Telefilm Time Machine: That Certain Summer (1972)

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Just three short years after the Stonewall riots took place in New York ABC made television history when they aired THAT CERTAIN SUMMER (1972), the first gay-themed made-for-TV movie. This landmark telefilm is often left out of discussions about gay cinema but its significance shouldn’t be underestimated. This surprisingly smart and sensitive drama is well worth revisiting for the stand out performances, progressive script and Lamont Johnson’s understated and effective direction.

The plot of THAT CERTAIN SUMMER revolves around a gay man named Doug Salter (Hal Holbrook) who recently divorced his wife (Hope Lange) of 11 years and is trying to build a future with his current partner Gary (Martin Sheen). The two men live comfortably together in a stylish CA home nestled in the Sausalito hills but their life is interrupted by a summer visit from Holbrook’s 14-year-old son Nick (Scott Jacoby). The moody teenager is unaware of his father’s gay lifestyle but he soon starts to suspect that Gary is more than just a good friend of the family. When the truth finally surfaces, Holbrook’s character is forced to overcome his own self-doubt and come out to his son. His father’s honesty both confuses and troubles the young man who quickly decides to return home with his mother. Viewers are left wondering if father and son will ever resolve their differences.

THAT CERTAIN SUMMER is not a feel-good story but its sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual couple was groundbreaking. Unlike Hollywood films such as THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970), this telefilm was aimed at a much broader audience and the writers and actors involved ignored gay stereotypes that were typical of the period. Holbrook and Sheen play two professional career oriented men in a monogamous relationship who obviously care deeply about each other as well as Holbrook’s son. Their attempt to form an unconventional family unit may have hit a few snags but the film suggests that it’s possible and the only obstacle in their way is society’s limited view of love, marriage and family. In one particularly noteworthy scene Martin Sheen’s character is forced to confront Holbrook’s ex-wife who is worried that the two men’s gay lifestyle might have a negative effect on her son. Sheen’s naturally offended by her assumption that something inappropriate is going on and they have the following exchange:

Gary: “You know, I don’t exactly enjoy sneaking out the backdoor with my suitcase. Now maybe that doesn’t cut any ice with you Ms. Salter but I happen to live here too.”

Ms. Salter: “You’ve established your credentials.”

Gary: “Have I? I don’t think so. You need a ring and a marriage certificate for that.”

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After THAT CERTAIN SUMMER was beamed into thousands of American homes on Nov. 1, 1972 it was warmly received by critics and garnered no less than 9 Emmy Nominations. It took home the Golden Globe for Best Television Movie of the year as well as a Directors Guild of America Award and a Producers Guild of America Award. In retrospect that kind of praise would be noteworthy of any telefilm but the fact that THAT CERTAIN SUMMER was the first gay-themed made-for-TV movie makes its acclaim even more impressive. Of course it did have its detractors. Some gay activists took issue with the somewhat self-doubting and confused speech that Hal Holbrook delivers in the film to his son:

Doug Salter: “A lot of people – most people, I guess – think it’s wrong. They say it’s a sickness. They say it’s something that has to be cured. I don’t know. I do know it isn’t easy. If I had a choice, it’s not something I’d pick for myself. But it’s the only way I can live. Gary and I have a kind of a marriage, Nick. We love each other. Does that change me so much? I’m still your father. . . I’ve lied to myself for a long time. Why should I lie to you?”

According to the award-winning script writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link (HONEY WEST, COLUMBO, and MURDER, SHE WROTE), ABC executives forced the writers to include the following lines: “They say it’s a sickness. They say it’s something that has to be cured. I don’t know. I do know it isn’t easy. If I had a choice, it’s not something I’d pick for myself.” These additions gave voice to some intolerant opinions, which allowed ABC to distance itself a bit from the project. ABC also insisted that there would be no physical contact between the gay characters. The writers have explained that it was also a very difficult film to cast and that they received some extremely negative responses from male actors in Hollywood who wanted nothing to do with THAT CERTAIN SUMMER and were afraid that participating in the film could destroy their careers. One of those actors was Cliff Robertson who was considered for Hal Holbrook’s role and supposedly told ABC, “I’d rather play Hitler.” Holbrook was convinced to take the role after his wife and son encouraged him to accept but Martin Sheen jumped on board immediately and in an interview with the Dallas Voice in 2007 Sheen had this to say about his participation:

“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?”

Besides the difficulties the film faced in production and the negative response from some gay activists, the airing of THAT CERTAIN SUMMER also caused one of ABC’s affiliates to receive a bomb threat from a disturbed viewer but the overall response was very positive. As gay author Michael Karol explains in his book, The ABC Movie of the Week Companion, “This movie opened the dialogue for Americans to begin understanding, or at least discussing, the once-taboo subject.”

It’s hard to believe that more than 40 Years have passed since THAT CERTAIN SUMMER originally aired on ABC. The issues it grappled with are still relevant today and seem particularly pertinent considering what’s happening in Washington, D.C. this week. Unfortunately this pioneering telefilm film isn’t available on DVD or video but curious viewers can currently find it on Youtube.

16 Responses Telefilm Time Machine: That Certain Summer (1972)
Posted By Winston : March 28, 2013 2:52 pm

I think it ought to be rebroadcast with a notice that it had been broadcast 40 years earlier. I’m sure many viewers would be surprised that no more ground has been covered in the USA on the subject as of today.

