honesty, decency, and integrity
by Douglas Messerli
William Link and Richard Levinson (screenplay), Lamont Johnson (director) That Certain Summer / 1972
Over the brief period of the last days of 2020 and first month of 2021 we lost two major creative figures, William Link, a writer and producer who, through his involvement with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was an acquaintance, and Hal Holbrook, who in his role of Mark Twain was everybody’s friend. Holbrook played on Broadway and films in many roles including in Lincoln and All the President’s Men but was most noted for his many portrayals throughout his career of Twain.
With his longtime collaborator, Richard Levinson, Link wrote and produced the series Columbo, Murder, She Wrote, and Mannix along with other TV and cinematic productions. But these two came together most notably in 1972 in one of the most important of early TV LGBTQ productions, That Certain Summer, written by Link and Levinson and starring Holbrook as a divorced man, Doug Salter living in San Francisco with his gay lover Gary McClain (Martin Sheen). It was the very first sympathetic TV portrayal of homosexuality. in fact one the first to mention the word on the small screen that lit up so many American homes. Holbrook notes that the gay characters represented people of “honesty, decency, and integrity,” and recalls that many years after people would stop him on the street and remark, “it [the movie] meant a lot.”
Holbrook at first turned down the role, feeling that, perusing the script, nothing really happened in the story. In some senses he’s right, which is partly what makes this film so absolutely groundbreaking; no truly calamitous events occur to the loving couple at the center of this work and there were no gay bodies littered upon the stage by the time the credits scrolled down after the ABC production of November 1, 1972—although it was the day that US poet Ezra Pound died. After describing the work to his wife, however, she responded: "You're going to get on the phone and call Hollywood and tell them you want to do this part before they give it to somebody else."
Martin Sheen was immediately enthusiastic upon reading his script. "I thought it was wonderful. There was a great deal of freedom in it because it wasn't about advocating a lifestyle or a sexuality. It was about two people who adored each other, and they weren't allowed to have a relationship that involved their sexuality"—although I’d argue with him that the couple was certainly “allowed” to have a sexual relationship and indeed had one, they simply weren’t permitted to openly reveal it to others. But I love Sheen’s reaction to the now tiresome question about whether he wasn’t afraid that in playing such a role it might affect his career: "I'd robbed banks and kidnapped children and raped women and murdered people, you know, in any number of shows. Now I was going to play a gay guy and that was like considered a career ender. Oh, for Christ’s sake! What kind of culture do we live in?" We should remind ourselves that Sheen later went on to play the President of the United States in The West Wing, in which Holbrook also played a minor role.
Link describes it as one of two of his favorite contributions to cinema literature, but also describes the difficulties of getting such a movie on TV. This was a time when gays were still being horribly prosecuted with police still regularly raiding gay bars—although he have to remind ourselves this was after Stonewall, and certainly I never feared for the police once during my late 1960s stay in New York. But the TV studios were still not interested. NBC, so he reports, wouldn’t touch the work with the proverbial “pole”—apparently no matter how long its length. But at ABC Barry Diller, who was rumored to be gay, took it under his wing and fought hard for it, even having to sit through visits by psychiatrists pummeling him with their horrific evaluations of homosexuals, who they still argued were mentally ill. The always dreaded Standards and Practices Committee required Link and Levinson to add an “everyday” character, Gary’s brother-in-law who stood up for family values and patronizingly invited Gary to visit them with his “friend” (the Holbrook character) any time. They also required the speech late in the film where Doug confesses to his son that if he could have made a choice we would never have desired to be gay, which brought an outcry in the gay community; but as Link reminds us, that statement represents, in fact, the feelings still of some gay individuals; perhaps it is a small price to pay for such an otherwise intelligently informed film. And by this time in the work, we know that Doug and his companion Gary have a loving and enjoyable relationship, even if, as a divorced man, he may still have some regrets.
The work begins, under the excellent direction of Lamont Johnson, with Doug reviewing some old home films with quick glimpses of his former wife, Janet (Hope Lange), but mostly of his toddler son, Nick (Scott Jacoby), who soon, we discover, is about to fly up from Los Angeles for what evidently is a annual visit since his father left them three years earlier. A doting father, Doug, as Gary later describes it to Nick, has “practically been checking off the days” on the calendar until the boy’s visit.
Their fears appear to have been right when Nick seems to give a cold shoulder to Gary’s appearance at their father-son dinner, refusing to even take a bite of the special celebratory cake Gary has purchased for the occasion. Nick keeps repeating that it’s not his birthday, despite Gary’s insistence that everybody should have a second birthday each year, and his father’s attempts to get him to at least thank Gary for the gesture—all without success. They can’t determine whether or not he resents Gary for the intrusion in their familial relationship or that Nick perhaps suspects something about the other man so openly sharing his father’s company.
What is clear from the moment they come together is the deep relationship between Doug and Nick, particularly as they humorously enact scenes from The Maltese Falcon with Nick playing the Peter Lorre role and Doug tackling the Humphrey Bogart part. Nick has even brought his father a special present of a gift-store black falcon. Their rapport, in fact, reminds us of the wonderful interactions of Murray Burns (Jason Robards Jr.) with his nephew, another Nick (Barry Gordon) in the 1965 comic film-version of Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns.
