Long before HBO’s Looking and ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, some groundbreaking television shows told the stories of people who were affected by HIV.
Here are some of the most heartfelt performances, riveting storylines, and unforgettable TV moments to deal with the AIDS crisis and the people who have been impacted by HIV.
Aidan Quinn, An Early Frost (1985)
In 1985, Aidan Quinn made TV history by portraying a young gay lawyer who was living with AIDS. This NBC movie was the first program to address the AIDS epidemic and helped humanize the disease at a time when many still referred to the disease as “gay cancer.” The controversial film captured the attention of the American viewing public and brought Quinn his first Emmy nomination.
Tony Goldwyn, Designing Women (1987)
In 1987, CBS’s Designing Women pioneered the discussion of AIDS and delivered one of the most epic Julia Sugarbaker moments of all time. In the episode, titled “Killing All the Right People,” a young gay man and friend of the designers named Kendall, played by Tony Goldwyn (Scandal), asks the women to design his funeral because he is dying of AIDS complications. The ladies of Designing embrace the young man and take an opportunity to educate the public on how HIV is and isn’t transmitted. When an acquaintance of the designers learns about Kendall’s diagnosis, she is appalled by the ladies’ willingness to help him.
Imogene: “As far as I’m concerned, this disease has one thing going for it: It’s killing all the right people.”
It is then that Julia Sugarbaker, played by the dynamic Dixie Carter, counters the woman’s hurtful words with what is possibly the best response ever to ignorant and stigmatizing views of HIV.
Julia Sugarbaker: “Imogene, get serious, who do you think you’re talking to? I’ve known you for 27 years and all I can say is if God was giving out sexually transmitted diseases to people as punishment for sin, then you would be at the free clinic all the time!”
Chad Lowe, Life Goes On (1991-1993)
In the early ’90s, Chad Lowe showed the teenage grunge generation what it meant to live with HIV when he played Jesse on the cult TV hit Life Goes On. Jesse was a straight teen who was infected with HIV by an older girlfriend. Young girls across the country fell in love and had their hearts broken as they watched his struggle and learned that HIV could affect anyone, even one of the Lowe brothers.
Peter Frechette, Thirtysomething (1989-1991)
Heralded as one of the best shows ever on television by TV Guide, Thirtysomething depicted not just the lives of heterosexual baby boomers, but also the life of Peter Montefiore (Peter Frechette), a gay artist who contracted HIV from one of his sexual partners. The series entered new prime-time territory when it showed Peter naked and in bed with boyfriend Russell (David Marshall Grant), apparently after the two had sex on a first date. The episode provided a candid look into the lives of gay men without mainstream filters and lost some advertisers because of it.
The HIV-positive inmates of Oz (1997-2003)
The HBO series Oz delivered an often-crueler portrait of life with the virus — the life of an HIV-positive inmate. The show chronicled a group of men who were infected while in prison and were isolated in their own unit because of it. Oz didn’t hold back in depicting the harsh reality of what it was like to live with HIV behind bars.
The HIV-positive characters of Queer as Folk (2000-2005)
This groundbreaking program, the U.S. version of a British series, depicted a cross section of gay men living with HIV. There was Vic, played by Jack Wetherall, who was the uncle of a main character, Michael Novotny (Hal Sparks). Robert Gant played the ever-so-sexy and distinguished Ben, a college professor and Novotny’s boyfriend. And then there was Hunter, a former hustler who became Ben and Michael’s foster son, played by Harris Allan. Queer as Folk portrayed the reality of HIV in a way that few shows ever have. The topic was frequently addressed by each character but did not form the defining storyline for any of the men living with the virus.
And the Band Played On (1993)
Long before The Normal Heart made it to television, And the Band Played On riveted TV audiences with its honest and raw account of the discovery of HIV, the infighting among scientists, and the struggles of people who were living with the disease. With a powerhouse cast, including Matthew Modine, Alan Alda, Richard Gere, Lily Tomlin, Anjelica Huston, and Swoosie Kurtz, the HBO movie is both irresistible and excruciating for its chronicle of the pain and injustice that defined the early years of AIDS.
Angels in America (2003)
Continuing HBO’s long-standing record of bringing the stories of HIV to the small screen, Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Angels in America was beautifully adapted into this miniseries. This imaginatively crafted account of the AIDS crisis combined subtlety with Broadway grandeur. And with acting heavyweights like Meryl Streep and Al Pacino among the all-star cast, this is one timeless TV moment that is truly a must-see.
Charlie Hardwick, Emmerdale (2014)
One of Britain’s most-watched television programs, the soap opera Emmerdale told the story of a woman who was forced to expose her HIV-positive status and risk her relationships with her husband and family. After a fling with a married man in Portugal, Val Pollard (Charlie Hardwick) returns to the town of Emmerdale and discovers she is HIV-positive. After trying to keep her diagnosis from her family, Val is pressed to disclose it when an anonymous comment about HIV is left on her B&B’s website. The show offered an honest account of the struggle Val’s husband goes through to forgive her infidelity and accept her status, and showed how HIV stigma can affect more than just the person who is living with the virus.
The Normal Heart (2014)
Adapted from Larry Kramer’s seminal play, this HBO movie brought the early days of AIDS to life for a new generation. The Normal Heart addressed not only the struggles of gay men with the disease itself but their efforts to make their voices heard and show that their lives matter. Widely considered the most important depiction of the early AIDS crisis, the movie was filled with powerhouse performances from Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Jonathan Groff, Julia Roberts, and Finn Wittrock.
Pedro Zamora, The Real World: San Francisco (1994)
Pedro Zamora will be long remembered for making TV history by showing the reality of HIV. As the first openly HIV-positive person on reality TV before it was “reality TV,” Pedro gave Middle America a chance to see what it meant to live with the virus. He broke down barriers, shattered stereotypes, and became a hero of the modern LGBT movement. Zamora died in November 1994, just hours after the final episode of his Real World season aired.
Hill Harper, Soul Food (2004)
In the episode "Angelitos Negros," which was part of Viacom's KNOW HIV/AIDS initiative, Showtime's Soul Food looked at HIV in the African-American community in a way that other television series had not. When Maxine (Vanessa Williams) throws husband Kenny (Rockmond Dunbar) a surprise birthday party, his brother, Kelvin played by Hill Harper comes to celebrate. While he's there though, Kelvin tells Kenny he is HIV-positive and the reaction is, at first, not a positive one. But Kenny comes around and the two brothers help each other, especially Kelvin as he struggles with all the inital fears that come with diagnosis. The episode, written by Salim Akil and directed by Ken Girotti, was astute with the casting as well: Harper, who would later play Dr. Sheldon Cooper on CSI: NY, was one of People magazine's sexiest men alive, and his was and continues to be a strong HIV advocate off-camera.