Posted By Winston : March 28, 2013 2:52 pm

I think it ought to be rebroadcast with a notice that it had been broadcast 40 years earlier. I’m sure many viewers would be surprised that no more ground has been covered in the USA on the subject as of today.

Posted By Gene : March 28, 2013 3:31 pm

I was 9 when this movie aired. My mom wanted to see it but barred me from doing so. I had a tv in my room and watched it. Mom was furious ( I still laugh at this). I was different from other boys and she was getting flack from my estranged father and other family members/friends so she feared the influence of the movie on me. It took me many years and much bullying, suicide attempts, broken friendships, ostracizing, heated arguments, and matronly guilt before I understood the term bisexual. Of course I was just different anyway, I eschewed comic books for Esquire Magazine by the time I was 10. And bisexual is still a term some can not come to terms with. Many female friends are not comfortable describing me that way. I still do not feel a good fit in many arenas and look back at all that could have been done by parents, neighbors, teachers, parents of bullies, family friends if they only had embraced me in spite of differences rather than making light of them at my expense. This is about more than just who you fall in live with. It’s about not conforming, tolerance, and respect. We have a long ways to go with these matters as human beings. I really did not understand this TV movie at 9 but its message has slowly unfolded for me over these many years.

Posted By Gene : March 28, 2013 3:31 pm

I was 9 when this movie aired. My mom wanted to see it but barred me from doing so. I had a tv in my room and watched it. Mom was furious ( I still laugh at this). I was different from other boys and she was getting flack from my estranged father and other family members/friends so she feared the influence of the movie on me. It took me many years and much bullying, suicide attempts, broken friendships, ostracizing, heated arguments, and matronly guilt before I understood the term bisexual. Of course I was just different anyway, I eschewed comic books for Esquire Magazine by the time I was 10. And bisexual is still a term some can not come to terms with. Many female friends are not comfortable describing me that way. I still do not feel a good fit in many arenas and look back at all that could have been done by parents, neighbors, teachers, parents of bullies, family friends if they only had embraced me in spite of differences rather than making light of them at my expense. This is about more than just who you fall in live with. It’s about not conforming, tolerance, and respect. We have a long ways to go with these matters as human beings. I really did not understand this TV movie at 9 but its message has slowly unfolded for me over these many years.

Posted By T : March 28, 2013 4:47 pm

It’s on Youtube for anyone wanting to check it out. Planning on doing so later tonight.

Posted By T : March 28, 2013 4:47 pm

It’s on Youtube for anyone wanting to check it out. Planning on doing so later tonight.

Posted By kingrat : March 28, 2013 5:41 pm

Thanks for drawing our attention to this film, Kimberly. It was very important to have this film on TV.

Posted By kingrat : March 28, 2013 5:41 pm

Thanks for drawing our attention to this film, Kimberly. It was very important to have this film on TV.

Posted By Christine in GA : March 29, 2013 2:06 am

Good idea, Winston, they should run it again and remind people it was made 40 years ago. Sometimes the made-for-tv movies could be a little daring for their time. Thanks, Kimberly, for your article.

Posted By Christine in GA : March 29, 2013 2:06 am

Good idea, Winston, they should run it again and remind people it was made 40 years ago. Sometimes the made-for-tv movies could be a little daring for their time. Thanks, Kimberly, for your article.

Posted By swac44 : March 29, 2013 8:54 am

I know that those lines about “sickness” were foisted on the project by the network, but at the same time, I would think that a gay man of that age, at that time, would have had decades of negative programming to fight against, and that lingering self-doubt would be bound to be a factor. Interesting how that bit of dialogue reinforces the feeling it isn’t “a lifestyle choice” as so many anti-gay crusaders insist, as Holbrook tells his son he’s just hardwired this way.

There are a number of documentaries about the Stonewall era and what it took for members of the LBGT community to be seen as equals in the eyes of society, I like this take from the female point of view, Forbidden Love, produced by the National Film Board of Canada:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQVEmo4vzkQ

Posted By swac44 : March 29, 2013 8:54 am

I know that those lines about “sickness” were foisted on the project by the network, but at the same time, I would think that a gay man of that age, at that time, would have had decades of negative programming to fight against, and that lingering self-doubt would be bound to be a factor. Interesting how that bit of dialogue reinforces the feeling it isn’t “a lifestyle choice” as so many anti-gay crusaders insist, as Holbrook tells his son he’s just hardwired this way.

There are a number of documentaries about the Stonewall era and what it took for members of the LBGT community to be seen as equals in the eyes of society, I like this take from the female point of view, Forbidden Love, produced by the National Film Board of Canada:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQVEmo4vzkQ

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 29, 2013 2:32 pm

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. I realize gay marriage is a sensitive topic and I’m glad that our blog readers are a tolerant bunch capable of discussing this film with some compassion. It really should get aired again and I’d love to see Holbrook and Sheen introduce it.

Happy Easter everyone! Hope you enjoy the holiday weekend.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 29, 2013 2:32 pm

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. I realize gay marriage is a sensitive topic and I’m glad that our blog readers are a tolerant bunch capable of discussing this film with some compassion. It really should get aired again and I’d love to see Holbrook and Sheen introduce it.

Happy Easter everyone! Hope you enjoy the holiday weekend.

Posted By ziggy : April 2, 2013 1:26 am

Love Martin Sheen’s reaction to his casting, especially considering the time period. (An excellent actor.)
Good for him!!

Posted By ziggy : April 2, 2013 1:26 am

Love Martin Sheen’s reaction to his casting, especially considering the time period. (An excellent actor.)
Good for him!!

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