Wednesday, October 23, 2013

An Exclusive Interview with Linda Bloodworth-Thomason

In 1986, just as writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason was preparing the pilot for her classic CBS sitcom Designing Women, her mother, Claudia, contracted HIV from a blood transfusion.  Soon after, Designing Women became one of the first network shows to tackle the topic of AIDS in its landmark 1987 episode “Killing All the Right People,” for which Bloodworth-Thomason was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series.

As Linda explains, the experience of watching her mother and her fellow hospital patients being treated with scorn stayed with her, and has been one of the reasons she feels bonded to the often similarly ostracized gay community.  Now, she hopes that her latest project, the documentary Bridegroom [see yesterday's post, below] will focus attention on same-sex marriage and equal rights via a beautiful, though tragic, real-life love story.

After years of dreaming of meeting this iconic TV writer, I finally got the chance last week to sit down with Linda, and with her passion for the LGBT community and equality – not to mention her wit – the lady did not disappoint.

Frank and me with Linda Bloodworth-Thomason
at the Los Angeles premiere of Bridegroom, October 15, 2013

Must-Hear TV:  You must have had, in the past 20 years, thousands of people, particularly gay men, come up to you and gush about Designing Women.

Linda Bloodworth-Thomason:  There have been a lot who say that the show affected them – especially Dixie.  Her strength gave them strength.  Recently I was at an event at a design showhouse.  A young man, 28 years old, came up to me and said, “I’ve been wanting to run into you, and tell you that I was an only child of very religious parents in a small town in Kansas.  I had never been able to tell them that I’m gay.  But they loved Designing Women, and the night you did that show [about AIDS], when Dixie told that bigoted woman off and said ‘You’re going to have to move your car, Imogene,’ I found a strength I’d never felt before.”

It makes me so sad that there are so many young gay people, particularly young gay men, who think that they have no right to their own life, who have to ask permission to be who they are.  Most of us never would think, “I need to go get permission to be who I am and love who I love.” It’s such an outrageous concept, and that’s what we want to end.  That’s the point of Bridegroom.

MHTV:  You first met Tom and Shane at a wedding, where they, too, told you they loved Designing Women.  Yet they obviously made a particular impression on you, because years later when you heard about Tom’s death, you wanted to get involved.  There’s some magic to this story, how they stayed with you, it seems.

LBT:  I think the magic was them.  I don’t think Shane was that familiar with Designing Women.  Shane is younger than Tom, and Shane wasn’t trying to be an actor -- even though he said he was, it wasn’t really a burning desire with him.  Tom was more familiar with the show, and Tom sat right next to me.  They were both charming and unforgettable.  As a couple they were really captivating.  And that night, when I drove home with my husband, I said, “Those boys, that’s the real deal.  I hope they will get married someday.”  Later, I heard that Tom fell off the roof, which I thought was devastating.  And then I saw Shane’s YouTube video [about being shunned and threatened by Tom’s family], and I got really really angry, because I’d had the experience of losing my mom in ’86.

It was an experience with this kind of prejudice and ignorance.  When my mother got AIDS, nobody knew how to deal with the disease, and so [hospital workers] would throw the medicine in buckets and kick it into the room.  Everybody was in a Hazmat suit, and we were just treated horribly.  I had never known what it would be like to be rejected and ostracized.  We couldn’t even find a funeral home to take my mom when she died.  During that period, 17 young men died on my mother’s floor.  Game shows played while young men died alone. 

MHTV:  That’s such a chillingly mundane detail, but it shows how for people working there, it was just another Tuesday.  And as you said, they didn’t really care as these certain patients were dying.

LBT:  I think they were glad to see them go.  But there was one angel doctor, Dr. Jeffrey Galpin, who had been the head of infectious diseases at Cedars-Sinai and who happened to take on these cases of AIDS.  And by now he’s treated thousands.  There was nobody there for the patients but him to hold their hands.  Late at night [with my mother], I would often feel so depressed, but then I would hear this tap tap tap coming down the hall.  Dr. Galpin was in an iron lung as a young man, and he’s still on crutches or in a wheelchair.  He’d already been there in the morning, but every night, he’d come back, because he didn’t want anyone to be alone.

