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Looking Back At Lance Loud

Caption Lance Loud poses with his sister Michele Loud in the Carl Bean Hospice in this 2001 handout photo in Los Angeles. "Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family," a new documentary celebrating the original show's breakout star airs on PBS Monday, Jan. 6, 2003 at 9 p.m EST
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"The Osbournes."

Now that I have your attention, let's talk about another series - one that pioneered "reality TV" three decades ago - and about a new documentary celebrating that series' breakout star, "Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family."

Long before "The Osbournes"' brand of cartoonish cinema verite, the 12 no-nonsense episodes of "An American Family" chronicled much of 1971 as lived by Santa Barbara, Calif., couple Pat and Bill Loud and their five teenage children, including the oldest, 19-year-old Lance.

Premiering on public television 30 years ago this month, "An American Family" drew a weekly audience of 10 million, making good on the clan's surname by creating an uproar.

One startling plot point: Pat and Bill decided to divorce while the camera looked on.

But viewers were most intrigued by Lance. He was a free spirit, a showboat, a beautiful boy with Keith Partridge hair. Most notable: He was a homosexual - right there on TV, sharing the screen with his siblings and parents.

Lance Loud was the first gay person to come out on television. For that, the public loved him or scorned him - and always would, as "Lance Loud!" demonstrates.

This absorbing film airs on PBS Monday at 9 p.m. (check local listings). Then, at 10 p.m., Episode 2 of "An American Family" is re-broadcast.

That episode tracks Pat's trip to New York to see Lance, who is there on an extended visit, in May 1971. Moments after arriving at his hotel (the Chelsea, of course), she meets his neighbor, Andy Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn, and later accompanies her son to a transvestite variety show in Greenwich Village.

"Is there a message that I didn't get?" Pat asks him the next day.

By the end of the episode, the message is clear.

But Lance Loud was more than the gay man "An American Family" made famous. Tapping his newfound TV notoriety, he returned to New York where he pursued the rebel-artist dreams he had had since childhood. For a decade, he sang in a punk-rock band called The Mumps that shared CBGB's stage with Talking Heads and Blondie. ("I always told him that he had the best band in town," Andy Warhol opines in a video snippet.)

When the band folded, he went back to California, where he became a music and pop-culture journalist for publications including The Advocate, Details and Vanity Fair.

He also wrestled with a drug problem ("By the end of it I was injecting what I knew to be rat poison, and I didn't care," he recalls), and then, during the 1990s, wrestled with sickness.

He died Dec. 22, 2001 from liver failure caused by hepatitis C and HIV co-infection. He was 50 - the same age as his father circa "An American Family."

Documentarians Alan and Susan Raymond, who filmed the Louds way back when, now have made a touching, even entertaining film to remember Lance by. More than that, it is a portrait commissioned by its subject as his dying wish. From his hospice in Los Angeles in October 2001, he called upon the Raymonds, with whom he, like the rest of his family, had remained close through the years.

The Raymonds had misgivings about the project, particularly its unavoidable last phase - in Susan's words, "to have to live in the editing room with images of losing Lance." But as Alan adds, "We couldn't turn the request down."

In November and early December 2001, they filmed him feeding his cat, chatting on the phone with his dad, taking stock of his life.

Last January, they were back, but this time, sadly, to shoot his memorial service at the Chateau Marmont Hotel. His friend, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, performed "Over the Rainbow."

A session with Lance's mother, Pat, was filmed just three months ago.

"Lance Loud!" deftly interweaves all this new footage with excerpts from the original series and from "American Family Revisited," a followup documentary the Raymonds made for HBO in 1983.

Its subject would surely be pleased with the result.

For one thing, Lance succeeds in updating that stuck-in-time image of him flying down the hills of Santa Barbara on his bike, grooving, pre-Walkman, to the music in his head.

In this film, we discover that he grew up and grew introspective. We encounter a stooped, frail figure with a gaunt face and a missing front tooth. But we detect no self-pity, even when he speaks of "a life lived, as mine was, in pursuit of this nameless, indescribable feeling of fun that I never really found." To the end, against all odds, he retained an irreverent nobility.

This film is a final testament from the "reality TV" trailblazer who, with no road map and a fitful compass, preceded so many: gay Survivor" champ Richard Hatch and spectral goofball Ozzy Osbourne, the fractious housemates of "Real World" and "Big Brother," and countless more to come who, even without knowing it, will trade on his experience.

Lance Loud means for his new film to be cautionary, sure. But not a dirge. Instead, it is the record of a wild ride gone public after TV, as he famously declared, "ate my family" - and feasted, especially, on him.

By Frazier Moore