-for-TV movie that was the first major film to deal with the AIDS crisis, is remembered for providing clear medical information. It was first broadcast “in the evening of November 11, 1985,” writes Jay Blotcher for The Advocate, and it represented an important moment in the American history of HIV-AIDS.
Today, made-for-TV movies are a peripheral form of entertainment, but in the 1970s and early 1980s, writes Stephen Kelly for PopMatters, “issues of social importance were frequently visible on the small screen. Renowned for their frank subject matter, cheesy production values, and lurid storylines, TV movies attracted millions of viewers with compelling, ripped-from-the-headlines stories.” Subjects like domestic abuse, bulimia and sex trafficking had all been covered, but AIDS was taboo until An Early Frost “pushed AIDS into the living rooms of a squeamish middle America,” Kelly writes.
“Frost was far grittier than the typical ‘disease of the week’ films,” Blotcher writes. “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 movie follows a young, closeted lawyer named Michael Pierson as he learns that he has AIDS and goes home to tell his family about what was then a terminal diagnosis. “His disclosure strains relationships with his tight-knit family, who struggle to understand and accept a dying son who has become a stranger to them,” writes Kelly. The script was written by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, who later created the early 2000s American TV show Queer as Folk.
While the film had a strong narrative script, Kelly writes, it was also “peppered with medical knowledge about AIDS known at the time. While this makes the film seem at times like a long public service spot, its estimated 33 million viewers were informed about AIDS by its end.”
The crew and cast also did personal research into what living (and dying) with AIDS was like for the thousands of Americans who had been diagnosed. Cowen and Lipman “insisted on scientific authenticity in the script,” and director John Erman took Aidan Quinn, who played Michael, to meet AIDS patients in the hospital on several occasions.
The result was a film with huge impact. It took four Primetime Emmy Awards in 1986, writes Ethan Alter for Yahoo News, and was nominated for 14 in total. "Despite skittish advertisers declining to buy commercial time on the night of the movie's premiere (NBC reportedly sacrificed $500,000 in advertising dollars by putting An Early Frost on the air), 34 million viewers tuned in, making it the most-watched program of the evening, even topping a primetime NFL game."
"It was one of the more rewarding, or most rewarding, jobs I ever had because of the effect it had on elevating the education about the AIDS epidemic," Quinn told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. "I get stopped on the street to this day, like an old woman will grab my hand and say it really helped her understand her son."