The early years of the AIDS pandemic wiped out a huge portion of a generation of gay entertainers. Whether they were big stars or just workman actors, they made an impact on our lives and it’s important to let young people know that queer people have always been among us and their loss is not forgotten.
Here are six workman actors who are no longer with us and never became household names but who are definitely worth remembering.
Stephen W. Burns was born in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania on November 15, 1954. He grew up in Chews Landing, New Jersey, and moved to New York to study theater after graduating high school. He took odd jobs to support himself before touring in the hit musical Grease. He moved to Los Angeles and first appeared on TV in the 1978 TV special Li’l Abner in Dogpatch Today. He appeared on the TV shows Eight is Enough, 240-Robert (recurring role), Heart of the City, and Simon & Simon. He appeared in the TV movie The Day the Bubble Burst, and played the role of Jack Cleary in the TV mini-series, The Thorn Birds. His feature films include Herbie Goes Bananas, and Spiker. His final recorded acting role was on the TV series Werewolf in 1987. Stephen was gay. He died of AIDS related illnesses on February 22, 1990 in Santa Barbara, California. He was 35 years old.
Merritt Butrick was born in Gainesville, Florida on September 3, 1959. His family moved to California, and he graduated from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley in 1977. He attended the California Institute for the Arts, but did not graduate. He first appeared on TV in a two part episode of Hill Street Blues in 1981, playing a rapist. He appeared on CHiPs, and in the 1981 TV movie Splendor in the Grass. He starred as Johnny Slash, a gay student, on the series, Square Pegs (1982-83). He was busy on TV — appearing as a guest on Fame, The Paper Chase, Vietnam War Story, Beauty and the Beast, The Law and Harry McGraw, Jake and the Fatman, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Hooperman. His many TV movies include When Your Lover Leaves, Sweet Revenge, Promises to Keep, Blood & Orchids, Stagecoach, When the Bough Breaks, Why on Earth?, and From the Dead of Night. His feature films include Zapped!, Head Office, Shy People and Fright Night Part 2. His final film, Death Spa, was released in 1989. Merritt is best known for playing David Marcus, the grown son of Capt James T. Kirk in the feature films Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. He worked in Los Angeles theatre, and starred in the controversial play Kingfish at the L.A. Theatre Center, playing the role of a gay hustler. Merritt was gay. He died of toxoplasmosis and other AIDS related illnesses on March 17, 1989. Butrick was 29 years old. He was beloved by his co-stars, and profiled on special DVD releases of the series Square Pegs and Star Trek III. He has several panels dedicated to him in the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Merritt was not only a talented and hard working actor, he was an interesting, funny and good-natured man.
Paul Keenan was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts on December 10, 1955. Paul graduated from Xaverian Catholic High School, and attended the University of Massachusetts for 4 years before moving to California to pursue a career in show business. In 1980 he was cast as Todd Chandler II on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. He left the show in late 1981. In 1981, Paul made his only feature film Honky Tonk Freeway. From 1982 until 1984 he appeared in the role of Tony Driscoll, the stablehand, on the night time soap Dynasty. He made two made for TV movies; Secrets of a Mother and Daughter (1983), and Summer Fantasy (1984). In early 1985, Paul quit Hollywood and returned to Massachusetts when he was diagnosed with HIV. In an interview with the Philadelphia Enquirer on July 12, 1986, Paul said, “When you have AIDS, you really have to face the fact that this could be a fatal disease. You’re dealing with things that are more important than the narcissistic Hollywood type of life. When I was 18, I came out of the closet. My family knew. Everyone who was a peer knew. When I was acting and my career started to take off, it was suggested to me that I go into the closet I had never known. When I left Los Angeles about a year and a half ago, I decided I wouldn’t do that anymore. I don’t believe that AIDS is something to be ashamed of, something that I should have to keep a secret. I am very proud of who I am, very proud of the things I’m trying to do.” Paul was 31 years old when he died of AIDS related illnesses on December 11, 1986 in Canton, Massachusetts.
Tom McBride was born in West Virginia on October 7, 1952. He worked as a photographer and model before beginning his acting career. He made his feature film debut in the 1981 movie Friday the 13th Part 2. He also appeared in the 1985 film Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. He appeared on the TV shows Highway to Heaven in 1986, and Gimme A Break! in 1987. His final film was White Lies in 1997. Tom was one of the famous “Marlboro Men” in the 1980s. He was openly gay, and died of AIDS related illnesses on September 24, 1995. Tom was 42 years old. Director Jay Corcoran filmed a documentary titled Life & Death on the A-List by following McBride in the final, painful months of his life.
David Oliver was born in Concord, California on January 31, 1962. He began his acting career in 1982 with a guest starring role on the TV series Tucker’s Witch. From 1983 until 1985, he played the role of Perry Hutchins on the soap opera Another World. He also starred as Sam Gardner in A Year in the Life (1987). His TV credits include Lady Blue, Santa Barbara, 21 Jump Street, Murder, She Wrote, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the TV movies A Year in the Life, If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium, Protect and Surf, and Miracle in the Wilderness. His feature films include Night of the Creeps, Defense Play, Deadly Intent, The Horror Show, Edward II, and Shadowchaser. He starred in several productions including The Unsinkable Molly Brown for the San Diego Civic Light Opera, and Li’l Abner. He was one of the founding members of Young Artists United. David was gay. He died in his Los Angeles home of AIDS related illnesses on November 12, 1992. He was survived by his lover, actor Terry Houlihan, and his parents and seven siblings. Shortly before his death, he starred in the play Elegies at the Canon Theater in Beverly Hills. David was 30 years old.
Tom Villard was born in Waipahu, Hawaii on November 19, 1953. He grew up in Spencerport, New York. His mother was a teacher and his father was an engineer. Tom attended Allegheny College in Pennsylvania before moving to New York to attend the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute and the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in the 1970s. In 1980, Tom moved to Los Angeles. He first appeared on TV on the show CHiPs in 1980. During the following 15 years, he appeared on many TV shows including Taxi, The A-Team, The Golden Girls, Baywatch, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. His TV movies include Sidney Shorr: A Girl’s Best Friend, High School U.S.A. and Swimsuit. Tom’s feature films include Grease 2, Surf II, One Crazy Summer, The Trouble With Dick, Heartbreak Ridge, Whore, Shakes the Clown, My Girl, and In the Army Now. Tom also appeared on the LA stage on occasion. Tom is perhaps best known for his starring role of Jay Bostwick in the TV series We Got It Made (1983-88). In his later life, Tom was one of the few actors who was open about his homosexuality and the challenge of living with HIV and AIDS. The revelation about his health dulled his career opportunities, so in February 1994, he appeared on Entertainment Tonight where he publicly admitted he was gay and that he had AIDS, and he needed help. In December 1994, POZ magazine profiled Tom. He said, “An awful lot of people suddenly wouldn’t let me in the door for auditions. I started speaking a couple of months ago about living with AIDS and having hope. It feels a little more useful than things I’ve done in the past.” Tom died of AIDS-related illnesses on November 14, 1994 in a Los Angeles hospital. He was survived by his parents, siblings, and his partner, Scott Chambliss. Tom was 40 years old. His final acting role was in the TV movie, OP Center, which was broadcast posthumously.