Did More Than 40 Actors from Philadelphia Really Die from AIDS Within Three Years of the Film’s Release?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: More than 40 actors in Philadelphia died of AIDS within a few years of the film’s release.

In an old Movie Urban Legends Revealed, I made reference to how of the 50 or so openly gay actors who appeared in the film Philadelphia, 40 or so of them were dead within a few years of the film’s release.

Reader Mike took a bit of an issue with that statement…

I read today the Movie Urban Legends Revealed featuring Tom Hanks. I was particularly interested in the Philadelphia one. The stat you mentioned at the end about 40+ of the 50 gay actors who were in the movie dieing by 1995 warrants a feature in it’s own right. I noticed that the IMDB has the same stat with no other information. Was this your source for this item or did you find more info elsewhere?

This just seems too over the top to be true. It obviously gives the assumption that they died of AIDS related conditions. But unless they specifically hired AIDS afflicted actors, it would seem very unlikely that 43 would succomb to the disease in the next few years. If they did hire 40+ actors with advanced HIV or AIDS, it would render the main point of that legend (about an actor almost denied being in the film due to having AIDS) a little odd.

Alternatively if they didn’t die from AIDS related conditions, I think a follow up legend that cleared that up would be interesting (perhaps there was a wrap party catastrophe that killed 80% of the cast and crew, gay or straight). I think the stat as it is would seem to promote a stereotype that most gay men have AIDS.

It’s a fair point, Mike, that I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that last little bit without going into it any further, and I certainly did not wish to promote any sort of stereotype about gay men.

As it was, the whole story turns on the term “actors.”

Are extra actors in a film?

If you see a scene in a movie where two characters go to see a band perform, are the members of the band they see considered “actors” because they’re in the movie?

If a character buys a newspaper from a vendor and the vendor says, “Thanks,” is the vendor an “actor” in the film?

That was how almost all of the 43 actors who passed away from AIDS or AIDS-related illnesses appeared in Philadelphia.

From a 1995 New York Times article (hence the 1995 cut-off point):

“Philadelphia” became one of the most successful dramatic films of 1993, earning an Oscar for Tom Hanks and $125 million at the box office worldwide before it was released on video. But audiences may have forgotten about the men in the film with AIDS.

Most of them had volunteered to populate the clinic, party and courtroom scenes; many played AIDS activists. The producers came to Action AIDS Philadelphia, a social services agency, for help in casting people with AIDS. “I tried to cast interesting people,” said Bruce Flannery, who represents the organization. “But it wasn’t very complex. In some cases, they needed people who were sick looking — in hospital scenes, for instance, where someone really robust would not have been right.” By contrast, he said, “to participate in the courtroom scenes you had to be able to make the commitment to be available for a whole month, and be strong enough to withstand the grueling schedule, including long days of shooting.”

The selection process was fairly democratic, with anyone able to put in the necessary hours accepted as an extra.

Jonathan Demme, the film’s director, made a conscious decision to use as many people directly affected by the virus as possible.

A very cool thing to do by Demme.

And that is why Vawter’s inclusion (which was the topic of the previous Movie Legend about Philadelphia) was different – he was one of the main actors in the film, so insuring him was a much bigger deal than a background actor.

The legend is…

STATUS: True (with the aforementioned “actors” caveat)

Thanks to Clifford Rothman for the excellent Times article, and thanks to Mike for the question!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.


5 Responses to “Did More Than 40 Actors from Philadelphia Really Die from AIDS Within Three Years of the Film’s Release?”

  1. And as always should be noted, just because they had AIDS or were HIV positive does NOT necessarily mean they were gay or even male.

  2. While certainly true, Arthur, I think the odds are pretty darn high that the desire to be involved in a film like Philadelphia would be greatest among gay men with AIDS/HIV, to the point where I would imagine that the odds are that all of the actors referenced were, in fact, gay men with AIDS/HIV.

  3. Again, what do you mean by actors? According to SAG, any person who has any line of dialog from the female bartender (“what can I get you?”) to the store clerk (“here’s your change”) to the cop on the street (Freeze!) is considered to be an actor, and hence entitled to scale wages, representation, and credits on the screen at the end of the movie.

  4. Some had speaking parts, most did not. Hence me putting the clarification in there. In other words, the majority of the people with AIDS in the film were extras, but I don’t think that’s a big enough deal to call the legend “false” because most of them were extras rather than actors, but I added the caveat for those who feel like it should be “false” because most of the people who passed away were extras and not official actors.

  5. That’s probably true, but I felt the need to reiterate Mike’s point, which probably stemmed from the way PHILADELPHIA went from a “non-controversial controversial” film to a genuinely controversial one because it was viewed as perpetuating the myths of AIDS as a gay disease and that homophobia was primarily rooted in AIDS hysteria instead of something deeper in culture and society. Being straight (and Republican to boot) I obviously can’t speak for the gay community, but my line of work has put me in contact with some of its members who have voiced frustration with the existence of these very harmful misconceptions. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were also child extras on the film who were HIV positive.

Leave a Reply