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Long-term Survivors

He Gets Celebs Naked, Making Him #22 of Our Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016

TOM VIOLA

Long-term survivor Tommy Viola has helped raise nearly $300 million through Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

A former actor, writer, and producer, Tom Viola got his start performing in dinner and regional theatres in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. By then, he jokes, “No one was looking for a ‘bald juvenile.’”

He worked for a talent agent, waited tables, and wrote before being hired by Actors’ Equity Association — the actors’ union founded in 1913. “Before landing at Equity,” he recalls, “I stumbled upon a freelance writing career with which — combined with a good deal of cater-waitering — I had a much better quality of [life]. The anxiety I carried with me into an audition, did not bubble up in writing a proposal or article on spec. But I love the stage and working with actors and all theatre professionals. My days as an actor were formative and gave me some sense of how to work in and with this incredible industry. And every now and then I imagine being on Law & Order.

Having joined the union just as the Equity Fights AIDS Committee was being founded in 1987, Viola was quickly named administrative director and five years later he oversaw the merger with Broadway Cares. Viola has led the organization ever since.

“Following Tom’s lead, Broadway has set an incredibly high standard of how a community can take care of its own.” says Enrique Menendez, an HIV-positive actor and activist (and one of the other 75 Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016). The two first met in 1991, when Menendez was a performer in the original company of the hit ‘90s musical Miss Saigon.

“He was always so appreciative for all of the work that the Miss Saigon Company did in raising money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS,” Menendez says.

Perhaps best known for its annual performer stripathon, Broadway Bares (as well as its adorable canine event, Broadway Barks), the organization has raised $285 million since 1988 to provide services for people living with HIV and other critical illnesses. It’s Viola’s dedication to the latter that led two-time Tony Award winner Judith Light to write, “He is unique in always looking for ways to expand the mission and make an impact on more lives so we can do more good.”

Viola sees expanding the mission as a critical step in assuring BC/EFA’s “viability as a fundraising and grant-making organization,” and part of a broader trend: “many of our grantees across the country also have expanded missions — particularly the food service programs, food banks, meal delivery programs and health clinics. This expansion extends our ability to provide essential resources to more than we might have ever imagined in the ‘90’s. It has also expanded our fundraising opportunities. Our work will always have an HIV/AIDS component or ‘hook.’ But HIV is now but one thread in a fraying fabric of social issues and need.”

Rewarded for that expansive attitude, in 2013 the Patrick Quinn Award for Distinguished Service to Actors was presented to Viola by the Actors’ Equity Foundation. “Through his singular dedication to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Tom’s life for the past 25 years has been focused on raising and distributing money worldwide to help stop and treat not only HIV/AIDS, but also supporting women’s health issues, important social concerns, emergency relief efforts and anything that will improve not only the lives of actors, but people everywhere,” explained Marty Casella at the time.

Viola is magnanimous about such honors insisting “nothing happens without an extraordinary, cohesive, collaborative and committed team. The accomplishments of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS are not something I’ve done — they are something I’ve been fortunate to be a part of.”

Likewise, when he was awarded the 2010 Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre, Viola said, “The incredible opportunity you have given me to have a meaningful life, truly, means more to me than you can imagine.”

But it’s what Viola has led Broadway Cares to achieve that continues to draw commendations. Every year, the organization awards grants to more than 450 HIV and family service organizations in all 50 states. It is the primary fiscal supporter Actors Fund programs like the HIV/AIDS Initiative, the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative (providing support services for women facing life-altering medical conditions), the Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic (which provides free care for uninsured and underinsured people in the entertainment industry) and The Dancers’ Resource (support for injured dancers).

In Viola’s view, non-HIV-focused Actors Fund programs have been essential to Broadway Cares’ success. “Had we not first expanded our mission of support to the Actors Fund in 1996 to include the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative which over the next 20 years has lead us to support every program that makes up the safety net of social services available to all members of the entertainment industry and performing arts, we could not fundraise in the theatre community to the extent we do today.” 

Under his leadership, Broadway Cares’s fundraising success have been equally expansive. In fact, Viola says BC/EFA has not only maintained last year’s record breaking level of grant making, it will likely surpass it before the fiscal year ends September 30th. That means at least $5.1 million to the Actors Fund and another $6.2 million to other organizations, including Gay Men’s Health Crisis www.gmhc.org. “I am very proud of our most recent support for GMHC’s nascent Long Term Survivors and renewed Buddy Program,” Viola proclaims. “These are my friends, my comrades, the folks who have survived being on the barricades, literally and figuratively.”

Being able to meet (or exceed) those funding levels is a remarkable achievement. But Viola deflects any praise to his own prowess, insisting it simply “represents a unique and remarkable on-going fundraising collaboration with the Broadway theatre community, national tours and theatres around the country, an extraordinarily dedicated contingent of donors outside the theatre community, steadfast annual corporate sponsors, and the most intrepid volunteers of every stripe you will ever be fortunate enough to engage.”

However, Viola does acknowledge that having the opportunity to fund these causes, has “fulfilled me professionally and fills my heart personally. I have learned a great deal over the last 25 years about how what might be considered ‘small grants’ of $2,500 to $35,000 can be responsibly and efficiently put to work in a way that has maximum impact without also being encumbered by a complicated application or endless reporting on how every dollar was spent. You do your best to vet those you fund and then you trust them to do the work.” And when they do god work? “Then you fund them again.”

In addition to its other programs, The Actors Fund supports people with HIV like no other organization. Menendez, who relies on and supports the Fund, knows this well. “When I was in need, I received assistance with rent, medical bills, dental bills, lab bills, utilities, moving costs and security deposit, therapy payments and copayments, substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation, [and] financial assistance while awaiting approval of Social Security disability,” he says.

Menendez says Viola isn’t content to lead his troops from the board room. He personally lends a helping hand. Menendez recalls being “in between apartments” when Viola “allowed me to crash on his couch. Well, one morning I dropped my bottle of HIV medications and his dog scooped them up! I panicked, but, Tom was completely calm. We took Maggie to the vet and the situation was resolved. It totally impressed me how centered he is.”

With his steady hand on the helm, Viola is leading BC/EFA into the future. But will it be one that is “AIDS free?” Will the organization eventually stop funding HIV causes? He thinks not.

“I know this will seem heresy to some,” Viola admits. “But I don’t believe HIV/AIDS will ever be ‘gone.’ We are dealing with human beings, very fallible human beings. Young people will consider themselves infallible, impervious to mistake and illness. Some in an older generation may sadly consider themselves dismissible, isolated or invisible. HIV is today part of a social inequality that includes poverty, lack of access to resources and power, racism, addiction and mental illness. These remain challenges. HIV courses through each. ‘The end of AIDS’ is a terrific slogan or goal. But I do not see it evaporating, in the same way polio or smallpox did. That takes a vaccine.”

Viola’s life has been entwined with the organization since the beginning, and, under his direction, the legacy of Broadway Cares has been ensured. What does he hope his own legacy is? “Simple,” Viola replies. “I did my best  —  most days  —  with people who first gave me my life back and who I then came to love. And we had some fun doing it.”

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