That Certain Summer broke ground with Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook as a gay couple

That Certain Summer broke ground with Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook as a gay couple

The year is 1972. Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook have been ubiquitous on small screens since the 1950s; familiar faces to TV audiences, but far from the level of fame they would find them later in their careers. After a decade of writing for other people’s series, William Link and Richard Levinson have recently started writing their own TV movies; My sweet Charlie won his first Emmy in 1970, and Prescription: Murder had just become a little show called columbus in 1971. The four men were about to collaborate on the rarest of ventures: a TV movie that would be remembered decades after it was shown.

that certain summer sees 14-year-old Nick (Scott Jacoby) spend the summer with his father Doug (Hal Holbrook), a contractor in San Francisco, who has been divorced from Nick’s (Hope Lange) mother for three years. Nick’s excitement at the visit is immediately dampened when he meets Doug’s “friend” Gary (Martin Sheen), who continues to interrupt father-son time during the trip.

Doug and Gary are actually romantic partners, and Doug hasn’t figured out how — or even if — he’s going to tell his son; it’s clear he expects Gary and Nick to become such good friends that Nick will be thrilled to hear the news. But remember, it’s 1972 here, and Doug’s dream looks pretty optimistic. As the summer progresses, the realization of who Gary really is for his father slowly sinks in, and he’s not thrilled. Not even a little.

that certain summer is widely credited with being the first TV broadcast to portray a gay couple in a positive light. Still, network TV broadcasting in 1972 posed a number of challenges. No way was nervous ABC going to allow for the kind of physical affection they showed between heterosexual couples several times a day; even prolonged eye contact was forbidden. The creative team was tasked with telling a story about a loving gay couple that would be broadcast on a network deeply uncomfortable with the whole idea.

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However, they did an impressive job. Sheen and Holbrook, aided by Link and Levinson’s sensitive dialogue, quickly evoke the kind of ease with each other that naturally comes from intimacy. Their dynamic is so convincingly established that you can imagine what their weekends together would be like, what they would be like at a dinner party or in a crisis; when later conversation reveals they’ve been together for less than a year, it’s a surprise. whereas at the time that certain summer aired, homosexuality was still a year away from being officially declassified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association, the comfortable banality of Doug and Gary’s relationship was, in itself, revolutionary.

One of ABC’s demands was that Link and Levinson include a character who represents “the average straight American.” Enter Gary’s surly brother-in-law Phil (Joe Don Baker). Gary usually lives with Doug, but stays at his sister’s house during Nick’s visit. One morning, seemingly out of nowhere, Phil begins to be aggressively tolerant of Gary’s “friend”.

“You don’t need to feel embarrassed about bringing him here,” he says, with an unspoken – but very loud – desire for praise for showing such benevolence. Gary isn’t having it. “Look Phil, it’s nice of you to be open-minded about me,” he says. “I appreciate your tolerance, really, but you’ll have to forgive me if I detect a whiff of paternalism coming from this… well intentioned. Normally I can handle it, but today, I’m a little sensitive.”

Sheen’s presentation of this eminently understandable mini-speech is exquisite; there is a lifetime of frustration weighing on these few sentences. Still, Gary soon pulls himself together, shakes his brother-in-law’s hand, and leaves for work. Before the scene ends, a snappy statement from Phil – “Some guys wouldn’t even let him in the house…” – underlines the conditionality of his “tolerance”. In a 2002 interview, Link said of this particular ABC clause: “We think it didn’t really hurt us… America is full of these kinds of people. This is what gays tolerate!”

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The network’s final stipulation was that in Doug’s climactic conversation with his son, when he finally comes out, his homosexuality is placed as a burden: “If I could choose, it wouldn’t be something I would choose for myself.” Link and Levinson regretted giving in to this demand, stating in their dual memoirs, Stay tuned, “the fact that we entered under pressure was hardly an excuse”. To the gay rights activists who despised that certain summer, felt like another lukewarm choice from a film too determined not to offend anyone to have any real value. Still, there were others within the community who saw this as an honest acknowledgment that not everyone is equally comfortable with their sexuality. The disagreement between the two perspectives played out in the pages of letters from The New York Times and The Village Voice for weeks (although, over time, consensus has settled on the film being a positive — but imperfect — step for the movement. for gay rights).

The widest reception of that certain summer was resoundingly favorable. It was nominated for seven Emmys (though it only won one, for Jacoby’s performance), and received a number of glowing reviews. Holbrook and Sheen’s stars would continue to rise, with their groundbreaking roles in All the President’s Men and apocalypse now waiting for them even more in the decade. Levinson and Link’s other TV movies continued to be a cut above the rest, and their nascent columbus would soon become a cultural giant.

The four would all be asked about that certain summer throughout their long careers. It continued to garner plaudits decades after the original showing, winning a Producer’s Guild Hall of Fame award in 1998 and in 2014 being added to the Paley Center’s prestigious media collection; the citation commended him for “educating and enlightening a select few and giving others a little hope.”

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Both innovative and flawed, that certain summer it was a product of its time in some respects and ahead in others; considering all that has changed in the decades since then, it still holds up remarkably well. Its very existence proves that sometimes not just a movie of the week put some genuine good into the world, but it could linger in the public’s imagination well beyond next week’s issue.

Chloe Walker is a UK based writer. You can read her work at Culturefly, BFI, Podcast Review and Paste.

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