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Acting in the Time of AIDS : The stark reality of 'And the Band Played On'is more than enough drama to entice actors


The tragedy of AIDS came to a "terrible arrowhead" for Anjelica Huston the day the Oscar winner reported to work for "And the Band Played On."

Participating on the HBO film became a "very emotional piece for me," she relates quietly. "It was on the morning of the death of a dear friend of mine that I went to work. I also had my hairdresser with me, who had been my hairdresser in films for eight years, who told me that day he had AIDS. It was the most heart-wrenching day. I just had the talk with my friend in the trailer before I went on to do this part. I didn't think I could get through the day. It was tremendously hard."

For others in the all-star cast, it was an equally difficult and uplifting project. Besides Huston, the film features Matthew Modine, Alan Alda, Richard Gere, Ian McKellen, Phil Collins, Glenne Headly, Swoosie Kurtz, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, B.D. Wong and Tcheky Karyo.

The dramatization of Randy Shilts' best-selling chronicle of the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the small group of people who fought indifference, prejudice, ignorance and politics to battle the deadly virus premieres Saturday.

Huston, who has a cameo as a pediatrician, became involved in the production after she read Arnold Schulman's script. "It's obviously a subject that can't get enough attention," Huston says.

Directed by Roger Spottiswoode ("Under Fire"), "Band" focuses on the researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Modine plays the central figure, Dr. Don Francis, who was asked in the early years of the virus' appearance to determine what was causing the strange new illness and how to stop it.

What Francis encountered was an enormous wall of indifference. The press wasn't interested in the "gay disease." The Reagan White House ignored it. Blood banks refused to admit there was a problem with the blood supply. A segment of the gay community was more concerned with civil rights than staying alive. And scientists squabbled over bragging rights to who isolated the virus first.

The HBO project, which encountered its own share of problems getting off the ground and onto the air, nevertheless found great enthusiasm among participating actors.

"Every actor I know just wanted to be in it," says Swoosie Kurtz, who plays a wealthy San Francisco woman who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. "It's different than being in the cast of a normal production. I truly would have done a walk-on in this. I would have been an extra."

Americans, she maintains, "are so adolescent about sex. The entire homosexual community makes them nervous. When you think that it took Rock Hudson's death in 1985 to kind of start mobilizing the government and the straight people, it says a lot about this country."

"It's been much less a political football (in Great Britain) than it's been in the States," says Briton Ian McKellen, who plays San Francisco gay rights activist Bill Kraus.

"We look at AIDS in a different way," McKellen says. "We are slightly protected because of the National Health Service. Anybody needing treatment gets free medical treatment and medication, so much of the continuing distress in the U.S. of people not having adequate insurance has never applied here."

Whoopi Goldberg was set to play Selma Dritz, the San Francisco public-health official who was determined to convince experts that AIDS was a sexually transmitted disease. When Goldeberg became ill just days before production began, Lily Tomlin offered her services.

"I knew about the project for a long, long time," Tomlin says. "I like to be part of something important."

She talked briefly with Dritz, who is now retired. "She was very reserved and dignified," Tomlin says. "I wish I had the opportunity to have spent time with her. You feel a little bit strange when you have to do someone who is living."

Tomlin believes that "Band" accurately captures "the competitiveness of the whole research field. I knew about that, but you never see it depicted. The smallness of people withholding information so they can be identified with the discovery. They're willing to sacrifice anything for that ego. The bureaucracy of the blood banks and the small-mindedness--it's staggering, actually."

A number of persons who are HIV-positive and living with AIDS appear in the film and were hired as consultants. 'The irony was that many people were made up, so you didn't know who was sick and who wasn't," Tomlin says.

"It certainly was unusual to be involved, as a gay man, in a project which was very close to home and to find everybody working on it to be totally supportive," says Tony Award-winner McKellen ("Amadeus"). "Often, one would be in a situation where the majority of actors in any one scene were gay. There were some people who were ill in the movie who were very concerned to contribute."

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