Loud and Clear

updated 01/14/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

For 12 weeks in 1973, Americans were glued to their TV screens by an unlikely program: a PBS documentary series called An American Family. The show's protagonists—Bill and Pat Loud, their three sons and two daughters—were a Santa Barbara, Calif., clan whose real-life dysfunctional doings were recorded in riveting detail. (Pat asked her philandering spouse for a divorce in week 8.) But the loudest Loud was always big brother Lance, who shocked his parents, and viewers, with such gender-bending gestures as sharing makeup tips with his sisters. If the Louds were reality-TV pioneers, Lance blazed a second trail, announcing his homosexuality on air at 21. "He was a trendsetter," says Pat, 75, an ad-agency office manager, "a touchstone for so many people."

Loud, who was 50 when he died of hepatitis C in Los Angeles Dec. 22, might also serve as a cautionary example for the currently swelling ranks of reality-TV grads. Post-Family, he struggled to make ends meet as a punk-rock singer and then freelance journalist. Living in a one-bedroom cottage, he took in stray cats (up to 10 at a time) and came to terms with his weird fame, once joking that the series "raised my family to the status of a recurring question on Hollywood Squares."

But family nonetheless. "They were actually very loving," says a friend, photographer Ann Summa. In his final months in a hospice, Loud was visited by his father, 80, now a semiretired real estate broker, and brothers Kevin, 48, an Internet entrepreneur, and Grant, 47, a promotions executive for Jeopardy! His mother and sisters Michele, 44, a clothing designer, and Delilah, 46, a TV advertising executive, were with him at the end. "We never thought he could die," says Pat. "We're going to miss him so much."

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