And much like the 12-year Nick of that film, Doug’s son is clearly precocious—as Gary keeps reminding his lover—spending much of the film picking up signals about his father’s sexuality that he finds confusing and even frightening.
There’s the moment in the car when, after Doug has admittedly pumped Nick for information on his ex-wife’s new sexual life, Nick suggests to his father “I guess you’ll be getting married again to someone.”
Doug’s answer reveals more than he intends to the curious kid: “Nick, if it means anything I don’t think I’ll be marrying again.”
Nick innocently asks “Why?” But the answer, “A lot of reasons. It’s very complicated. We’ll talk about it sometime,” clues in the boy that it is an adult situation: “That means when I’m older,” which all children know means that it is something adults aren’t yet ready to talk about, which further hints at danger.
Later, he finds shaving cream in the bathroom cabinet, knowing that his father uses an electric razor. When he asks his father about it, Doug becomes somewhat flustered and spirits his son off to bed.
When they visit Gary the next day at his job, he’s a sound engineer, for a moment when Nick discovers that his father’s friend has worked with several famous pop performers like the Jefferson Airplane, it appears he might almost take a liking to him, particularly when Gary suggests, since they both play the guitar, they might want to play as a duo later that night; but again Nick pulls away.
As they move on to lunch nearby, we also see tensions rising between the lovers, Gary insisting that Doug should talk his bright son about the facts, and even suggesting that Doug himself has not completely come out, particularly since he still fears any obvious public display of male-on-male love. Nick picks up any stray comments and their body language.
And the next afternoon when Doug throws
a party with his neighbors and other mostly heterosexual friends, he further
discovers that they all know and speak of his father’s friendship
The next morning Nick is missing, with Doug and Gary immediately going on the search, unable to find the boy who has taken the ferry from Sausalito to the city, there to ride the trolley cars endlessly back and forth in contemplation.
Finally, Doug sees the errors of his way: “I should have talked to him. I ignored him, too damn busy telling myself everything was so nice and normal.”
Meanwhile, since Nick has called his mother to suggest he might want to return home early, she, worried as she might be by his state of mind, gets on a plane and turns up at her ex-husband’s door to encounter, evidently for the first time, her husband’s gay lover. The encounter, at first, is not a pleasant one as she righteously inquires about who they invited to the party they threw of Nick and how involved Gary might have been in Nick’s visit. Attempting to explain to her that he has been temporarily staying at his sisters does no good in calming her wrath. And he lashes back with the truism that if she had simply encountered another woman in her husband’s house the stranger would be perfectly accepted, but as a gay lover.... Her answer hints, just for a moment, about how much the two have digressed from the real subject at hand, her and Doug’s missing son. “If you were a woman,” Janet hisses in her best Joan Crawford imitation, “I’d know how to compete with you.”
Fortunately Link and Levinson go no further down this avenue, and while waiting for Doug to return the two eventually make friends. The three of them, soon after, as she comments, making up “quite a threesome.”
Upon Nick’s return they all race forward to embrace him, Doug determining to take him for a walk to have the open conversation that he should have had all along.
With all the time that Nick has spent in deep thought over what he has learned, we might hope that the boy has finally found some way to come to terms with his father’s “difference.” A Chinese fortune a couple of days earlier had hinted “Be true and trust each other and all will be well.”
But Johnson’s film does not have a Chinese fortune-like script, and despite Doug’s attempts to explain to his son that he loves Gary and lives with him in a kind of marriage, Nick attempts once more bolt from the truth. When finally Doug struggles to tell him that a homosexual is something other than one hears about in the schoolroom hallways and alleys, Nick turns away in tears, being held by his father in the hopes of making him comprehend that what some see is a sickness, a thing to be put down with jokes, is something worth his love particularly since it represents the father who still loves him.
Nick leaves soon after with his mother, unable to even look at Gary and resenting even the touch of his father’s hand. “Give him a little time,” Janet attempts to assure Doug moments before she and her son pull away in a taxi.
We believe her. Nick is a bright kid, and we feel he will come through the dilemma stronger with a new comprehension of what it means to love.
But that does not salve the tears that roll down Doug’s eyes as he sits on the stairway awaiting his lover’s return from retrieving the clothes he has left at his sisters.
And the tears say everything, Doug and Gary still hold love for not only one another but for those who momentarily cannot even accept it or may never be able to lay down their prejudice. As Rosa von Praunheim might put it—and did, a year earlier— “It is not the homosexual who is the perverse but the society in which he lives.”
The script for That Certain Summer was nominated for an Emmy. The New York Times Critic Marilyn Beck described it as “one of the finest pieces of drama you’ll see this year on large or small screen.” Judith Crist proclaimed that was “a giant step for television,” the Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin championed it as “the best movie for TV I have yet seen.” A script for the Kojak series won the Emmy, but in fact the entire LGBTQ community won far more in its honest depiction of how difficult it is to live within a society than cannot accept all expressions of love while embracing nearly every form of hate and mayhem. Today lots of kids have two mothers or two dads or a father who lives in another city with another man, a mother with a woman friend. But the bigotry still exists, and movies such as That Certain Summer help to heal that hurt.
Los Angeles, February 13, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).