I was starting to think that that was a unique experience in my life, and that things are better now, 27 years later.  But then I started seeing what Shane was experiencing.  I saw that video, and I thought, “Can this really be true?”  I realized nothing has changed.  Hatred is passed down just like love in generations, and now we are a generation later, and things really haven’t changed that much in a lot of people’s hearts and minds.

MHTV:  It has in some, and I think by bringing attention to some issues as you did with Designing Women, you should take credit for having helped.

LBT:  A tiny bit.  I don’t want to paint a bleak picture, but a lot of people stay mired in ignorance and intellectual infancy.  [They hew to] things that were written thousands of years ago, before science.  And things that were never written – for example, there’s nothing about homosexuality in the Bible.  They cling to this, rather than admit that God gave you a Bible and God gave you a brain.  Use it.  If the Bible came from God, why doesn’t science come from God?  Now you have an opportunity to take the good things from the Bible and from science and come to a really informed, loving solution for all human beings.

So I felt it kind of was a full-circle thing for me, 27 years later, to get involved with [the struggle for equality] again.  When my mother was in the hospital, one day I overheard a woman say, “If you ask me, this disease has one thing going for it, it’s killing all the right people.”  That made me so angry, I wrote that episode [and quoted the remark], and Dixie Carter told that woman off on television.

MHTV:  I was 18 at that moment, and it meant a lot to see someone stand up to ignorance like that.

LBT:  I never felt like my response in that show was satisfying, though.  I never felt like it had been on a big-enough scale.  It was targeting one woman for one comment, and I knew there was a bigger picture.  But I never did see a vehicle through which to do something.  Then Shane’s story came along, and I thought, “This is it.”  Then I found out Tom’s name was Bridegroom.  I had never known that, but it just seemed like a sign.  I said, “I’m in!”

MHTV:  It seems that often great good comes from tragedy or evil.  That woman’s evil comment about “Killing the Right People” led to a TV episode that shed light on the disease.  And Tom’s death – look at all the good that’s coming from people hearing his story.

LBT:  The Designing Women episode was a little story with an ugly woman who represented an ugly idea, and we answered that.  But it was just the prelude to something bigger.  And the something bigger is, now we have the internet, and now we have a movie.  Designing Women won’t be on Netflix, and won’t be available in over 154 countries, but Bridegroom can be.  We can get this into the Middle East.  It’s going to be in South America, where there’s a lot of prejudice against homosexuals.  And I feel if we can get enough attention worldwide, it could even end up in Russia.

And the reason I’m excited about that is that it’s not just another gay story, but it’s the love story that I think can tip people.  I know most people in my little hometown who are against homosexuals or same-sex marriage think that every gay man is that man with the jumper cables on his nipples, wearing a thong in the Gay Pride parade.  And God bless that guy, he has the right to do that, but they’re scared of him.  But I think they’ll see in Bridegroom, “Oh, this is a love that I wish I had in my life.  I see now that not only is this as good as what heterosexuals have, this is something we should all strive for.” [In this movie] you fall for Tom and Shane. They’re great emissaries for love.

MHTV:  So much of this story seems preordained, that it was meant to be, in a way.  Tom’s name is Bridegroom.  He and Shane had captured all this footage of themselves, not knowing it would be used in a documentary after Tom’s death.  I hate to say it, because it’s horrible about losing Tom, but it almost seems it was meant to be.

LBT:  It does seem like it was meant to be.  I might have seen the YouTube video, but if I hadn’t already met Shane, I don’t think I would have called him.  We had so many instances in the film where it seemed like Tom was kind of with us.  Where things seemed like they weren’t going to work out, and then they did.

