“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 marriage. We love each other.” ~ That Certain Summer.
A teenager learns his estranged father is gay in That Certain Summer. ABC’s controversial movie of the week feels campy today but in 1972 it was groundbreaking. The artists faced down homophobia, censorship and bomb threats to get the show on the air. Actors Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen took a risk playing TV’s first openly gay couple. Their performances, along with Scott Jacoby’s Emmy winning turn as the son, elevate the piece above melodrama.
Want to learn more? Then read my spoiler filled recap.
Act One: A Visit
Scene One: Dad’s House
DAD (A contractor played by Hal Holbrook): It’s been a while son! Thank you for visiting my home in San Francisco! (dun dun duuunnn!)
SON (Scott Jacoby. 14 and earnest): I brought a gift! (Peter Lorre voice.) It’s the Maltese Falcon. Our favorite movie.
DAD: (Humphrey Bogart voice) Thanks schweetheart. Funny thing about that. Did you know Peter Lorre’s character was…
BOYFRIEND: (Martin Sheet at his sexiest): Is this a bad time?
DAD: No. I want you here. Son? This is my f-f-f-riend Gary. He baked you a cake.
SON: (Frosty) It’s not my birthday.
(Son plays chess with Dad and ignores the Boyfriend.)
BOYFRIEND: He knows.
DAD: He doesn’t know. He’s just rude.
Scene Two: Seaside Home
THIRSTY WOMAN: Oh Contractor, could you come fix my leaky roof? I’m getting aaalll wet!
DAD: It just needs a little tar. My son and I will patch it up.
SON: She seems nice. Dad are you going to marry her?
DAD: I won’t be getting married again son… not officially.
Act Two: A Secret
Scene Three: Boyfriend’s Sister’s House
SISTER: Sorry that you have to sleep on my couch like a leper while your partner lies to his son.
SISTER’S HUSBAND: If you ever want to bring your f-f-f-riend over we’re totally cool with it. I’m super woke.
BOYFRIEND: Don’t patronize me, breeder. You’re only here because ABC wanted more straight men in the script.
Scene Four: A House Party
(Dad’s invited a ton of people over. A bad idea.)
GUEST 1: I drew a portrait of Gary and your father once.
GUEST 2: Tell your father and Gary I said hi. They’re lovely neighbors.
DAD: I’ll just put my arm around Gary when I think no one’s watching.
SON: I’m totally watching.
GUEST 3: Something’s wrong with your fish tank.
DAD: I’ll fix it. Let me just take off my watch.
WATCH: My inscription says “To Doug. With Love. Gary.”
SON: I GET IT MOVIE! I GET IT! That’s MORE than enough clues! (Leaves.)
Act Three: A Crisis
Scene Five: Dad’s House
DAD: My son’s run away. He must have figured out I’m gay… somehow.
WATCH: My bad.
BOYFRIEND: Why did we throw that party?
MOM: I came as soon as I heard. Why is Gary here?
BOYFRIEND: I know this must be awkward for you but…
MOM: OF COURSE IT’S AWKWARD! I KNEW WHAT DOUG WAS WHEN I MARRIED HIM BUT LIKE ANYONE IN MY POSITION, I THOUGHT I COULD CHANGE HIM! IF YOU WERE A WOMAN I’D KNOW HOW TO COMPETE WITH YOU!
BOYFRIEND: Feel better?
MOM: Yes. Could I have some coffee?
Scene Six: San Francisco
SON: I sure do love the rail car. I’ve been riding it for hours.
RAIL CAR OPERATOR: Hey runaway, want to see some more cars? Come with me to this isolated rail station.
SON: Gee thanks Mister! That sounds very sensible.
RAIL CAR OPERATOR: Lucky for you I’m not a murderer. Let me take you home.
SON: Sure Mister. Do you have any candy?
Scene Seven: Dad’s Home
SON: Rides with strangers are fun.
DAD: Son, I’m a homosexual. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. It’s clear I was about to, but then decided to just dance around the subject for a few more years.
SON: I DON’T want to talk about it! (Bursts into tears.)
MOM: Give him time. (Mom takes Son back to L.A.)
BOYFRIEND: I’d give you a hug, but the censors won’t allow it. Maybe we’ll see an epilogue where you reconcile.
DAD: Nope. The movie’s over. (Bursts into tears.)
My Heart Belongs to Daddy
“[ABC said] there must be no physical contact between the two men in this story. Not even lingering eye contact.” Director Lamont Johnson
How has dad kept his boyfriend hidden for so long? The son has a friendly relationship with him so I’m assuming he visits the mother’s home in L.A. Why did mom agree to send her son to San Francisco if she didn’t want him knowing? Would the son have taken it better if they’d told him sooner?
I wish the son had more to say after the party. His jaunt across San Francisco drags out the third act. Though I imagine a conversation with the rail car operator about homosexuality would have been cringe inducing. If he’s the surrogate for straight audiences than Gary’s the surrogate for the gay audience. He hasn’t much impact on the plot but his chats with his partner, his brother-in-law and his partners ex-wife reflect a proud, liberated mindset that the father lacks. A conversation between him and the son would have been interesting… but the subtext in their silent meetings is easy to follow.
Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen had to be coaxed into taking the roles. If they hadn’t had thriving careers afterwards the film might have been forgotten today. Sheen would go on to play the disapproving father of a gay son in 1985’s dreadful Consenting Adult and another gay man in 2015’s Grace and Frankie. That Certain Summer holds up better than the After School Specials I reviewed in July, but those were more fun.
- Hal Holbrook interview
- Martin Sheen interview
- Director Lamont Johnson interview
- Writer William Link interview
- More films about gay dads here and here.
- More reviews of LGBT+ media
Next Up: A forgotten gay/straight buddy comedy from Italy. 1979’s Hot Potato.
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