Kramer, Larry: AIDS Activist Dies at 84

Larry Kramer, ‘Normal Heart’ Playwright and AIDS Activist, Dies at 84

 

Larry Kramer, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter, playwright, author and gay rights and AIDS activist best known for the Tony Award-winning The Normal Heart, has died. He was 84.

Kramer died Wednesday morning in Manhattan of pneumonia, his husband architect David Webster said.

Born on June 25, 1935, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Kramer got his start in Hollywood, taking a job at age 23 as a Teletype operator at Columbia Pictures.

He earned his first credit as a dialogue writer for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, a teen sex comedy from 1968. The following year, he received Oscar nomination for Women in Love, his adaptation of the novel by D.H. Lawrence directed by Ken Russell that starred Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson in an Oscar-winning turn.

He next wrote the screenplay for a 1973 version of Lost Horizon, starring Peter Finch and Liv Ullmann, which was a big flop.

From early on in his career, Kramer wanted to explore themes of gay lifestyles in America. That led him away from Hollywood and to the New York stage, beginning with his 1973 play Sissies’ Scrapbook, about a quartet of friends, one openly gay.

null

He delved further into the topic with his first, semi-autobiographical novel, Faggots in 1978.  The protagonist, based on Kramer, couldn’t identify with the sex, drugs and disco-fueled lifestyle that dominated the New York gay scene in the late ’70s. The book’s honest but unflattering portrayal got Kramer branded a traitor to the gay community. Gay bookstores refused to carry it.

Kramer’s critical voice was taken more seriously, however, when a mysterious “gay cancer” started appearing in 1980. Suddenly, his angry truth-telling became a beacon to a terrified community on the verge of extinction. In his apartment, Kramer hosted the first meetings to address the deadly, nameless epidemic striking America’s gay communities. Those meetings evolved into the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the world’s first organization dedicated to fighting AIDS and helping those dying from the human immunodeficiency virus to cope.

Kramer wrote The Normal Heart after his expulsion in 1983 from GMHC, which objected to his extreme tactics. Inspired by a tour of the Dachau concentration camp on a trip to Europe, he set to chronicling the onset of the AIDS crisis. The play, set from 1981-1884, follows a writer named Ned Weeks who nurses his closeted lover, Felix Turner, as he dies from the still-nameless disease.

The initial production starred Brad Davis (who in 1991 took his life after his own AIDS symptoms became too painful to bear) as Ned and Friday Night Lights star D.W. Moffett as Felix and ran for 294 performances at the Public Theater.

In 1987, Kramer founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), the civil disobedience-friendly activist group fashioned in his militant image, whose story is told in the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary “How to Survive a Plague.”

Kramer learned he himself had contracted HIV in 1988, while in a hospital for an aggravated hernia, but the virus never progressed to AIDS. He wrote several more plays in the years that followed, including The Destiny of Me, the 1992 sequel to Normal Heart.

In 2001, Kramer suffered from liver disease, but he was rejected for transplant because of his HIV status.  He campaigned for the rights of HIV patients and received a new liver that year. Kramer married Webster from his hospital bed at NYU Langone Medical Center on July 24, 2013, where he was recovering from surgery.

A revival of Normal Heart in 2011 starred Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey and won three Tonys, including one for Ellen Barkin’s role as Dr. Brookner, the wheelchair-using infectious disease specialist who delivers a blast of righteous fury in the play’s second act.

Envisioning Normal Heart as a theatrical release, Murphy also was working to find financing, eventually lining up support from Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment and Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions. He hadn’t planned to pitch it to HBO when he found himself in a meeting with HBO programming president Michael Lombardo about another project. When he heard about Normal Heart, Lombardo immediately offered backing.

Brilliant Timing:

Before Murphy even began shooting, the Supreme Court had issued its landmark ruling in the case of United States v. Windsor, declaring that the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional.

The HBO version, starring Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Bomer and Julia Roberts, bowed in 2014 to great acclaim.