For example, Tom had sung only a couple of Christmas songs.  He’s dead, and he will never sing another Christmas song, and I really wanted a Christmas song for the film to juxtapose with the description of Tom’s father getting a shotgun out and trying to kill him.  But you will never find anybody in this business who is going to just give you a Christmas song – these songs are enough to generate huge trust funds for the writers' families forever, because they’re all over the world.  And often [the heirs] feel they can’t risk their Christmas song being associated with a gay love story.  But we had [the recording of Tom singing] “The Christmas Song,” which Mel Tormé wrote.  My editing people laughed at us, and our lawyers said, “Come on, they won’t let anybody use this song.”  So I called Tracy Tormé.  He’s not gay, but he went to every member of his family and to his lawyers.  Then he called me and said, “My dad was friends with Nat King Cole.  My dad believed in tolerance.  I’m going against all the lawyers’ advice, and you can have this song.”  He had seen Shane’s YouTube video, and because Tom was part of that, it felt like Tom had come through.  I’m not a very mystical person, but I feel that Tom is involved in this, no question.

MHTV:  The final reveal of Tom’s last name, Bridegroom, hits hard, because it wraps it all up.  You get that sense of preordination, of irony.

LBT:  It’s kind of Shakespearean.  [In that shot, you see Tom’s headstone, and] there’s so much symbolism in it.  [His parents] had chosen this concrete, impenetrable monument to their son.  And I was blown away when I saw they had placed spots for themselves on either side of him, so that no one will ever go there.  That’s just astonishing to me, that they think that’s the monument to their son.

We had invited [Tom’s family] to participate [in the film], and also Shane and I agreed at the very start that we didn’t want to demonize them, because they loved their son.  And when people are behaving badly, you don’t need to say anything.  All you had to do is shine the light on them.  They hung themselves.

I had wanted a different ending for them, because being Southern, I believe in redemption.  Through a conduit, I told them Tom is gone, and we cannot bring him back.  But there’s an ending we haven’t written yet for this movie.  Shane’s going to be at the cemetery in Indiana.  We’ll be there filming on this date.  And you, Norman, have never met your son’s greatest love.  You can honor your son now.  You can start an evolutionary process that will give hope to all the other parents who are on the same journey.  You can have a huge impact now, and make Tom’s and your life meaningful.  Come out to the cemetery, and extend your hand.  That was my fantasy, but it didn’t happen.

MHTV:  I actually think this ending does the world more good.  If everything seemed wrapped up in a happy bow, people could leave the theater and think—

LBT:  “That’s taken care of.”  This is the realistic ending, because people like Norman and Martha Bridegroom aren’t going to change.  But hate can die out, if the next generation is willing to change.  And Tom’s sister, I think, shows hope.  She might not take that step in her father’s lifetime, but I think she might take it in her own, and I feel sure that her children will have a different legacy.  So there’s hope for all of us.  And I feel that Tom and Shane are a part of [that hope].  They did it without knowing what they did.  It’s great that just their loving each other could have such a reverberating result. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

See Linda Bloodworth-Thomason's "Bridegroom"

This Sunday, October 27 at 10 PM ET, Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network will present the television premiere of a powerful new documentary, Bridegroom.  It’s the story of an impossibly handsome young couple in Los Angeles who were also perfectly, almost impossibly so, in love.  Tom Bridegroom was an aspiring actor and talented musician who had relocated from rural Indiana; Shane Bitney Crone a sometime actor and filmmaker from rural Montana.  The ambitious duo traveled the world together, documenting their adventures in video series they posted to the web.  They had big plans.

But their time together was cut tragically short in 2011 when at age 29, Tom was killed in a freak accident, falling four stories off the roof of a friend’s apartment building.  The film arising from the couple’s devastating story – of pain and loss, of hurt and forgiveness, of homophobia and yet also family bonding – is sure to make you cry throughout.  (And it doesn’t hurt that Bridegroom was assembled largely from Tom and Shane’s own homemade footage by executive producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, of Designing Women fame, who is certainly a pro at evoking laughs and tears.)  In their attempt to whitewash Tom’s entire post-college life, and thus hopefully erase the sin of his gayness, the Bridegroom family banned Shane and in fact all of the couple’s Los Angeles friends from attending their son’s Indiana funeral.  The immediate family has had no contact since Tom’s death with either Shane or with the filmmakers who sought their comment.

Bridegroom first screened at the TriBeCa film festival earlier this year, where it won the Best Documentary prize, and also this summer at Outfest, where it also won an award for Outstanding Documentary Feature.  Last week, the film had its Los Angeles premiere.  And the following afternoon, I had the chance to sit down with both Shane and Linda, to talk about the project’s genesis and more importantly, its impact.

