On his 25th birthday last month, after finishing several emotionally grueling hospital-bed scenes in his role as Jesse McKenna, the high school senior infected with HIV on ABC's Life Goes On, Chad Lowe went home to a big surprise. But it was no party: His Los Angeles house had been burglarized. ''They took everything,'' says Lowe. ''I felt extremely violated. I was angry. , Very angry. But I thought, 'I can use my anger to feel Jesse's anger.' So I channeled it. It worked for me.''
Matching his unusual commitment to the show is Kellie Martin, 17, who plays Jesse's girlfriend, Becca Thacher. Though Martin has been lagging badly in her classwork and needs to finish her college applications, she refuses to ease up on her work in the show. She is thus constantly on the run. After filming a particularly wrenching scene one recent afternoon, in which Becca tenderly comforts the faltering Jesse, Martin must quickly wipe away her tears and dash to math class. ''There was talk of letting me sit out a couple of episodes so I could catch up,'' she says. ''I told one of the producers, 'Don't you dare!' Not now. Every scene matters. Every line matters.''
With its unflinching portrayals of true-to-life adversity, Life Goes On and its cast have broken barriers on network TV since the series premiered in 1989 as a drama about a middle-class couple (Patti LuPone and Bill Smitrovich) and their brood. The show initially concentrated on how the family coped with eldest son Corky, who was born with Down syndrome and who is played by Chris Burke, the first actor with Down syndrome to star on TV. Since early last year, however, the show has taken an even more daring turn, focusing on Corky's sensible sister Becca and her growing passion for classmate Jesse, who got the AIDS virus through unprotected sex with an unnamed woman. With this plot line, Life Goes On has become the only series on television to feature a regular character who has the AIDS virus.
Stuck in the difficult time slot of Sundays at 7 p.m., the show goes for boldness that, though critically lauded, has not paid off in ratings: It has regularly been nailed to the wall by CBS's 60 Minutes. Now facing cancellation, Life Goes On will pull out all the stops with four episodes, starting Sunday, Feb. 14, in which Jesse develops full-blown AIDS, suffers a heart attack, and decides with Becca whether they should sleep together. This is Romeo and Juliet for modern times.
In fact, the producers of the program and the network execs who put it on the air have come to resemble the Montagues and the Capulets. ''Of course we fight with the network constantly,'' says Michael Braverman, Life's creator and executive producer. ''They want us to do 'Becca Gets a Zit' every week. The little hair I have left is turning grayer with this last story line.'' Adds co-executive producer Michael Nankin, ''We're on during this time slot designed for so-called kids' programming. But we're not a kids' show. The meeting over one script was three hours of network hell. I mean, because of our time period, the people who review our show also review standards for The Smurfs.'' And if Life does not go on, it is scheduled to be replaced by strikingly different fare: America's Funniest Home Videos and America's Funniest People which will move to 7 p.m. from 8 p.m., making room for a new ABC newsmagazine, Day One.
''Have you seen those shows?'' Lowe demands. ''You could have a lobotomy and watch them. Jesus, our show is about something.'' (For the record, ABC Entertainment president Ted Harbert says, ''I love the show, but I'm not sure there's a place for it.'')
Despite all the problems and strains, the Life Goes On cast and crew have apparently resisted any temptation to compromise. Martin and Lowe rehearse and restage their scenes at far greater length than is usual on TV. ''It might take us a little longer,'' says Braverman, ''but we don't shortchange.'' Before one scene, the actors debate for nearly half an hour just how Jesse should be positioned when Becca enters his room: Should he be sitting up, lying down, half sitting up, or maybe more like this, or this? Lowe, Martin, and the director finally agree on half sitting up. Still striving for the perfect scene, Lowe then asks whether night sweats could be added to his body, and a prop man is dispatched for a spray bottle of hot water. Another scene in which Becca cleans up after Jesse vomits instigates a discussion about whether she should wear latex gloves. (She wears them.)
Off screen, Lowe and Martin have clearly become a mutual admiration society (although their romance doesn't carry over into real life: Lowe dates Hilary Swank of the ABC sitcom Camp Wilder, and Martin is seeing a TV actor she won't name because ''it's all so new''). ''It blows my mind how good Kellie is,'' says Lowe, resting in his trailer with his dog, Tanner. ''Did Chad say that about me?'' Martin asks later. ''What a compliment. He's the most passionate, committed actor I've ever worked with. He likes my work?''
Though the actors receive encouraging letters from AIDS patients and their families and friends, which are passed around the set as morale boosters, both are resigned to the fact that the teens of Beverly Hills, 90210 and their upscale lifestyles will continue to attract more fan mail than Jesse's fight with a gang of gay-bashers and Becca's desire to have his child. ''They do get all the acclaim,'' says Martin, who costars with John Goodman in the new film Matinee. ''And I think sometimes, 'What are we invisible?' But I figure it this way: Okay, so I haven't been on any magazine covers. But I've done challenging work for four years. Maybe it will be easier for me to step into another role when this show goes off the air.''
Lowe and Martin are both struggling to maintain their emotional intensity for what will likely be their last scenes together. ''Because I am like Becca, I've left here with a heavy heart many days,'' says Martin. ''I go to bed that way, and I wake up that way.'' The producers won't reveal how their love story will end, but say the show will jump into the future to show how Jesse's illness affects all the characters.
These episodes seem especially difficult for Lowe, whose first manager, Tim Wood, died of AIDS in '91. ''Jesse gives me inner strength,'' he says. ''But at times I've felt, especially lately, I can't go on. I don't feel like myself. It's even hard to articulate how tough it's been. It's been an incredible journey.''