Six Actors We Lost Prematurely To AIDS Who Are Worth Remembering


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.

 nStephen 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.

 nMerritt 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.

 oPaul 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. 

 nTom 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.

 nDavid 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.

 nTom 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 TaxiThe 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 IIOne 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.

[These bios were written by Hollywood historian Michael Michaud, who is the author of Sal Mineo, A BiographyFamous Enough, A Hollywood Memoir, and Alan Sues, A Funny Man]

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28 Responses to “Six Actors We Lost Prematurely To AIDS Who Are Worth Remembering”

  1. James. G

    I appreciate these articles but HIV and AIDS are not death sentences and if you did pass away it was because of drugs , alcohol,and not taking meds properly ., I am an HIV servicer now for 27 years I never drank, smokes anything and did any kind of illegal drugs I just properly followed my Doctor’s and take my meds very faithful I feel sad for many who choose to use drugs and abuse themselves and choose to ignore taking care of themselves.James G.


    • Jacob

      All of these actors died (along with thousands of other people) way too early to be helped by certainly any current drugs. You basically had to be “healthy” through about the early 2000s, or at least “functioning” enough for the medication to keep you at least just alive and healthy enough until the really good stuff came out right around that 2000 mark. That means not getting sick much before 1995-1997 or so, if you were lucky. The interviews that ABC did for “When We Rise” basically confirms this – Cleve Jones talks about when he kind of realized that 3 months turned into 6 months, turned into 1 year, turned into 2 years, etc…


    • Leela

      I can’t believe there are ppl this dumb. It WAS A DEATH SENTENCE fool. This was the80s & 90s. There was NO TREATMENT at this time. How disgusting that ppl can be so ignorant of history.


    • Jeffrey Byrley

      Its so sad that someone who is HIV positive is saying such hateful things about these people. I lived through the epidemic and I was VERY FUCKING LUCKY to get through this time. I had friends who died. It ABSOLUTELY WAS A DEATH SENTENCE at that time. The late 80s and early 90s saw so many people die of this disease. Im so angry I have to stop now. Please educate yourself before spewing such mean words about a time you obviously dont understand.


    • rob

      james g you are a fucking idiot!!!! NO meds helped in the early days. you were diagnosed in 1990 a really big fucking difference!!


  2. Alan Russell Carter

    This was a fine article. But can we PLEASE stop referring to people “admitting” they were gay. You admit to wrong-doing or criminal activity. One ACKNOWLEDGES they are gay. Change the words. Change people’s thinking.


  3. deane272

    Stephen Burns might have been gay, but according to Wikipedia he contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion after a serious car accident.


  4. Judith Rademaker

    Does anyone remember Ryan White? He died of aids at the age of 18. He was not gay. He was a hemophiliac who contracted aids through tainted blood.


  5. Theresa

    I appreciate learning about the lives and careers of the people who may be less familiar to us but are still still recognizable when we see them in movies and tv shows. Thank you for these articles.


  6. Ken

    James G, REALLY? glad your a “servicer” for 27 years, who have you serviced? Oh, and BTW, your comments show just how stupid you are.


  7. Tom C.

    James G. I have to disagree with your comment about why gay men died, and some didn’t. I contracted HIV in the late 70’s. Diagnosed in 1988….did way too many drugs, drank had unprotected sex….did ALL they wrong things. I’m still here. The bottom line is, we’re all different and react to things in many different ways.
    You are correct in saying, drugs, alcohol and risky behaviors can compound and degrade your immune system.


  8. Paul Aguilar

    You neglected to include Michael Jeter! Co-starred atty Burt Reynolds in Evening Shade. Was in The Green Mile and Sister Act 2.


  9. Alisturk MacNanty

    BOY James G, are you ever an uninformed idiot. How the hell old are you anyway? You obviously didn’t live through the first Years of age before the cocktail came out and became a viable option for keeping you alive. You should do your research before you open your mouth Buddy, Because your stupid assed comments make no sense whatsoever and you don’t know what you’re talking about.


  10. Funbud

    David Oliver and Tom Villard were the most familiar names to me on this list. I’ve long remembered David for his touching performance in the TV movie (and later series) “A Year In the Life”. Tom Villard caught my eye when I was watching a “Golden Girls” re-run. His appearance led me on a “whatever happened to?” Google chase where I discovered he had sadly died so long ago. So many men died in those years and in that pre-Internet era is was hard to get information. Plus, we were far more concerned with our own friends and loved ones who were dealing with AIDS. This was a nice tribute page.


  11. blaine

    Sadly, I lived through those dark days of the 80s and 90s when I lived in Hollywood. Back then, it (Was!) a death sentence. There was a period when there was a funeral every week of someone I knew. I lost so many close friends including my very best friend. It was a horrible time. For those who grew up later, please understand this. You are so lucky not to have to gone through it. You have access to Prep and life saving drugs they did not. Every time I think about those lost I tear up. We had to scream back them to invest in research and develop those drugs we have today.


  12. Tonia Nwachuku

    All of you are commenting about hiv and aids….try being around Ebola……..very scarey…….rip to all the warriors……who are no longer with us, and to act up who made Pres Reagan go boo boo in his pants.
    To my dear friend kenny spencer…i hope i made you laugh and happy during your final days……….you are missed.


  13. Patricia

    My 2nd cousin ( my mom’s first cousin) Stephan Burns who you mentioned was not gay for one he was hurt himself in a motorcycle accident and received blood back then they didn’t check blood for HIV or hep c none of that he was a great person and I hope anyone with hiv lives forever but where ever you got you non sense at I think you need to check it out cause my cousin died on my father’s birthday and I remember telling him


  14. Patricia

    Stephan w burns isn’t gay a accident happened and he got a blood transfusion that’s where he got hiv he filmed spiker right after he was ready to return to acting he is limping in the movie to many people died from what they can live the rest of there life with today


  15. Kit

    From 1975-1987 my older brother worked for a casting agents based in Studio City. They cast mostly for adverts and TV shows not films . The older female head of the business would send my brother out looking for “ talent” basically good looking people to sign up and get at very reasonable prices compared to what they charged if they were hired out. She would tell him to go to gay clubs to find the best looking men ! As she said they looked after themselves the best. I don’t know if he knew any on this list but sadly I do remember him telling me a lot of friends he made at that time from work died of HIV/AIDS. He died fairly young himself in 2018. When I left school I trained in medicine and then secondly trained in oncology/ radiotherapy and when I worked at St Thomas’ in the early 1990’s treated many young men dying from HIV/ AIDS. It was heartbreaking seeing these young men in what should be the prime of life dying so young and in horrible ways. I’m glad I could at least stop some of the pain. So yes we lost a generation of talented actors to HIV/AIDS but we lost talented young people in all types of work. Globally now 40 million have died of HIV/AIDS since 1980.


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