Must-Hear TV:   I can’t imagine what your feelings are, seeing this completed film about your life and love.  I know you’re a producer of Bridegroom -- how many times have you seen it so far?

Shane Bitney Crone:  I’ve probably seen it 50 times now.

MHTV:  Does it ever not evoke a visceral response in you?

SBC:  It can be very intense, going from festival to festival with it.  Lately, I’ve just waited outside the theater.  I don’t necessarily sit there the entire time, because it is emotional for me.  Sometimes it’s good for me just to step outside and take a break.

MHTV:  But you know when everyone leaves the theater, they’ll be crying.  And for audiences, in a way, getting to meet you offers them consolation after having cried through the film.  I know that getting to express my feelings to you made me feel better.  But is that hard for you to relive every time?

SBC:  That’s one thing that a lot of people ask me.  “Isn’t it hard to continue telling this story?  Do you think that it’s good for you?”  But meeting people and sharing this story has been healing, and has helped me in so many ways.  There’s so much positive coming from it that it makes it not depressing, and it makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing.  It’s great to have support on my facebook and social networks, to hear from people that way, but meeting people face to face has definitely been one of the best parts of all of this.  I’ve met some incredible people, and heard some amazing stories.

MHTV:  People must want to pour their own stories out to you, people who had either supportive or unsupportive families.  What have been the most amazing stories you’ve heard, where people have said, “This changed my life?”

SBC:  I never realized before that what I’ve gone through has happened to so many people.  I didn’t realize thousands of couples have gone through horrible experiences.  So for me, it wasn’t until after I posted the YouTube video [called "It Could Happen To You," which sparked Bloodworth-Thomason’s interest in making a film, and a kickstarter campaign to finance it] that I realized that.  So in a way, as much as this is my story, or my film or Linda’s film, it’s really not.  It’s the people’s film, because it represents so many.  I’ve heard from teenagers who said that the story has prevented them from taking their own lives.  Just to hear things like that, it just makes you feel so grateful that it’s connecting with them on such a deep level.

And then to hear at some festivals from some really big men who come up to me and say, “I’m a straight man.  Someone dragged me here and I didn’t know what to expect.  I had never understood or supported marriage equality – and now I’m sorry.”  When I hear things like that, wow!  It makes me think that this isn’t about me.  It’s so much bigger than me.  And if sharing my story is having that effect, then that’s what I have to do, keep sharing.

MHTV:  I hate to suggest that there was a benefit from Tom’s death, but at least his death has brought about this change, to open people’s eyes and their hearts, and to save lives.  At least his death wasn’t in vain.

Shane Bitney Crone
SBC:  The year after Tom passed away, I spent so much time just trying to make sense of it, and I couldn’t.  When I posted the YouTube video, it was the first moment when I felt that something good came from it.  And then that also helped me to understand better who I am, and helped me stand up for what I believe in.  And to not be so ashamed of being who I am.

MHTV:  It seems like this whole experience has galvanized your family, too, around you.  They were always supportive, but now they really have your back.

SBC:  My mom is an amazing mom.  It’s funny, because on facebook, she posts everything that I’m doing, everything that’s happening.  People text me and say, “You know your mom is so proud,” and that makes me feel so good.  I’m happy that people get to see my family, and see how important it is for families to support each other.  It’s interesting, because my family and Tom’s family, they’re really not that different. 

MHTV:  As we see in the film, they started in the same place, anyway.  Conservative, rural, Republican…

SBC:  Exactly.  It’s such a powerful part of the film, to show how important it is for parents to love their children unconditionally.

MHTV:   What a contrast between them.  One family says “We don’t understand this, but we’re going to try to accept it,” and the other goes backward, stagnating and threatening violence.  What made the families react so differently?

SBC:  Someone asked me this morning, “Why do you think your mom is so accepting and so supportive?” I was trying to come up with the reason, but I don’t necessarily have an answer as to why my family is like that.  I’m just lucky that they are who they are, and that they have the hearts that they do.

