The Making of An Early Frost (excerpt)

John Erman

For as long as I can remember my father made it clear that I was not the son he had hoped for. From the time I was 6, he let my mother and me know that Billy Holzman was his idea of what a son should be.

Billy was the son of friends of my parents who moved to Los Angeles from the Midwest at about the same time we did. A few months older than me, he was red-haired, good-looking, and a jock. I was chubby, nearsighted, and introverted.

Whenever we spent an afternoon at the Holzmans, Billy would be playing ball or swimming with friends; I would be sitting by myself with a book. Afterward at home my father would start in on me at the dinner table.

“Why can’t you be more like Billy Holzman?” His mouth was full of food. 

At that moment whatever was on my fork was unpalatable. I felt ashamed and embarrassed that I couldn’t live up to my father’s expectations.

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

“That’s all you can say? You’re sorry! Why don’t you do something about it? Learn to play ball, for Chrissake.”

In the Spring of 1985 my agent, Bill Haber, called to say that I’d been asked to direct a film about AIDS. The network had wanted Paul Newman for the job, but when he demurred, Haber, always extraordinary, did a real sales pitch for me, claiming that a gay man would be a more appropriate choice. It was the story of a typical American family who had to come to grips with the fact that their only son was a homosexual who had contracted AIDS—daring material for a very conservative network. Only a couple of years earlier I had been taken off The Thornbirds, a miniseries, because it was to star Richard Chamberlain. The head of Warner Brothers Television decreed that it would prove unwise to have a gay star and a gay director for such a heterosexual project. In the past Richard and I, paranoid we would be found out, had tried to keep our sexual choices a dark secret. But Hollywood is a small town, and suddenly now my sexuality was an asset.

Emily Gilbert