The significance of this intimate telefilm derives as much from historical context as from the events depicted onscreen, because That Certain Summer is considered the first made-for-TV movie to present homosexual characters as dignified protagonists. Seen today, the picture might strike some people as inconsequential, for while That Certain Summer tells the touching story of a man forced to tell his teenaged son about a profound lifestyle change, the picture lacks dramatic fireworks. Everyone treats everyone else with respect, more or less; no one goes for the jugular during moments of conflict; and the closest the story gets to addressing political issues are a few dialogue exchanges pertaining to the limited rights enjoyed by gay men in early-’70s America. Yet because the narrative takes place in the progressive enclave of San Francisco, That Certain Summer isn’t about the restrictions society places on people. Rather, it’s about the challenges people face when asking others to change their perceptions. Not coincidentally, that’s just what the film itself asked viewers to do by casting mainstream actors in leading roles.
Hal Holbrook stars as Doug Salter, a contractor who divorced his wife three years ago. Eventually, we learn that he told his ex-wife, Janet (Hope Lange), about his bisexuality before they got married, and that she, like so many women of her generation, presumed she could ease Doug into a permanent heterosexual lifestyle by creating a loving and stable home. By the time their son, Nick (Scott Jacoby), reached adolescence, Doug realized that he needed to live his true identity as a gay man. In the years since the divorce, Doug built a new life with a younger lover, Gary McClain (Martin Sheen), and they moved in together. When the story begins, 14-year-old Nick arrives for an extended summer visit with his father, unaware of how deeply Doug’s life has changed. In fact, Nick—like so many children of divorce—holds onto the hope that his parents will reunite. This summer, however, Doug has resolved to integrate the two halves of his life by introducing Nick to Gary, even though Gary pretends to live elsewhere so Nick isn’t confronted by too many shocking revelations at once. Nonetheless, the sensitive youth puts the pieces together and runs away from his father’s house, riding a trolley through the city while Doug and Gary search for him. Inevitably, the story gravitates toward the moment when Doug must tell the whole truth, despite the painful changes it will bring to his relationship with Nick.
Writers Richard Levinson and William Link, best known for their work on mystery shows (they created Columbo and co-created Murder, She Wrote), display the same humanistic subtlety here they brought to other made-for-TV movies, including The Execution of Private Slovik (1974) and My Sweet Charlie (1970). Both of those pictures were directed by versatile craftsman Lamont Johnson, as was That Certain Summer. Fine script and direction notwithstanding, this is primarily an actor’s piece. Sheen channels the suppressed tension of a man trying not to make a difficult situation worse until he briefly flashes anger during a confrontation with his brother-in-law (Joe Don Baker, great in a cameo role). Jacoby is good, too, investing the mostly one-note role of a confused kid with palpable anguish.
Holbrook commands the film, playing gentle notes of ambivalence and pride and regret as a man who masks his identity in professional settings and desperately wants to be truthful in private settings. As seen through the eyes of his character’s son, who has yet to form prejudices but nonetheless receives demeaning signals from society, Doug is not a hero but an everyman. The sheer ordinariness of his situation is what makes That Certain Summer so meaningful.
That Certain Summer: RIGHT ON