Reagans Doc Episode Highlights How 'Heroic' Elizabeth Taylor Lobbied President to Acknowledge AIDS
The final episode of Showtime's documentary series The Reagans will explore how late actress Elizabeth Taylor played a vital role in pushing President Ronald Reagan to recognize the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s.
“It’s fair to say that Elizabeth Taylor was entirely responsible for anything that the Reagan administration did publicly” in regard to the life-threatening conditions, The Reagans director Matt Tyrnauer tells PEOPLE.
Reagan, who died in 2004, avoided speaking about the HIV/AIDS epidemic throughout much of his time in office until Taylor, who died in 2011, recruited him to make a keynote speech about the disease at a 1987 dinner for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR) organization.
“I’m convinced nothing would’ve happened without her,” Tyrnauer, the 52-year-old former Vanity Fair correspondent-turned-documentary director, says.
Reagan’s “failure to use the bully pulpit” of the presidency in speaking out about the epidemic was “appalling," Tyrnauer says, after having reviewed the celebrity-turned-president’s two terms in office for the four-part series.
The “eye-opening” Reagans series concludes on Sunday. The series has taken a critical look back at the former actor’s two-term presidency, based off of candid interviews with some of those closest to him — including Reagan's son Ronald Reagan Jr. and his longtime adviser Stuart Spence.
For Sunday’s finale, which focuses on Reagan’s handling of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, leading U.S. infectious disease expert and one of PEOPLE's 2020 People of the Year, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is also interviewed.
“I was gratified that he said ‘AIDS’ but I had a big feeling of, ‘It’s about time,’ “ Fauci, 79, says about Reagan’s 1987 speech, in which he was booed afterward by some in the crowd.
Taylor, who personally lobbied Reagan to make the speech with letters to the president and conversations with First Lady Nancy Reagan, had to at one point calm those in the crowd responding negatively to the president’s remarks.
“Reagan was very shaken by the event and it served him right, quite frankly,” Tyrnauer says, adding that he believes Taylor felt the same.
The actress recalled the scene during a 1992 interview with Vanity Fair, saying, “The president mentioned mandatory testing and people jumped out of their seats," Taylor said. "Then they started heckling him, so I jumped up and said, ‘Don’t be rude. This is your president and he is our guest.’ ”
Tyrnauer says Taylor should get “the credit she deserves” in helping push the White House to take action.
Taylor was an adamant fundraiser and spokesperson for efforts to combat the AIDS epidemic, which finally gained widespread attention after actor Rock Hudson died from complications related to the condition in 1985.
Later that year, Taylor helped found amFAR, an organization “dedicated to the support of AIDS research, HIV prevention, treatment education, and the advocacy of sound AIDS-related public policy.”
The organization has raised more than $517 million since 1985, funding more than 3,300 research teams around the world.
Those efforts are only part of what Tyrnauer says is an “untold story about how instrumental" Taylor was in the effort to fight HIV/AIDS.
“Elizabeth Taylor’s the hero here and she deserves all of the accolades,” he says. “The more people realize that heroic aspect of all she did to bring attention to the issue and to save lives, the better.”
The Reagans finale airs Sunday at 8 p.m. EST on Showtime.
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