IT WAS ONLY TWO YEARS PRIOR TO THE BIRTH of the L.A. Weekly that I arrived in Los Angeles. Back then the city seemed to me a sprawling, sleepy empty place — Altman’s The Long Goodbye captured its ultracasual look and feel perfectly.
“But there’s nothing there,” my East Coast friends would say. And that’s precisely why I loved it — such a welcome respite from the vertical squalor I’d known for 30 years in New York. Yet the horizontal squalor that’s come to characterize L.A.’s last quarter-century has made it feel just as empty in a rather different way. The streets and freeways have turned into parking lots — making each man a vehicular island. And beneath that surface there’s a void carved out of loss born of AIDS. It’s a loss we continue to bear as never before, what with no cure in sight, once-promising treatments failing, a new generation indifferent to condoms and a soaring infection rate. New global estimates released on November 18 show that roughly 40 million people worldwide are now living with HIV/AIDS, including an estimated 2.5 million children under 15. Some 5 million people were infected in 2003, and more than 3 million died. Consequently, feigned ignorance is not bliss. But then neither was the genuine ignorance of what was coming down the road that we all experienced a quarter-century ago.
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 too many others, to get himself an L.A. pied-à-terre, the better to become (the buzzword had just been hatched) “bicoastal.” The place he’d found was perfect — a modern, modest courtyard complex on Sweetzer, just off 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 miniseries Edward and Mrs. Simpson, was another resident, and so was that series’ star, Cynthia Harris (who went 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 offbeat (and barely released) Second-Hand Hearts, 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. Tony told us how every day during the shooting of Second-Hand Hearts, he’d get a call from someone on the crew asking him to coax Harris out of her trailer. She had become terrified of her leading man . . . Robert Blake. 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 Immunodeficiency) 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 semiautobiographical tribute to New York bohemia in the 1950s,
wouldn’t be following Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro 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 seroconverted, 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. It brought him back in an instant. Likewise, any viewer of Next Stop, Greenwich Village will find Lenny Baker alive once more. Sure, the movies are a 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 ever making a movie — like Luther Whittington, 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, midtown, 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.