When Midnight Comes

updated 09/23/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/23/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IN 1985, WHILE REHEARSING IN NEW York City for The Normal Heart, in which he played an AIDS activist, Brad Davis had a chilling premonition. "The cast spent time with AIDS patients," playwright Larry Kramer recalls, "and one of them talked about drug-use transmission. Later, Brad told me a little bell went off in his head, and he thought, 'Uh-oh, I hope I'll be okay.' " Sadly, he was not. Less than a year later, Davis donated blood and received a notification that he was HIV positive—infected with the AIDS virus, which he believed he contracted through IV drug use in the '70s. Last week the 41-year-old actor, best known for his star turn in Alan Parker's 1978 chair clencher, Midnight Express, died at his home in Studio City, Calif.

For the last six years of his life Davis, fearing for his career, successfully kept his illness a secret from everyone but his wife of 15 years, casting director Susan Bluestein, 45, their daughter, Alexandra, 8, and a few friends. Ultimately frustrated by the need for secrecy, he recently decided to write a book about his ordeal. In the eight-page proposal he explained the practical side of his silence. "If an actor is even rumored to have HIV...," Davis wrote, "he does not work." Hiding his condition meant clandestine meetings with doctors and their assistants and assuming a false front before virtually everyone he encountered. "It's very isolating," says Bluestein, who knows of other actors lacing the same problem. "We just couldn't talk to anyone." She and Alexandra have tested negative for AIDS.

Davis's multipharmaceutical abuse peaked during the heady years following Express. In the film, ironically, he played an American drug smuggler who survives the brutalities of a Turkish prison. "I was a total addict," he said, "a user of just about any drug I could get. And I was sexually very promiscuous." At the same time, the stardom that seemed imminent never came—partly, Davis later realized, because of the reputation he was getting in Hollywood as a party boy out of control. Eventually his excesses took their toll. In 1981, with dwindling funds and his five-year marriage frayed to near breaking, Brad joined Alcoholics Anonymous and went clean.

In the early '80s, when he first heard about the mysterious disease that seemed to afflict only gay men, he counted his blessings. "A little voice said, 'At least this is one horror I don't have to worry about,' " he wrote later. "This may sound cold, but having nearly died so many times during the drug years, my instinct for...survival was now very keen."

By 1983, when Bluestein gave birth to Alexandra, Davis thought "everything seemed to be turning around." He branched out as a gay sailor in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's darkly erotic feature Querelle and also bounced back in Hollywood, balancing films, stage and television, but mostly the latter. When he learned he was infected, Brad was convinced they had the wrong guy. Acceptance came slowly. "I had done intense spiritual-metaphysical work for some years already," he said, "and was not caught without the tools to handle it." He kept working and in 1988 won raves as the tormented Captain Queeg in CBS's The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Last year he was praised for his comic incarnation as a poor-sighted crop duster in the feature Rosalie Goes Shopping. Just three months ago he completed his last film, a TNT movie, Habitation of Dragons.

According to Bluestein, Davis was ready to go public with his illness—even hoping to re-create his Normal Heart character in a sequel wherein he gets the brutal word about himself—but became too physically weakened to do so. Finally, he chose to spend his last days quietly with his family at home. Bluestein says that in being forthright now about Brad's illness, she is following his last wishes. "He didn't want to be one more person who said he died of something else."

MICHAEL ALEXANDER in Los Angeles, SAMUEL MEAD in New York City

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