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Backstage drama and superstar cameos: 25 fascinating facts about ‘And The Band Played On’

Image Credit: ‘And The Band Played On,’ HBO

Based on the international best-selling book of the same name by Randy Shilts, the 1993 HBO film And The Band Played On is an urgent, tense, and infuriating look at how one scientist, Dr. Don Francis, desperately tried to curb the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s.

With powerful performances and direction by Roger Spottiswoode, And The Band Played On is a vital piece of queer cinema, showing the obstacles faced by activists and researchers as they tried to put a stop to the spread. Its story is just as affecting today, 30 years after its release.

Read on for 25 facts about And The Band Played On...

1. The film has an all-star cast.

‘And the Band Played On,’ Image: HBO

Matthew Modine plays researcher Dr. Don Francis; Alan Alda plays his rival, Dr. Robert Gallo; Sir Ian McKellen plays gay activist Bill Kraus; out actor B.D. Wong is Kico Govantes, Kraus’ lover; Lily Tomlin plays Dr. Selma Dritz; and many other stars appear in small roles, including Richard Gere.

2. Richard Gere’s character, “The Choreographer,” is reportedly based on a real figure.

Image Credit: ‘And The Band Played On,’ HBO

His character is said to be inspired by famed stage director and choreographer Michael Bennett, who died of AIDS and is featured in the film’s ending montage.

3. Whoopi Goldberg was originally set to play Dr. Dritz.

Image Credit: Getty Images

Goldberg had to bow out after getting pneumonia. Tomlin stepped in to play the epidemiologist.

4. It was produced by the legendary Aaron Spelling.

Aaron Spelling, Image: Getty Images

Spelling is known for The Love Boat, Dynasty, 90210 and many more mega-hits.

5. Spelling tried to get the film made at NBC before HBO took it on.

Aaron Spelling, Image: Getty Images

NBC reportedly dropped And The Band Played On after their other AIDS-related drama, Rock Hudson, bombed in 1990.

6. Two other directors were up for the job before Roger Spottiswode was selected.

Roger Spottiswoode, Image: Getty Images

Joel Schumacher was considered but wanted to do an actual documentary, while Richard Pearce wanted to remove all the gay characters from the story. REALLY?

7. The production was riddled with behind-the-scenes drama.

Image Credit: ‘And The Band Played On,’ HBO

According to Entertainment Weekly, the production was troubled from the start, with a ballooning budget that landed at $8 million, creative differences, and network interference.

8. Randy Shilts was not happy with an early cut.

“I wrote my book to decrease homophobia, not to increase it,” he told Entertainment Weekly. ”There was a scene in the beginning with a drag queen, then a scene in an ultra-promiscuous bathhouse, then a scene in a gay porno shop. After seeing all that, viewers would think, ‘These gay guys got what they deserved!”’ 

9. Spottiswoode and HBO had such a contentious relationship that the film was physically taken away from him.

Roger Spottisdwoode, Image: Getty Images

The film was originally set to screen at Cannes, but ”Two days before the screening, they sent a policeman to take the movie from me,” he told EW. ”I’ve never worked with a studio like that before.”

10. In fact, HBO wouldn’t even send him a final cut!

‘And the Band Played On,’ Image: Getty Images

”Do me a favor?,” Spottiswoode asked EW. “Could you send me a tape of the film? HBO won’t give me one. I don’t think they want me talking about it until after it’s aired.”

11. Bill Couturie was brought in for reshoots.

Bill Couturie, Image: Getty Images

The director told The New York Times, “I don’t want it to seem like Roger didn’t shoot a wonderful film. He did. But the overriding reality of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. is that because of homophobia, we let Pandora out of the box. That to me was so much more the issue than whether or not the film included bathhouses or anything to do with the gay community.”

12. Shilts was also mixed on the end product.

Randy Shilts, Image: Getty Images

”It’s not exactly the movie I would have made,” he said. “But I’m not really unhappy with it. When I hear other authors talk about their movie experiences, I realize that I was blessed.”

13. Matthew Modine made a public statement, too.

Matthew Modine, Image: Getty Images

”It was more of a general warning,” Modine said. ”I don’t think I even mentioned Band by name. It was a letter saying that it’s very dangerous to pander to any political group.”

14. Despite all the drama, the film was showered with awards and praise.

Modine at a screening for ‘And the Band Played On’ in 1993, Image: Getty Images

And The Band Played On won the Emmys for Outstanding Made for Television Movie, Outstanding Individual Achievement in Casting, and Outstanding Individual Achievement in Editing for a Miniseries or a Special – Single Camera Production. It also won the GLAAD award for Outstanding TV Movie, and Modine was nominated for a Golden Globe.

15. And The Band Played On was a huge success for HBO.

Image Credit: ‘And The Band Played On,’ HBO

It was the network’s most-watched movie that year.

16. It was released the same year as another landmark AIDS film.

And The Band Played On released the same year as Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning Philadelphia, which starred Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington.

17. Shilts was notable for being an openly gay reporter at the time.

Randy Shilts, Image: Getty Images

He said in an interview: “Any good reporter could have done this story, but I think the reason I did it, and no one else did, is because I am gay. It was happening to people I cared about and loved.”

18. He was hired as a national correspondent at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1981.

Randy Shilts, Image: Getty Images

Shilts was considered the first openly gay reporter to have a “gay beat.”

19. Sadly, Shilts died of AIDS-related complications in 1994.

Randy Shilts, Image: Getty Images

The journalist was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. He was able to attend a special screening of And The Band Played On in August 1993.

20. Activist and pioneer Larry Kramer praised Shilts for his life’s work following his death.

Larry Kramer | Photo Credit: Getty Images

“He single-handedly probably did more to educate the world about AIDS than any single person,” Kramer said.

21. Both the book and film incorrectly name Gaëtan Dugas as “patient zero.”

The Canadian flight attendant was widely considered to be the man who began the spread of HIV/AIDS, a notion that has since been debunked. Dugas is played by Jeffrey Nordling in the movie.

22. And The Band Played On was criticized for its portrayal of Dr. Gallo.

Image Credit: ‘And The Band Played On,’ HBO

While Alda’s Dr. Gallo is portrayed as someone who tries to stop Dr. Francis at every turn, many in the science community said this was inaccurate. In 1993, researcher Marshall Goldberg told the Washington Post: “It’s now 12 years and many billions of federal dollars later and the only clear victory in the struggle to halt the spread of AIDS has been the development of the HIV blood test by the Robert Gallo-led government team.” Goldberg even started a letter-writing campaign on Dr. Gallo’s behalf.

23. Though Dr. Francis and Kraus interact in the film, they never met in real life.

The film takes various artistic liberties to make the story more cohesive.

24. Composer Carter Burwell went for a stark tone.

Carter Burwell, Image: Getty Images

Burwell writes on his website, “The music tries to suggest a wheel turning tragically, without beginning or end.”

25. The film ends on a stirring, sad montage of real celebrities and notable names affected by HIV/AIDS, set to Elton John’s “The Last Song.”

Say their names. The montage includes Bobbi Campbell, Ryan White, Rock Hudson, Anthony Perkins, Tina Chow, Rudolf Nureyev, Arthur Ashe, Michael Bennett, Liberace, Freddie Mercury, Elizabeth Glaser, Magic Johnson, Larry Kramer, Alison Gertz, Max Robinson, Halston, Willi Smith, Perry Ellis, Peter Allen, Steve Rubell, Keith Haring, Stewart McKinney, Denholm Elliott, Brad Davis, Amanda Blake, Robert Reed, Michel Foucault and Tom Waddell.