David Schachter Reflects on Starring in the First Feature Film About the Disease

Buddies film

David Schachter, left, with Geoff Edholm in "Buddies." (Photo courtesy of Frameline Distribution)

After he filmed Buddies in 1985, David Schachter’s life changed. But not in the way you might expect for a young actor who had just starred in a movie. Buddies was not a box office success. Schachter (Tisch BFA, 1982; Wagner MPA, 1994) did not go on to fame and fortune. Instead, he was inspired to switch careers entirely, from acting to public service.

Buddies, directed by Arthur J. Bressan, Jr., was the first feature film about AIDS, and was named for the volunteers who supported and cared for people dying from the disease. It starred Geoff Edholm as Robert, a man dying of AIDS, and Schachter as his “buddy,” David.

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After Buddies’ limited release, the film all but disappeared. Meanwhile, Schachter began volunteering at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, now known as GMHC. Soon, he was working there as a community organizer in charge of the AIDS Walk and other major events. Eventually, he returned to New York University—where he had earned his BFA in drama from the Tisch School of the Arts in 1982—to pursue his master’s degree in public administration at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. He has spent nearly 20 years at Wagner, pioneering the school’s much-emulated career services, and is now associate dean for admissions and student affairs.

“Life started to imitate art,” Schachter says. After the movie debuted, “people would come up to me as if I were the actual buddy in the film and share their stories. It was rather humbling to say the least. I wanted to be involved on a more personal level.”

Still, life has a way of circling around. Early in 2018, Schachter got a call from film historian Jenni Olson, who was working with Roe Bressan, Arthur Bressan’s sister, to bring Buddies and other films back through the Bressan Project. Buddies, which first premiered at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on Sept. 12, 1985, re-premiered at Frameline: The San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival in June 2018, and also ran for a week at the Quad Cinema in New York. Wagner will screen the film the evening of Saturday, December 1, which is World AIDS Day.

Buddies film

Photo courtesy of Frameline Distribution

Schachter shared his experiences working on the film and thoughts about its enduring impact.

What was going on in your life when you were cast in this movie?

I had been working as an actor for a while, which meant I waited a lot of tables—that was my survival job. In February of 1985, I got a call from Artie, an old friend of mine, and he told me that he was planning a script about a person with AIDS and his buddy, and wanted to know if I would be interested in playing the buddy. I said sure.

David Schacter

What kind of acting work had you been doing?

I did some theater in New York, and I did a lot of extra work on television. I was sort of a regular extra on Saturday Night Live and As the World Turns. Artie had cast me in a previous film of his called Abuse, but I wound up on the cutting-room floor.

Why did you decide to take the part in Buddies?

First of all, he asked, and I certainly was not successful enough where I could say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t want to do that.’ Both Artie and Geoff were committed to telling gay stories. I wanted a more mainstream career; it wasn’t like I’m jumping in with two feet because I’m a gay man and get to play a character who’s gay. It did not make a difference to me that it was a gay character. That wasn’t the reason I did it.

What was it like shooting the film?

It was pretty intense, but I didn’t know anything different. Artie gave me a couple pieces of direction that have stuck with me.  One was that he wanted everything to read in my eyes, so that I would bring people in to my face as opposed to what it was that I was saying. In stage acting, I often played slightly larger than life characters, reading very easily to the balcony. This was an opportunity for me to really quiet it down.

Then, we talked about the evolution of my character. He said, ‘It’s as if David is growing up from the beginning to the end of this film, but it’s not graceful; it’s not like a rose blooming.’ He wanted it much more angular and stiff, more like Pinocchio becoming a real, live boy.

Was that his analogy?

Yes.

Tell me more about what he meant.

Jenni likened my character to both the everyman and the strawman. In 1985, I was sort of the entry point for the vast majority of the people seeing this film who were new to this, not really understanding a lot of the misinformation and disinformation. That’s the everyman. But he’s also a strawman in many ways. My character sets up arguments that are counterpoints to Robert’s arguments in a way that hopefully isn’t terribly didactic. He’s representing things that are out there in the world, and Robert has the ability to knock them down, like a strawman. Artie wanted to make sure there were certain political elements without degrading David’s naivete or middle-of-the-road-ness. He was quite clearly making a point about the need for care and help and money and science.

I understand Bressan named your character after you to “condemn” you to health. Bressan and Edholm both died within four years of Buddies’ release. What was that time like?

He condemned me to good health. The word condemned is permanent and has an ominous note to it. The ’80s and ’90s were really rough; they were devastatingly rough, frankly, personally and collectively.

What was the premiere in San Francisco like?

It was awe inspiring. The house was filled; it was a benefit for the Shanti Project, a service organization in San Francisco. The love for Artie and for what he had represented for the very first time... oy. It was heartfelt and extraordinarily meaningful. With its resurgence now, one of the things that I am also privileged to be is a part of this historical artifact that captures a very specific moment in time, not only for the gay community but for America: what it was like to be an American citizen when the country and the president… we were marginalized to such degree that we could actually be abandoned in massive numbers.

What were politicians saying at the time?

President Ronald Reagan was just entering his second term, and he had yet to make a single policy speech or publicly mention AIDS, actually until three days after the film opened. Artie demanded a seat at the table. Dammit, he was going to get this fucking movie made because lives were at stake.

Do you think Buddies was a galvanizing force in that moment?

No, I don’t think so. The theater community was already engaged in telling stories like these [In 1985, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and William M. Hoffman’s As Is both debuted]. I don’t think Buddies in and of itself created this moment. I think we were a part of a wave of story tellers who wanted to make sure these stories were not forgotten.

What message do you think the film carries today?

I work at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. We are committed to helping people who want to work in nonprofits and government do their work better. I see this passion in our students who are motivated to take action, and I think the arc of my character in this film is the arc of an activist. David, like Artie, grabbed a platform at the end of the film by which he was transformed, and I think when we find ways to engage—as opposed to disengage—to make this world a better place, it is amazing what a group of people can do. So, to me, it’s this wonderful clarion call to action, to step out of the shadows and not be ashamed of who you are or what you stand for.