I first became aware of AIDS on a typical sunny Sunday afternoon, in 1980. I was visiting my friend Anthony Holland, the brilliant comic actor who while long-settled in New York had decided, like so many others, to get himself an LA pied a terre, the better to become (the buzzword had just been hatched) "bi-coastal." The place he'd found was perfect -- a modern, modest courtyard complex on Sweetzer, just off of Sunset, full of witty show business people just like him. James Coco had a place there, and so did Phil Leeds. Director Waris Hussein, who had just finished shooting the soon-to-be-celebrated TV mini-series Edward and Mrs. Simpson, was another resident, and so was that series' star, Cynthia Harris (who since then has gone on to even wider fame as Paul Reiser's imperious mother on the comedy series Mad About You). There was also a raft of older men, all hard-bitten, worldly-wise veterans of both Hollywood and Broadway, who were now involved in series television production. Sitting around the pool with all of them was a great place to gather the latest gossip and be regaled with all manner of tales (both tall and cautionary) about "the business."
Tony had been talking about Barbara Harris, the great and very high-strung Broadway star, who never quite made the mark in movies that everyone hoped she would, outside of Hitchcock's final film Family Plot. A friend of Tony's since they were part of the original "Second City" comedy troupe, Harris had come to count on him for all manner of emotional support as well. This reached its apex during the shooting of the decidedly off-beat (and barely released) Second-Hand Heart, a truly bizarre romantic comedy about a pair of social misfits directed by Hal Ashby. So troubled was the shoot that Ashby put off editing the film until he had shot and edited his far better-received next one, Being There. Every day the crew on location in the southwest, the Second-Hand Hearts, found themselves calling Tony in New York for him to coax Harris out of her trailer as she had become terrified of her leading man . . . Robert Blake. So Tony was just finishing off his latest Barbara story when he suddenly looked up at a delivery man scurrying up the stairway with a carton of groceries.
"Oh my," Tony sighed sadly, "that's going to poor Lenny Baker. Nobody sees him anymore. He's up there alone now. He's dying of cancer and the doctors can't seem to figure out why."
In just a few years they would -- right around the time that Baker died, in 1982. Baker's cancer had come to be known as "gay cancer," then briefly GRID (Gay-related Immune Deficiency) and then finally AIDS. We didn't have any name for it then. Besides we were all too shocked that a young, vibrant actor, who had made a smashing debut just four years earlier in Next Stop, Greenwich Village, Paul Mazursky's semi-autobiographical tribute to New York bohemia in the 1950's, wouldn't be following Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro into the world of major stardom. He wouldn't be anywhere -- like so many others all over the city and throughout the industry. In fact it wouldn't be all that long before Tony sero-converted, taking his own life just as he was entering the final stages of the disease in what can only be called an act of sheer bravado. Having squirreled away enough medication to do the deed, Tony had elected to make his exit on a day when he was in a good mood. He was in New York at that time and friends recall seeing him around town at his usual haunts in high spirits. Thorough in every undertaking, Tony had left instructions for the paramedics and even rubber gloves if they were chary of touching an AIDS corpse -- as many were back then. But then Tony was an actor. And while never a star he was enough of a success to have left something of himself behind.
Just the other day I picked up the new DVD of All That Jazz, and there was Tony as the composer of the show-within-the-film singing a deliberately silly Kander and Ebb ditty called "Take Off with Us" as only a true musical comedy ham could. I bought him all back in an instant. And likewise any viewer of Next Stop Greenwich Village will find Lenny Baker alive once more. Sure the movies are cheap form of immortality, but for what it is it ain't bad. In fact it's so effective I sometimes despair of those who died without every making a movie -- like Luther Whitington, an editor at The Advocate of enormous insight, wit, charm and above all speed. About as close as he got to the movies was when he was briefly employed as a gofer for Jodie Foster. What he was really made for was journalism -- getting to the bottom of a story and honing a point to its finest and most effective state.
But what I'm thinking of now is Luther in his last apartment -- a big beautiful place, mid-town, plenty of light, fabulous wood floors.
"Don't you just love it?" he said. "Isn't it just like a movie?"
If it only were a movie with a happy ending.
Copyright © David Ehrenstein
All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.