MHTV:  Are they religious people, your family?  The film has pictures of both you and Tom and your families in churches growing up.

SBC:  Kind of, but not too much.  We went to church growing up, a Lutheran church.  But we weren’t like Tom’s family, who talked about the Bible every morning at the table.  They’re very religious.  Maybe religion has a lot to do with it, but at the same time, I don’t necessarily know what can cause people to decide to be more accepting.

MHTV:  This film will.  I defy anyone, even if he or she doesn’t stand up for gay marriage, to see a film depicting the death of this beautiful young man, and the end of this loving relationship, and not cry.  You’re not human if you’re not moved by it.

SBC:  But I don’t really know how we’ll reach the people we want to reach.  I have a feeling it’s going to be a situation where people who are struggling with being gay can ask someone to watch the film.  I hope that that way, we can reach the people we need to.

MHTV:  Could the film be a tool for coming out?  Send it to your parents and say, “Watch this, then we’ll talk.”

SBC:  Yes.  Growing up, I wish there had been something like that for me, to help me say, “This is me.  I need you to love me unconditionally.”  Of course there are shows now like Glee and Modern Family, which do help a lot of people.  But at the time, I didn’t really have any shows like that.  It just goes to show how much film and television can influence people.

MHTV:  You and Tom were both really into film and television from the beginning of your relationship.

SBC:  I had convinced my family I’d wanted to move to LA to be an actor, but I quickly realized it was more that I just wanted to get here.  I really just wanted to be in a city where I could be me.  But if growing up I’d said, “I want to move to LA,” they’d ask why – so at least acting was a reason I could give.  But Tom and I did film a lot of our life together, and planned a lot of projects.  We did talk about making a documentary, but I never imagined this would be the documentary we would make.

MHTV:  You and Tom first met Linda Bloodworth-Thomason at a wedding – and as she remembers, you said you were big Designing Women fans, as are lots of gay men.  I know she meets thousands of them, in fact – but you guys made such an impression on Linda that she remembered you years later, when she saw your video on YouTube.  Do you know how that happened?

SBC:  I’m not really sure exactly, other than that we had conversation with Linda about how we so desperately wanted to get married someday when it was legal – but also, when we were ready.  Because there was a short window when we could have gotten married [in California], but we also didn’t want to go down to the courthouse just because everyone was doing it at that moment.  We wanted it to be special and spontaneous like it is for other people.  But to think, though, about meeting Linda that night, and then four years later meeting with her to talk about making a documentary about Tom – it’s kind of surreal.

MHTV:  We know from the film what Tom’s mother did and didn’t do, and his father.  But Tom also had siblings.  Did you have a relationship with any of them?  I’m wondering why they didn’t stand up for you, or for what was right.

SBC:  I think it has a lot to do with being in a small town, and the whole idea that blood is thicker than water, like my mom has always said.  Family is all you really have at the end of the day, and do you want to potentially risk losing your relationship with your parents?  I think maybe that’s not worth the risk sometimes, so I try to be understanding and respectful of that.  And there are [more distant] relatives of Tom’s who are supportive, who support me, and the film, and the relationship.

MHTV:  Does any of them have the name Bridegroom?
Tom Bridegroom
April 22, 1982 - May 7, 2011

SBC:  Yes, there are some Bridegrooms.

MHTV:  It is an unusual name.

SBC:  It is, and honestly I didn’t think about Tom’s last name too much until I met with Linda.  She said, “Shane, do you realize the irony in his last name?!”  And I realized, “You’re right, that’s pretty crazy.”

MHTV:  The way the film saves the double meaning of the word for the reveal in the last shot, it’s like a gut punch.  The irony hits you at that moment.

SBC:  In fact, some people thought that we [the filmmakers] put the name on the gravestone.  No!  It just makes me feel like maybe it was meant to be.

MHTV:  You still haven’t heard from any of the main Bridegroom family, though?

SBC:  I haven’t.  I don’t know if I ever will hear from his parents.  I want to send them the film, and hopefully they’ll watch it.  This could potentially be the opportunity for them to help a lot of people.  They could turn this around.  Even if they just said, “Look, we made some mistakes while struggling and trying to be okay with it.”  Because a lot of people are struggling with that.  People evolve and can change, and I think they could really make a difference if they wanted to.

