In Hollywood, the deadly disease AIDS casts a particularly personal shadow. The work place here may be a bedroom on a sound stage; intimate contact between actors may be all in a day's work -- or a month's script. And following the disclosure that Rock Hudson is suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome, there is a special kind of fear here.
There is fear about how you can get AIDS, and rumors about which celebrities may be suffering from it. And there are stories about who is refusing to work with someone who might have it.
"The rumor mill in the whole entertainment industry goes on," says one Hollywood writer. "It's like Elizabethan court."
The rumors take on an astonishing life of their own -- which industry members attribute to the nature of Hollywood, and which the beleaguered objects of the rumors attribute to the press.
At least one star's manager has spent much of the past few weeks putting out brush fires of rumors around the name of his client who -- depending on whom you talk to -- looked gaunt and pale, or perfectly fine, the last time anyone saw him.
"He has no disease and no illness!" this manager says exasperatedly to yet another inquiry. When asked why his client doesn't simply make a public appearance, the manager snaps back, "He's not going to give credence to this crap."
To date, most AIDS victims in the United States have been homosexual men, users of blood products and intravenous drug users. Health experts say the disease cannot be transmitted through casual contact. Though almost every gay man resents the notion that AIDS is a gay disease, the fact that homosexual men account for nearly 75 percent of U.S. cases has made the entertainment industry ripe for paranoia.
Stories abound about actresses who don't want to kiss supposedly gay actors with whom they are doing love scenes, or about how worried Linda Evans of "Dynasty" might be about the kissing scenes she did last season with Rock Hudson when he was keeping his illness secret.
"If she's human, she'd be concerned," says one sympathetic gay television producer who counsels AIDS victims. Joan Rivers, one of the first in Hollywood to involve herself in raising money for AIDS research, told columnist Marilyn Beck, "Frankly, if I were Linda Evans, who worked romantically with Rock on 'Dynasty,' I would be crazed now."
A "Dynasty" spokeswoman denies it: "Linda Evans is not hysterical," she says. "Everything attributed to her -- that she's asking for blood tests, that she's suing Rock Hudson, that she's panicked -- is not true."
Despite the freedom and acceptance that the Hollywood community is reputed to offer its members, homophobia rages on here like anywhere else in America, and gay members of the industry worry about "hunts for witches that don't exist."
"The entertainment industry is probably the most homophobic of any industry I know," says openly gay Sheldon Andelson, 54, chairman of the board and founder of the Bank of Los Angeles and a regent of the University of California.
Actor Ed Asner, president of the Screen Actors Guild, denies hysteria is sweeping Hollywood or that any gay actors have been fired. The SAG contract prohibits such discrimination. "Nobody's plaguing the Guild [with complaints], and I've inquired about it,' " Asner says.
But he does confirm that actresses have expressed worry over kissing male costars:
"I know of one who tried to offset it by having her agent go in and discuss the kissing scenes," Asner says, declining to identify the actress and saying only that it was on a television show. He adds, "I gather that her wishes were acceded to. But it's not the only case. I'm led to believe that it's happening around town."
Asner says he's amenable to the removal of kissing scenes "instead of all the talk about who is gay and who has AIDS and on and on. The elimination of kissing is something that, until we have more data, I would prefer to all the hullabaloo and uproar. It certainly seems logical that we would forgo the peck on the mouth to avoid the one-in-a-million mistake."
At the West Hollywood office of AIDS Project Los Angeles, which provides services to AIDS victims and information to the public, the biggest problem is dealing with the tidal wave of support. The small, two-story office looks like the scene in a popular political candidate's office, with phones ringing constantly, T-shirts and posters hanging on walls advertising the cause, and staffers dashing in and out of director William Misenhimer's office.
"Our hot-line calls have tripled since Rock Hudson's announcement -- people wanting to know where can they get tested, what are the symptoms, how is it communicated," says Misenhimer, who still dresses like the Xerox executive he once was, wearing a business suit in a town where half the business people wear jeans and casual slacks.
It is his organization that has planned the Sept. 19 benefit for AIDS Project L.A. that now boasts an honorary committee of some 300 celebrities. Planning the extravaganza has become one in itself.
"This dinner is driving me crazy," Misenhimer says.
Says the event's executive coordinator Bill Melamed, "It's gone from a disease in a dark corner to a disease where everyone knows someone who has it."
"People of great prominence in the industry have been afraid to take a public vehement stand to help AIDS sufferers because they were afraid of being tarred," says Newton Dieter, director of the Gay Media Task Force here. But the Hudson announcement "has made it not only easy, it's made it de rigueur. He's so liked, so respected, that it now becomes easy."
Is AIDS becoming the trendy disease to support? "To a certain extent," answers Misenhimer, who quickly adds, "But I can tell you it won't always be. I think it will wane. I think the attention will be higher but this blitz will pass -- which is unfortunate because the number of cases continues to grow."
But the fear is still there.
