Eight weeks ago, upon returning home from a Fourth of July weekend at the beach with his wife and daughter, actor Brad Davis pulled out a yellow legal pad and drafted a proposal for a book he never got the chance to write.
"The purpose of this book is to reveal what it's like to be infected with HIV, to be receiving treatment, and having to remain anonymous at all costs--chronicling how I have done this for over six years," wrote Davis in spare and simple prose.
"This may not be such a novel premise," the actor conceded. "Nobody wants to walk down the street with a sign saying 'AIDS' pinned to his or her shirt."
"The difference," wrote Davis, the boyishly handsome actor who won a Golden Globe award for his role as hashish smuggler Billy Hayes in "Midnight Express," "is I am a recognizable celebrity."
Then came Davis' indictment of the industry he had dreamed of entering since he was a 5-year-old boy in Florida.
"I make my money in an industry that professes to care very much about the fight against AIDS--that gives umpteen benefits and charity affairs with proceeds going to research and care," Davis wrote. "But in actual fact, if an actor is even rumored to have HIV he gets no support on an individual basis. He does not work."
Davis, who was 41, succumbed to AIDS complications at his Studio City home on Sunday. He got his wish and worked until June, when he starred in the cable TV drama "A Habitation of Dragons." With him at the time of his death were his wife of 15 years, casting director Susan Bluestein, 45, and their 8-year-old daughter, Alexandra.
Though Davis was surrounded by loved ones when he died, Brad and Susan were very much alone and isolated with their awful secret for most of the six years they knew the actor was infected. Even after they widened the circle in 1989, Susan said, only seven people knew that Brad Davis had AIDS until just days before his death. (Susan and Alexandra have been tested repeatedly and been found free of the virus.)
So closely did the family guard their secret that it was only on Saturday, the day before he died, that a weakened Davis called his longtime friend director John Erman and told him.
Monday, the day after Brad died, Susan contacted The Times through family friend Larry Kramer, the playwright and AIDS activist, in order to fulfill a vow she had made to her husband. "He wanted our story told, and he wanted it told with integrity," she said. "He wanted it told before the scandal sheets got hold of it."
Susan went so far as to authorize Davis' physician, Dr. Joel Weisman, to speak about his case and to provide The Times with Brad's book proposal. "These were Brad's words, the most recent words he had on the subject," Susan said.
What emerged is a portrait of personal courage, and terror, that speaks volumes about how far Hollywood, and the nation, still need to go to confront an epidemic that has stolen so many of their best and brightest. It is a tale of clandestine late-night visits to medical clinics and hospitalizations as "Robert Davis" paid out-of-pocket because the patient was afraid he'd be discovered if he filed insurance claims as Brad.
Constantly, Davis wrote, there was the anxiety that "somehow the gossip mill would get hold of me and that would be that: I'd be one more pariah in Hollywood who could never get a job." Fearing for his livelihood, Davis denied himself the solace that support groups can bring to people with AIDS and HIV infection, and may have shortened his life by seeking treatment so late in the course of his disease.
"Brad lived a life of sheer, utter hell for six years," said Kramer, whose 1985 AIDS play, "The Normal Heart" featured Davis as an hysterical and passionate Kramer-like character named Ned Weeks. "He managed to work by keeping this all a secret for six years, but at the cost of a dreadful, dreadful strain that probably shortened his life."
"This proves everything that everyone has said about how awful Hollywood is in its reaction to AIDS," added Kramer, who has been close friends with Davis and his wife since 1972. "We've got Broadway Cares in New York, but what are they doing to help their own in Hollywood? Nothing."
As his health ebbed, Davis' determination to speak out grew. "Brad did not want to be one more faceless person to die of AIDS," said Susan, choking back tears. "He did not want George Bush to be able to keep on saying, as he said last week, that he cares more about the unemployed than he does about people with AIDS."
Davis himself had scornful words for Ronald Reagan, who, when asked to address the health crisis, said he wouldn't do anything to condone homosexuality. "What an unbelievably ignorant, arrogant, bigoted position," wrote Davis. "How could he possibly think that his opinion on homosexuality had anything to do with a devastating disease that was ravaging people, reducing them to skeletons and killing them?" he wrote.