MHTV:  You're still just 27.  Where do you want to go from here?

SBC:  I’m not sure what happens next.  All I know is I’m trying to be in the moment, and trust that everything will happen the way it’s supposed to.

MHTV:  In terms of career?  Are you a filmmaker?

SBC:  Maybe, if there’s something I’m really passionate about.  This has turned into my full-time job, just sharing this story.  I partnered with some organizations, like GLAAD and HRC.  I might do a speaking tour of campuses, and meet people.  It scares me – I don’t like the idea of public speaking.  But if it can help people, I feel like I can do it.

Bridegroom airs this Sunday, October 27, at 10 PM ET on OWN, and on the same date, will also be available on Netflix.

In addition, Shane Bitney Crone can be heard this Friday, October 25 at 1 PM Eastern / 10 AM Pacific on “The Frank DeCaro Show” on Sirius XM’s OutQ radio.

For more information, go to

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Fall Preview: CBS' The Millers

The Millers
Thursdays at 8:30 PM Eastern / 7:30 PM Central,
Premieres October 3

In 2000, then the father of young children in Los Angeles, Greg Garcia co-created CBS’ long-running couples-and-kids sitcom Yes, Dear.  A few years earlier, the Washington, DC area native had co-authored a comedy set in the nation’s capital.  Now, Garcia has made The Millers, about two generations of a family, simultaneously experiencing divorces.  But this time, he’s quick to point out that this one springs, for the most part, from his imagination.

In Garcia’s latest, Nathan Miller (Will Arnett), a recently divorced roving news reporter, is looking forward to the single life, although not necessarily to divulging his change in marital status to his visiting parents, controlling Carol (Margo Martindale) and absent-minded Tom (Beau Bridges.)  But Nathan needn’t have worried; because rather than being shocked, his parents, particularly Tom, are inspired.  When Mom and Dad then themselves split, Carol crashes with her boy, and begins an emotional breakdown that threatens to cramp his style.

“This is a fictional version of my family,” Garcia avows.  “But my parents are exactly like these two – they’ll kill me for saying that, but they are. They love each other, but give each other grief.”  Both Garcia and his parents are still happily married; so in creating this new sitcom clan, much in the tradition of CBS’ successful family comedies like Everybody Loves Raymond, “I wondered, ‘What would happen if I didn’t have children, and was divorced, and if my parents got divorced and had to live with me and my sister?’ [The sister, by the way, played here by the quirky, fun Jayma Mays.] So The Millers ended up being based on us as real characters, but in this fictional premise.”

Garcia has become an expert in nontraditional family dynamics, from the oddball Hickey brothers in his My Name Is Earl to the financially challenged clan at the center of Raising Hope.  With The Millers, the writer says he wanted to preserve that flavor of comedic dysfunction, while creating a more traditional type of comedy, complete with audience laughter.  “And to get that classic feel, of a Raymond or an All in the Family,” he explains, “you’ve got to get a great cast.”

So Garcia personally recruited Arnett, and immediately thought of JB Smoove to play Ray, Nathan’s coworker and cameraman.  Martindale, who won an Emmy for her villainous role on Justified and more recently appeared in the dramas The Americans and Showtime’s upcoming Masters of Sex, here “does a comedy star turn that is pretty remarkable,” marvels CBS President Nina Tassler.  And the actress is happy for the change of pace.  With The Millers, “this is a joy I haven’t gotten to experience in a while,” Martindale says.  “I’m exercising an old muscle, and it’s coming back.”

When it came to casting Tom, Garcia reached out to Bridges, who had played the senior Mr. Hickey on Earl and was happy to work again with that show’s mastermind.  As Bridges prepared for The Millers, “I asked my wife at breakfast, ‘How would you describe this show?’” the actor reveals.  “And she said, ‘It’s just a typical American family.’ Because we all have challenges.  But underneath it all, there is a caring and a love in this show, and that comes from Greg Garcia.  He always writes comedy with a heart.”