"It's a very quiet hysteria," says Misenhimer. "It's people not going to supermarkets where gay people shop, people not going to restaurants, not going to gyms. And some of these people are very educated and liberal, and they still believe this."
And there is heightened homophobia, particularly among heterosexuals.
"I think the danger is the unknown," says screen writer Richard Levinson, a creator of the TV series "Murder, She Wrote." Levinson says he knew of no problems on the sets of the shows he's involved with. "If I were producing a television show and a gay actor were signed for a role and an actor said, 'I don't want to work on the same set with that actor,' I'd say, 'Well, you'll have to until it's proven that breathing the same air with a gay person shows you can catch AIDS.' "
Still, Levinson remembers getting an award about a year ago from a gay entertainment group and being invited to a reception at a private home before the ceremony: "There was never a question in our minds about going, but for a split second we thought, 'How is it communicated?' Who knows, so forget it. It seems very stupid to worry about that, driving to a meeting smoking a cigarette and not wearing a seat belt . . . One cannot blame anyone for their fears. The question is how they operate on their fears."
"I think there's a lot of genuine fear," says actor and writer Harold Ramis, who cowrote and starred in "Ghostbusters."
"We've moved from herpes paranoia to AIDS paranoia. When I eat in certain restaurants in San Francisco, I'm afraid. I know it's irrational. I don't claim to be sane, just human. Because of the AIDS fear, I know heterosexual men who've limited their sexual activities . . . It makes you want to go out with doctors."
No one is more aware of a real fear than other gay men who appear to be most at risk. They are also the people who have most often seen friends die.
"I was scared to death," says Misenhimer. "I'm convinced I've been exposed to the virus. I also have a feeling in my gut that I'll never get it. And I don't put myself at risk. I don't have any risky sexual encounters."
One gay television producer said he has lost four friends to AIDS. "I wrote out a check or two or three -- but it didn't seem enough. I thought, 'How could I help my brothers?' "
He became involved in the Shanti Foundation, based on a model program in San Franciso. It pairs trained volunteers with AIDS victims. " 'Shanti' is a Sanskrit word meaning inner peace," he says. "We are taught to be with a person, to listen to them . . . We act as an emotional springboard for what they're going through."
The producer must deal with his own fears as well as those of the people around him.
"The man I counsel has lesions," he says. "I've walked into restaurants here in Los Angeles with my client and I've seen gay people walk out of the restaurant. Straights don't recognize the signs so much, but gay people really do. I've found out you have to have respect for the word 'risk.' I have to take responsibility for myself. I take responsibility for hugging him, for kissing him on the cheek when I say goodbye. But I'm careful about my own cleanliness. I'm careful to wash my hands afterwards. At Shanti, they call it terror management." He means the counselor's and the client's.
"L.A. is the senior prom," says another AIDS counselor. "Everyone's clean and pretty and no one wants to know. The whole L.A. gay society is based on being beautiful . . . and nothing destroys that like this disease."
"Once you have AIDS, you're treated so differently," says one gay Hollywood writer. "It's like the plague. That prejudice happens in the gay community as well as the straight community . . . In the beginning I worried. I still do. If you deny that, that's bull. You have to worry. You see what it does to them. My writing partner's lover had pneumonia and he freaked out. You can't get a cold, you can't get a mark on your arm without worrying."
And there are the rumors of disclosures to come.
"I think we're waiting for the other shoes to drop," says Ramis. "It reminds me of when the Betty Ford clinic revelations started coming out one after the other."
Meanwhile, the man who set off all the publicity surrounding AIDS remains in UCLA Medical Center in a 10th-floor room of what is called the Wilson Pavilion. His $549-a-day quarters, from all accounts, are nicely decorated. A private nurse is available around the clock and a University of California security guard stands outside his door.
"It doesn't look institutional," says UCLA spokesman John Pontarelli. He met Hudson the first day he was in the hospital to get the actor's approval to release daily statements about his condition, which has been listed as "fair" and "stable" for the past two weeks.
Not only is Hudson the world's most famous known AIDS sufferer, he is also probably its most embraced one. In a world where AIDS victims are often treated as lepers, some abandoned by their families, Hudson has gotten an enormous outpouring of sympathy. The hospital is showered each day with flowers for Hudson, and at the actor's request, one bouquet is put in his room and the others are distributed to patients in the hospital.
A Rock Hudson Foundation to help work on AIDS has been approved by its namesake and is being formed, according to Hudson's publicist Dale Olson, who came up with the idea. "I think I'm going to devote my personal time to working on AIDS," says Olson, who at week's end is leaving Rogers & Cowan, the giant public relations firm where he worked for 17 years. He is starting his own firm, Dale C. Olson and Associates. "I've been thinking about this for a long time," he says.
Olson says Hudson has gotten vitamins, herbs and tea, all for the actor's recovery. People have called from Sweden, Norway, South Africa and Australia offering advice. "They're all very serious, all very sincere," he says. "People offer information about experiences they've had with remission of cancer . . . Most of it has to do with dietary and spiritual cures . . . These are very sincere people. You can't brush them off."