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Play It Loud! A Final Visit with 'An American Family'

By Laura Almo

Young Lance Loud

When Lance Loud asked veteran filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond to make a "final episode" of An American Family, they paused to take in the significance of the request. Loud, the star and cultural icon from the 1973 PBS series An American Family, had been living with HIV for many years and was now diagnosed with a terminal HIV/Hepatitis C co-infection. To make one last episode was Lance's dying wish; he passed away on December 22, 2001.

In 1971, the Raymonds spent seven months filming the Loud family in Santa Barbara, California. Shot in cinéma vérité style, An American Family became a landmark in television history—a 12-hour documentary series that followed the real lives of a real American family. Produced by Craig Gilbert, the series earned high ratings and critical acclaim, but put the Louds under intense public scrutiny. An American Family showed family life as it really was, not as it was portrayed through such rose-tinted programs as Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best and The Brady Bunch.

The premise of An American Family had been to examine issues of family, love, sexuality, marriage and divorce. And what viewers responded to most were Bill and Pat Loud's divorce during the series and Lance's openly gay lifestyle. The Louds were seen as a symbol of the disintegration of the American family.

For the "final episode," Lance approached each of his family members to get them on board. They were in disbelief. They didn't want to open their lives up to the public again. They had already done so in 1983 for An American Family Revisited, which looked at the Louds ten years after the original series, and they thought that was it for their public lives. But because it was Lance making the appeal, the family agreed (with the exception his sibling Grant).

"When Lance called us, it was a very emotional call," Susan recalls. "We were his friends, and he was calling to tell us that his illness had advanced to the next stage... and he was calling us as professional filmmakers to come back out [to California] and make a film on him."

"You had to know Lance!" Alan adds. "Only someone like Lance would be able to convince the family to make their lives public one last time."

Charming, witty and intelligent, Lance was the first gay person to appear on television as a vital part of American family life. He was unabashed about being gay, but more than that he was an inspiration to a generation of teenagers who followed Lance's example not to be afraid to follow their dreams and be true to themselves.

Lance's life was affected more than one could imagine by the series. Seen as a gay icon, he was a "star" simply for being himself. "It was never really clear how many people Lance impacted, but he did intuitively understand that he was this cultural lightning rod," says Alan. He struggled all his life because of this early stardom. "This was a burden for Lance," adds Susan. "I don't think it was something he enjoyed." "Also, the press that accompanied the series was homophobic," says Alan." And Lance had to live with that."

TV Guide recognized An American Family as the original "reality TV" series, and Lance Loud as the first reality TV star. Reality TV has come a long way since then-one might say, "from cinéma vérité to cinéma fabriqué." Commenting on the wave of reality TV shows An American Family has spawned, the Raymonds agree that there's nothing real about them: "They're all game shows...they're all cast and very controlled in the filming, and the goal is, somebody wins." The Osbournes, on the other hand, appeals to the Raymonds. "The reason The Osbournes works is that it's a real family," Susan notes. "They're related to each other by blood, and they love each other unconditionally. That's what makes them fascinating; they are a nuclear family."

And this gets at the very heart of why Lance asked the Raymonds to come back and make one final episode of An American Family. He had been reflecting on his life, and he wanted to bring closure to this life-shaping phenomenon. The Louds were often maligned as vapid and uncaring, and he wanted to rectify this perception. His family was united, it supported him throughout his life, and it was there for him in the end. He wanted to show this family to the public. Alan explains, "One of Lance's final wishes was that the family not be seen as this sort of acrimonious, bitter group of people who were estranged from one another, but, at least in his mind, a loving, nurturing group who stood by him throughout his whole life."

Another of Lance's final wishes was that his parents, Bill and Pat Loud, get back together-and they did, after Lance's death. They are now living in Los Angeles.

Lance Loud! A Death in An American Family (the exclamation point refers to how Lance used to sign his name) is a video memoir of his life. It will air in January 2003—the 30th anniversary of the premiere broadcast of An American Family—in partnership with the Independent Television Service (ITVS). David Liu, executive in charge of programming and development, explains that while ITVS normally seeks opportunities to fund emerging producers, it recognizes the efforts of experienced producers as well. Liu adds that it is especially worth revisiting the Louds 30 years later for this last chapter.

This final episode differs from the original series because it departs from cinéma vérité and it doesn't follow a linear structure. The program goes back and forth from Lance at 19 living in the Chelsea Hotel in New York to Lance at 50 living in a hospice in Los Angeles, and explores the intervening 30 years, including his stint with the punk band the Mumps, his work as a writer and his friendship with Andy Warhol.

Lance Loud! A Death in An American Family was one of the most difficult projects the Raymonds have done. Not only were they filming a friend dying, but he was entrusting them with his story and his legacy. "And that's difficult because you're emotionally involved with Lance," says Susan. "You can't just take your professional don't just get on the plane and go home and not think about it." Alan adds, "You sit there at the Avid watching the footage, and you start to cry."

The Raymonds strongly believe that it was only because they had a 30-year relationship with the Loud family that they were able to do this project. "The making of An American Family was an intensely bonding experience of being with the Louds for seven months," says Susan. And it was a very small crew: Alan on camera, Susan on sound and an assistant camera person. Had the Raymonds passed on the final chapter, it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for another filmmaker to take it on and get the same access.

Lance was comfortable talking on camera and especially comfortable with the Raymonds. Susan explains that Lance understood the value of time spent on camera. "He would say, 'I like the time you create—I like being in that place, that reality you create, and I'm comfortable there.'" Because this project was Lance's dying wish and a way to put his life in order, he had very specific ideas of what he wanted it to be. He wanted to talk about his life, but he also wanted this to be a cautionary tale about his 20 years of drug use that was a major cause of his death.

Unavailable for rental or distribution, An American Family is a cult classic. By making this final film, the Raymonds hope to bring closure to this 30-year trilogy: closure to the story of the Loud family, and closure for the American TV audience and the legacy of An American Family. An American Family is a socio-cultural history of the United States—it's family history, it's television history, it's America's history.

And the second part of the final chapter's title—A Death in An American Family-gets at the essence of the piece. The Louds are, after all, an American family that suffered a great loss. Says Susan, "It's our memoir and because we're filmmakers, it's the way in which we can say goodbye."

Laura Almo is a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles.