Brad Davis, 1949–1991
Story & Recording by Susan Bluestein
Brad Davis shot to instant stardom one night in 1979 in the south of France at the Palais theater. It was the night the movie Midnight Express premiered at Cannes International Film Festival. Before that, Brad had worked as an actor in some prestigious TV shows like Sybill with Sally Field and the mini-series Roots. But, that night before the premiere, no one knew who Brad Davis was.
I’m Susan Bluestein; I was Brad’s wife. I realized then that the experience of a five-minute standing ovation and the commotion that followed would be forever etched in my memory. It was shocking and thrilling to see this short, skinny kid from Tallahassee, Florida and this middle-class Jewish girl from New York frozen in time amongst the movie elite. It was like a dream, not real or tangible, but wonderful. Brad won a Golden Globe award for that performance.
However, around the same time, Brad’s life changed in a very different way, and it wasn’t like a wonderful dream. Brad had just finished a movie, A Small Circle of Friends. His IV drug use and alcohol addiction were at their height. After that movie, he went to visit a friend on the set of the film Heaven’s Gate. He came down with the worst case of shingles and swollen lymph nodes the doctor had ever seen.
Today, they probably would have tested him for HIV immediately, but no one knew this in 1979-1980. Through a miracle and much hard work, Brad got sober in 1981 and tried very hard to repair his reputation in the industry. We were overjoyed to have our baby, Alex, in 1983.
In 1985, Brad went to Cedars Sinai hospital to donate blood, as he always did after Alex was born. He had gotten an acting job in Italy for a few months. Cedars Sinai sent a letter to the house informing him that he was HIV positive. Brad had just finished starring in Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart at the Public Theater in New York. This, of course, turned out to be very prophetic.
At first we didn’t really believe it or know what to think. We had so many questions. Was I infected? Was Alex? What should we do and how should we live going forward?
Fortunately, Alex and I tested negative. We decided to keep Brad’s diagnosis secret so Brad could work as long as possible. It had been hard enough for him to resurrect his career. We didn’t think much about it at the time. Brad looked and felt good, but a light had gone out of him, carrying this burden of his past. By then, he had been infected at least five years, maybe more.
He refused to get any medical care for fear of discovery. But in 1989, he wasn’t feeling well and knew he needed help from a doctor. Luckily, he was able to reach out to his friends Larry Kramer and Rodger McFarlane. By then they were major AIDS activists in New York. They sent him to a wonderful doctor, who agreed to see him in secret along with many other actors we found out later.
After his last job, A Habitation of Dragons, he picked up a parasite and couldn’t recover. It was 1991. He didn’t want Alex, who was 8 years old, to see him die a horrible death. He took his own life while he was still able, on September 8, 1991.
Brad’s death shocked Hollywood. Brad had wanted to tell the truth of how he died and what he had been through hiding the truth that he had AIDS. There were many differing opinions as to whether he would have been hired if producers and directors had known.
The truth is he did some of his best work during that time, a mini-series, Robert Kennedy and His Times, being his favorite. He loved that show and felt it was his first really adult role. Brad wrote a proposal exposing the fear and discrimination at the time in the Hollywood Industry about anything related to AIDS. It later became a book.
We made the most of the years we had together with Brad. There was always music, lots of laughter and wonderful friends.
Brad’s motto was always “Don’t postpone joy.” He never did!