After 4 1/2 years of Hollywood-style musical chairs, Randy Shilts’ best-selling AIDS chronicle “And the Band Played On” finally goes before the cameras next month.

Director Roger Spottiswoode is expected to call “action” on the set of the HBO production on Nov. 12, kicking off a 33-day shoot in San Francisco and L.A. Topliners include Matthew Modine, Richard Gere and Whoopi Goldberg, along with a host of promised but unannounced celebrities in key roles.

It hasn’t been easy getting there. Spottiswoode is the third director in the chair (earlier attempts by Joel Schumacher and Richard Pearce collapsed); HBO is only the latest funder of the now $ 6 million telepic, earlier attempts at NBC and ABC having failed; and the cast of prospective players has included everyone from Richard Dreyfuss to Meryl Streep.

Says director Spottiswoode, who “until a few weeks ago” never thought the project would actually happen, “It’s all just hair-raising.”

In the last two weeks alone, per sources, it has been that and more. Sources say that Spottiswoode has been threatening to walk, several actors have flirted with the film and backed out, and Hollywood in general has behaved very strangely toward the whole project.

Part of the problem is inherent in the sensitive subject matter itself, and the absolute commitment from HBO, Spelling Entertainment and Spottiswoode to cover all the politically sensitive bases. Less weighty material, sources say, would have meant easier casting and scripting and less do-the-right-thing soul-searching.

Hard story to tell

Further, it’s a difficult story to dramatize. Shilts’ account of AIDS in America chronicles how researchers, against a tide of public resistance and governmental interference, struggled to isolate and identify the virus. While that’s a chilling story, all involved say it doesn’t make for compelling action.

“Just like our Simon Weisenthal story,” says Bob Cooper, HBO’s man in charge of the project. “The first draft of the script was very accurate but extraordinarily boring. The second was very exciting but completely untrue. And so on.”

The apparent solution was to insist on 14 drafts of the Arnold Schulman script and to cast big-name stars that would help draw audiences. The conundrum was finding stars willing to tackle the project.

According to a source, who spoke while the currently billed celebs were still hemming and hawing, “HBO wants a big star, and there is no big star that wants to do it. Some actors and actresses are willing to consider it, but their managers and agents are terrified of the material.”

“Agents have not been very forthright with us or with their clients,” says another source close to the production, who asked for anonymity. “They’ve been encouraging us, but not showing the material to their clients. We’ve been told that the material went out to some very visible clients, but when they were followed up with personal correspondence, the (actors) either hadn’t heard about it or were misinformed.”

The dance around the Shilts book started in 1989 with Spelling’s 48-hour option. Spelling turned to its exclusive deal with ABC, which considered the project for 24 hours and then dropped it. NBC subsequently picked up the option, paid for several scripts by writer John Gay, and then passed.

According to sources, NBC’s interest waned rapidly after ABC’s Rock Hudson biopic failed to wow audiences, while successfully alienating advertisers. They add that NBC killed plans for its own Hudson biopic on the same day that the net dropped its “Band” stand. Rights to the book eventually passed to Taft Entertainment.

Then Spelling’s company was sold. Aaron Spelling himself, still keen on the project, was subsequently surprised to find that his company’s new owners, Great American Broadcasting, also owned Taft, which still owned rights to the book.

Says Spelling now, “This is like some legendary Hollywood story about how difficult things are.”

While some close to the project believe that AIDS-phobia and homophobia made forward motion on the project slower than usual, author Shilts is quick to note that there has been no phobic behavior of any kind from either the HBO or Spelling camps. “They could have easily gotten out of this years ago if they’d wanted to,” he says, pointing out that the two have worked through “at least 14 drafts” of Schulman’s script.

(Shilts’ “The Mayor of Castro Street” project, about the assassination of San Francisco councilman Harvey Milk, has been stuck in development for more than 11 years. Current plans are for Oliver Stone to produce the story as a feature, reportedly with Robin Williams starring.)

But Shilts and others stress that HBO and Spelling and, to a lesser degree, Spottiswoode and Schulman, did feel that “Band” needed big-name stars if it was to draw big American audiences.

“We always wanted and insisted on casting this up as a very special event,” says HBO’s Cooper.

Spelling insists that, from his perspective and HBO’s, casting bigger stars to draw a bigger audience is not a matter of money but rather of awakening America to the terrors of AIDS.

Salaries going to charity

“I never regarded this (movie) as commercial,” Spelling says. “In fact, all our salaries (Spelling’s and co-exec producer E. Duke Vincent’s) are going to the AIDS Foundation, and we don’t work cheap!”

Three weeks ago, Spottiswoode had fixed on Liam Neeson as his leading man, in the role of medical researcher Don Francis. But, per sources, HBO balked at Neeson as the star, and the early October production start date got put back. Meanwhile, Neeson’s schedule, which includes rehearsals for a play beginning Nov. 23, started looking like a problem.

“I said, ‘Let’s get stars who could attract other stars,’ ” says Spelling. “We thought we should take our shot with someone who was better recognized.”

While Neeson was being negotiated, HBO thought it had found its big-draw star in Richard Dreyfuss. But sources say that Dreyfuss didn’t want the notoriety of being the biggest or only star in the show and was urging the producers to bring in some other Hollywood heavyweights.

Sources also say that Dreyfuss insisted on having Meryl Streep in the show. HBO’s Cooper says Streep read the script and passed, but he denies Dreyfuss insisted on anything. The actor’s agent, ICM’s Peter Rawley, didn’t return phone calls.

Also difficult to confirm are reports, from sources on the production, that Dreyfuss found his prospective role unsavory. He would have portrayed Centers for Disease Control scientist Dr. Robert Gallo, who claimed to have been the first to identify the AIDS virus. Subsequent reports indicated Gallo’s research may have been purloined from earlier French studies.

According to Spottiswoode and Cooper, it was simply a matter of personal and professional scheduling problems. Whatever the case may be, Dreyfuss was out by the beginning of last week.

Meanwhile, Spottiswoode was beginning to look elsewhere, and word began to spread that he was off to another project fast if “Band” didn’t play.

Gere as white knight

Then, about two weeks ago, Richard Gere came to the rescue. Sources say that Spottiswoode and Shilts met with the actor at a San Francisco AIDS fundraiser and urged him to read the script. He did, and was in. Gere will play a fictionalized composite role as a famous choreographer “representing the many in the entertainment industry who have fallen to (AIDS),” per HBO.

With Gere’s imprimatur on the project, Whoopi Goldberg, who’s been active in AIDS-related relief activities, was quick to follow. Goldberg will assay the part of Selma Dritz, a Bay Area public health official active in the earlier warning cries over the epidemic.

Sources say that signing Matthew Modine for the lead was a cinch after that, and other celeb cameos are expected to follow.

“A great deal of the credit for all of this goes to Richard (Gere),” Spelling says. “Once people find out who is in (‘Band’), we’re going to be getting lots of phone calls.”

At press time, Spottiswoode said the production was close to signing “one or two rather large names” to the Gallo role and for the part of Robert Kraus, a gay activist who ultimately succumbs to the disease. (Reports that had Anjelica Huston reading for a role could not be confirmed.)

Spottiswoode notes that, with 106 parts, the “Band” bandwagon still has plenty of room for other celebrity cameos.

“We’re moving forward,” the weary director says. “Now it’s about fitting everybody in.”

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