The year is 1972. Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook have been ubiquitous on small screens since the ‘50s; familiar faces to TV audiences, but far from the level of fame that would find them later in their careers. After a decade of writing for other people’s series, William Link and Richard Levinson have recently started penning their own TV movies; My Sweet Charlie won them their first Emmy in 1970, and Prescription: Murder had just become a little show called Columbo in 1971. The four men were about to collaborate on the rarest of ventures: A TV movie that would be remembered decades after it aired.
That Certain Summer sees 14-year-old Nick (Scott Jacoby) spend the summer with his dad Doug (Hal Holbrook), a contractor in San Francisco, who’s been divorced from Nick’s mom (Hope Lange) for three years. Nick’s excitement for the visit is immediately quashed when he meets Doug’s “friend” Gary (Martin Sheen), who continues to interrupt their father-son time throughout his trip.
Doug and Gary are actually romantic partners, and Doug hasn’t worked out how—or even if—he’s going to tell his son; it’s clear he’s hoping that Gary and Nick will become such good pals, Nick will be thrilled to learn the news. But remember, we’re in 1972 here, and Doug’s dream proves rather optimistic. As the summer progresses, the realization of who Gary really is to his father slowly sinks in, and he’s not thrilled. Not in the slightest.
That Certain Summer is widely credited as being the first TV broadcast to portray a gay couple in a positive light. Still, airing on network TV in 1972 meant a whole host of challenges. No way was the skittish ABC going to allow the sort of physical affection they showed between straight couples numerous times a day; even lingering eye contact was verboten. The creative team was tasked with telling a story about a loving gay couple that would be broadcast on a network profoundly uncomfortable with the whole idea.
Nevertheless, they did an impressive job. Sheen and Holbrook, aided by Link and Levinson’s sensitive dialogue, quickly conjure the kind of ease with each other that naturally stems from intimacy. Their dynamic is established so convincingly, you can imagine what their weekends together would look like, how they’d be at a dinner party, or in a crisis; when a later exchange reveals they’ve been together less than a year, it comes as a surprise. Considering that at the time That Certain Summer was aired, homosexuality was still a year from being officially declassified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association, the comfortable banality of Doug and Gary’s relationship was, in itself, revolutionary.
One of ABC’s demands was that Link and Levinson include a character who represented “the average heterosexual American.” Enter Gary’s boorish brother-in-law, Phil (Joe Don Baker). Gary usually lives with Doug, but is staying at his sister’s place for the duration of Nick’s visit. One morning, seemingly out of nowhere, Phil starts being aggressively tolerant of Gary’s “friend.”
“You don’t have to feel awkward about bringing him round here”, he says, with an unspoken—yet very loud—desire for praise at displaying such benevolence. Gary isn’t having it. “Look Phil, it’s nice of you to be broad-minded about me,” he says. “I appreciate your tolerance, really I do, but you’ll have to forgive me if I detect a whiff of patronization coming down with it… I’ve been getting it all my life, if it’s not from the militant straights, it’s well-intentioned liberals and their well-intentioned curiosity. Usually I can handle it, but today, I’m just a little touchy.”
Sheen’s delivery of this eminently understandable mini-tirade is exquisite; there’s a lifetime of frustration weighing heavy on those few sentences. Still, Gary soon composes himself, shakes hands with his brother-in-law and leaves for work. Before the scene ends, a huffy final utterance from Phil—“Some guys wouldn’t even let him in the house…”—underlines the conditionality of his “tolerance.” In a 2002 interview, Link said of that particular ABC proviso: “We figured that didn’t really hurt us… America is full of these kinds of people. This is what gay people put up with!”
The final network stipulation was that in Doug’s climactic talk with his son, when he finally comes out, his homosexuality be posited as a burden: “If I had a choice, it’s not something I’d pick for myself.” Link and Levinson regretted ceding to that demand, stating in their dual memoir, Stay Tuned, “the fact we inserted it under pressure was hardly an excuse.” To the gay rights activists who scorned That Certain Summer, it seemed another tepid choice from a film too determined not to offend anyone to have any real worth. Still, there were others within the community who saw it as an honest acknowledgement that not everybody is as equally comfortable with their sexuality. The disagreement between the two perspectives played out in the letters pages of The New York Times and The Village Voice for weeks (although over time, the consensus settled on the movie being a positive—but imperfect—step for the gay rights movement).
The wider reception of That Certain Summer was resoundingly favorable. It was nominated for seven Emmys (though only won one, for Jacoby’s performance), and received a raft of glowing reviews. Holbrook and Sheen’s stars would continue to ascend, with their breakthrough roles in All The President’s Men and Apocalypse Now waiting for them further into the decade. Levinson and Link’s other TV movies continued to be a cut above the rest, and their nascent Columbo would soon become a cultural behemoth.
The four would all be questioned about That Certain Summer throughout their long careers. It kept racking up plaudits decades after the original airing, winning a Producer’s Guild Hall of Fame Award in 1998, and in 2014 being added to the Paley Center’s prestigious media collection; the citation commended it for, “educating and enlightening a select few and giving others a little bit of hope.”
Both groundbreaking and flawed, That Certain Summer was a product of its time in some ways and ahead of it in others; considering all that has changed in the decades since, it still holds up remarkably well. Its very existence proves that sometimes, not only could a Movie of the Week put some genuine good into the world, but it could last in the public imagination far beyond the following week’s edition.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.