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Living With Hiv--and Making It More Human--on Tv

May 11, 1997|HARRIET WINSLOW | THE WASHINGTON POST

For months after Michael Beach played a heel in "Waiting to Exhale," he had to dodge angry women.

"There are still certain places I try to avoid because of that," he said. "It helps that the movie is getting older, but HBO keeps playing it."

These days Beach plays another bad guy, sort of. As Al Boulet, Jeanie's (Gloria Reuben) estranged husband on NBC's "ER," his character is in the middle of a story arc that involves the possibility of the couple's reconciling, despite the fact that Al infected her with HIV.

While they cope with the virus, a lot more will happen "between Jeanie and Al, when they finally start dealing with this situation that they're in--which is far from over," Beach says. "In the past, I came along to show how things were going poorly for her, but now they've moved along to show that interesting things are going on, too."

Separated from Al for some months, Jeanie, a physician's assistant who does little else besides help sick people all day, has carried on valiantly. She ended hospital rumors of who was HIV-infected by announcing that it was she. Then she started a romance with Dr. Fisher (Harry J. Lennix). Soap opera it surely is, but there's a message behind the story line, Beach says.

"The good thing about the show and what they're attempting to do is to show these people living, and that, particularly now with all the new drugs that they have, the appropriate thing to do is to say that these people do live, which is new. We've had characters with AIDS and HIV on TV before, but usually they were brought on to witness some horrific death scene.

"And we learn more and more that these people are living these long lives. That's part of society, and when the disease first came along, [the mentality was] 'Oh, these people are going to die.' But now they're saying that your life is not over. You can still love and learn, and what 'ER' is doing is moving further in that direction."

Off-screen, the Roxbury, Mass., native and Juilliard School grad keeps busy chasing after his 10-year-old son and two younger daughters. His wife, who is not an actress, expects a third girl next month. They help keep him balanced, Beach says.

"I always think that I have such a strong life outside of Hollywood that I don't have time to wallow in anything, because I have to pick up my kids and give them a bath. So I leave it in the audition room."

Beach will again grace the big screen this fall in "Soul Food," opposite Vanessa Williams. "I know a lot of brothers were upset by how men were portrayed in 'Exhale,' Beach says. "I think they'll be pleasantly surprised at how they are depicted in this one."

"ER" airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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