Just three short years after the Stonewall riots took place in New York ABC made television history when they aired THAT CERTAIN SUMMER (1972), the first gay-themed made-for-TV movie. This landmark telefilm is often left out of discussions about gay cinema but its significance shouldn’t be underestimated. This surprisingly smart and sensitive drama is well worth revisiting for the stand out performances, progressive script and Lamont Johnson’s understated and effective direction.
The plot revolves around a gay man named Doug Salter (Hal Holbrook) who recently divorced his wife (Hope Lange) of 11 years and is trying to build a future with his current partner Gary (Martin Sheen). The two men live comfortably together in a stylish California home nestled in the Sausalito hills but their life is interrupted by a summer visit from Holbrook’s 14-year-old son Nick (Scott Jacoby). The moody teenager is unaware of his father’s gay lifestyle but he soon starts to suspect that Gary is more than just a good friend of the family. When the truth finally surfaces, Holbrook’s character is forced to overcome his own self-doubt and come out to his son. His father’s honesty both confuses and troubles the young man who quickly decides to return home with his mother. Viewers are left wondering if father and son will ever resolve their differences.
THAT CERTAIN SUMMER is not a feel-good story but its sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual couple was groundbreaking. Unlike Hollywood films such as THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970), this telefilm was aimed at a much broader audience and the writers and actors involved ignored gay stereotypes that were typical of the period. Holbrook and Sheen play two professional career oriented men in a monogamous relationship who obviously care deeply about each other as well as Holbrook’s son. Their attempt to form an unconventional family unit may have hit a few snags but the film suggests that it’s possible and the only obstacle in their way is society’s limited view of love, marriage and family. In one particularly noteworthy scene Martin Sheen’s character is forced to confront Holbrook’s ex-wife who is worried that the men’s gay lifestyle might have a negative impact on her son. Sheen’s naturally offended by her assumption that something inappropriate is going on and they have the following exchange:
Gary: “You know, I don’t exactly enjoy sneaking out the backdoor with my suitcase. Now maybe that doesn’t cut any ice with you Ms. Salter but I happen to live here too.”
Ms. Salter: “You’ve established your credentials.”
Gary: “Have I? I don’t think so. You need a ring and a marriage certificate for that.”
When THAT CERTAIN SUMMER was beamed into thousands of American homes on Nov. 1, 1972 it was warmly received by critics and garnered no less than 9 Emmy Nominations. It took home the Golden Globe for Best Television Movie of the year as well as a Directors Guild of America Award and a Producers Guild of America Award. In retrospect that kind of praise would be noteworthy of any telefilm but the fact that THAT CERTAIN SUMMER was the first gay-themed made-for-TV movie makes its acclaim even more impressive but it did have its detractors. Some gay activists took issue with the doubt-riddled and somewhat confused speech that Hal Holbrook delivers in the film to his son:
Doug Salter: “A lot of people – most people, I guess – think it’s wrong. They say it’s a sickness. They say it’s something that has to be cured. I don’t know. I do know it isn’t easy. If I had a choice, it’s not something I’d pick for myself. But it’s the only way I can live. Gary and I have a kind of a marriage, Nick. We love each other. Does that change me so much? I’m still your father. . . I’ve lied to myself for a long time. Why should I lie to you?”
According to the award-winning script writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link (HONEY WEST, COLUMBO, and MURDER, SHE WROTE), ABC executives forced the writers to include the following lines: “They say it’s a sickness. They say it’s something that has to be cured. I don’t know. I do know it isn’t easy. If I had a choice, it’s not something I’d pick for myself.” These additions gave voice to some intolerant opinions, which allowed ABC to distance itself from the project. ABC also insisted that there would be no physical contact between the gay characters.
The writers have explained that it was also a difficult film to cast and that they received some extremely negative responses from male actors in Hollywood who wanted nothing to do with the production. Most were afraid that participating in the film could destroy their careers. One of those actors was Cliff Robertson who was considered for Hal Holbrook’s role and supposedly told ABC, “I’d rather play Hitler.” Holbrook was convinced to take the role after his wife and son encouraged him to accept but Martin Sheen jumped on board immediately and in an interview with the Dallas Voice in 2007 Sheen had this to say about his participation:
“I’d robbed banks and kidnapped children and raped women and murdered people, you know, in any number of shows. Now I was going to play a gay guy and that was like considered a career ender. Oh, for Christ’s sake! What kind of culture do we live in?”
Besides the difficulties the film faced in production and the negative response from some gay activists, the airing of THAT CERTAIN SUMMER also caused one of ABC’s affiliates to receive a bomb threat from a disturbed viewer but the overall response was very positive. As gay author Michael Karol explains in his book, The ABC Movie of the Week Companion, “This movie opened the dialogue for Americans to begin understanding, or at least discussing, the once-taboo subject.”
It’s hard to believe that more than 40 Years have passed since THAT CERTAIN SUMMER originally aired on ABC. The issues it grappled with then are still relevant today and seem particularly pertinent considering what’s happening in Washington, D.C. this week. Unfortunately this pioneering telefilm film isn’t available on DVD or video but curious viewers can currently find it on Youtube.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com on March 28, 2013