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. 

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