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I Can't Deal With Aids Right Now, I'm Late For the Benefit

AIDS in Hollywood -- The death of Brad Davis prompts industry heavyweights to examine how people with AIDS are treated professionally

Like Banquo's ghost, Brad Davis continues to haunt Hollywood. Having kept his condition a closely guarded secret from all but a handful of friends, the actor died of AIDS-related complications last month in his Studio City home. His death alone might have been merely another reminder of AIDS' terrible toll. But Davis' dying words, left behind in the form of a book proposal that the 41-year-old actor had drafted in longhand eight weeks before his death, reverberate as both a rebuke and a challenge. Davis charged that the entertainment industry, devastated by the AIDS epidemic, which has taken 123,000 lives nationwide, hypocritically offers public support to those infected with the HIV virus but invariably discriminates against them.

''I make my money in an industry that professes to care very much about the fight against AIDS — that gives umpteen benefits and charity affairs with proceeds going to research and care,'' Davis wrote. ''But in actual fact, if an actor is even rumored to have HIV, he gets no support on an individual basis. He does not work.''

Exactly a week after his death, as Hollywood gathered at the Universal Amphitheater for a benefit concert to raise funds for AIDS Project Los Angeles, Davis' indictment was seconded by his widow, Susan Bluestein. In an open letter to the industry read by Richard Dreyfuss, she pleaded, ''Whatever the rules are today in Hollywood, they must be changed so that people like Brad can come forward before they die.''

No sooner was the gauntlet thrown down than it was picked up. That night Barry Diller, chairman of Fox Inc., and Sidney Sheinberg, president of MCA Inc., announced they were together pledging $125,000 to launch Hollywood Supports, a new organization designed to fight AIDS discrimination in the entertainment industry. It was the first time in the 10-year history of the AIDS epidemic that the industry's top executives had moved beyond personal philanthropy to exert concerted leadership in battling the disease's stigma. Coming just two weeks before California governor Pete Wilson vetoed a gay-rights bill, an act that set off riots, Hollywood looked positively noble.

But is it? Does the industry's new rhetoric represent a genuine commitment or merely the latest public relations gesture?

There's reason for suspicion, because what Hollywood says in public is not always reflected by what it does in private. ''Among straight people in the industry, there's a schizophrenia,'' says Richard Gollance, who wrote an AIDS-themed episode of NBC's Lifestories last season. ''With friends, they're incredibly supportive, but that doesn't always translate into the workplace. When I was at NBC doing Lifestories, AIDS was treated more as juicy gossip than as anything else.''

For all its liberal trappings, Hollywood did not rush to grapple with the AIDS crisis — either on-screen or off — when the disease was first diagnosed in the early '80s. Joan Rivers, one of the first celebrities to voice support for people with AIDS, recalls a fund-raiser at Los Angeles' Backlot Theatre in 1984: ''We couldn't get anyone on the program. Nobody wanted to go near it. And we got major death threats. I had armed guards onstage with me the whole time I did my act. It was a very sad, traumatic evening.''

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