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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Many ‘Philadelphia’ Actors Have Succumbed To Disease

Clifford Rothman New York Times

One year ago, in the film “Philadelphia,” Tom Hanks portrayed the gay lawyer Andrew Beckett who, at the beginning of the film, was seen at an AIDS clinic for an outpatient visit.

As the IV drips, Andrew looks impassively around the room. Then the camera pans the faces: a oncehandsome man, now gaunt to concentration-camp proportion, jokes about how an obtuse waitress offered him Sweet ‘n’ Low.

“Do I look like I need an artificial sweetener, honey?” he says to the man sitting next to him.

Farther down the row, another man sits quietly. He is a gentle, sandy-haired fellow of about 30, his face littered with lesions.

Both the gaunt man, played by the New York actor Daniel Chapman, and the sandy-haired fellow, played by a novice actor, Mark Sorensen, are now dead.

They are among the 43 of the 53 people with AIDS or those who were HIV positive in “Philadelphia” who are now dead.

The group also included Ron Vawter, the gay actor who played Andrew’s straight colleague (the lone voice of compassion within the whiteshoe law firm), and Michael Callen, one of the singers in the Flirtations, the a cappella singing group that performs at Andrew’s costume party.

And it included Lou Digenio, who appeared as an extra in several scenes. Digenio, who was 34 when he died, did not want to be invisible in the courtroom scenes. So he dyed his hair henna red, to avoid getting lost in the crowd.

“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. But the use of AIDS patients led to occasional tensions.

One incident involved David Bertugli, an extra who had AIDS. Bertugli was washing up one day after filming and noticed that the extra standing next to him was scrubbing his own hands with alcohol. “You never know,” said the man.

“He was afraid he was going to catch HIV,” said Gary Bailey, who lives with Bertugli and was also an extra in the film. Two years after “Philadelphia” was shot, Bertugli’s T-cell count has dropped, along with his weight.

Bailey reported that his family recently came to visit. “They were here to plan my funeral,” he said. “Of all the conversations I’ve had with my parents, this one was the hardest. My father, who is politically a little to the right of Attila the Hun, cried like a baby.

“If anyone thinks that talking about sex is difficult, try talking to someone you care for about how they want to be buried.”