Quinn Cummings

Ruby’s Rap by Ruby Comer

Photo by Howard Brock
Who would have thunk it.…?! That cute, irascible kid in the classic film, The Goodbye Girl, would eventually work on an AIDS hotline. Just eight years after the film, when Quinn Cummings was eighteen she was fielding calls from desperate, worried callers. She was the youngest volunteer at the hotline. Her father died when she was ten, and, by the time Quinn was in her early teens, friends and neighbors were dying of AIDS.In 1978, Quinn was nominated for an Academy Award for playing “Lucy” in The Goodbye Girl. Quinn also played “Annie” on the wildly popular intelligent trendsetting TV series, Family, in the late seventies. Her many appearances on TV include guest starring roles on Love, American Style, Remington Steele, and Starsky & Hutch. After her acting career, Quinn attended UCLA for two years, then worked as a casting director. Raised in the West Hollywood Hills, today she lives in an arty section of Los Angeles (“…not always clean, awash in overeducated people working in bookstores”), has a twelve-year-old daughter, Anneke, and is the author of two books, Notes from the Underwire, and the newly released, The Year of Learning Dangerously, about homeschooling—part memoir, part social commentary and part how-not-to-guide. She also invented, yes invented!, the Hiphugger baby carrier.We agree to meet at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) campus by the new permanent installation, Levitated Mass, by Michael Heizer. Several months ago they schlepped this 340-ton rock across the freeways of Los Angeles from Riverside, California, to the museum. Yes! No lie! We meet and then head to a shady bench and dish. Quinn still has that engaging, adorable, friendly smile….

Ruby Comer: Quinn, this has bugged me for a very long time. How does a little person remember all those lines for a film?! 
Quinn Cummings:
Trust me, it’s easier for kids to remember stuff. The brain of a child is building out squillions of neurons every month and wants nothing more than to take in new information. Want to be impressed by someone learning dialogue? Be impressed by the new mother who goes back to acting. She’s working on three hours of interrupted sleep and thinks she’s doing a love scene with a penguin. Her memorization is the real trick.

Rodger Dodger, got it. How would you sum up your life as a child actor?
 It worked for me, because I preferred adults. I liked having a job and there’s no scene that isn’t a thousand times better than a math class. I’m glad I had that life, I’m thrilled my parents didn’t confuse me for an ATM, and I’m happy that I did it before the Internet existed.

[I grin at her intuitive humor.] Good for you that you had a strong support system. What was growing up in West Hollywood like?
I was one of three children in the entire canyon and the rest were gay men. By the time I was fourteen, I already had seen three lovely, funny, kind men just sort of evaporate within what seemed like weeks. It got worse fast. The way I remember it, there wasn’t a house which wasn’t affected.

Deplorable. Deplorable.
I remember the first person I saw who was, in retrospect, obviously sick, out walking his dog. He looked like a marionette of himself. He was gone within a month. That was early enough so no one said what he had out loud and then one person muttered something about GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency).

Yes, I remember those words being whispered around New York City where I was living at the time. How did you cope with all those losses?
So many people were dying in such a relatively short period of time that I can make the argument that I didn’t deal with it—not really. [She glances over at the row after row of lampposts called “Urban Light,” a permanent art installation that graces one of LACMA’s main entrances.] If one friend and neighbor dies in a year, you process that. If six do, or more, you just keep your head down and plod along. There were men I knew who lost ninety percent of their friends and lovers in five years. I have no idea how they continued to get up, feel hope, fall in love again. But that’s what people do…if they’re lucky.

How did this affect you as a young person?  
Well, it’s hard to have the “I’m an immortal adolescent!” fantasy when people five years older than you are dying. I think it reinforced my underlying suspicion that life was incredibly fragile and not to be wagered lightly. I think sometimes about all the art, the science, the humor, the potential humanity lost and, in many places that continue to be lost. I describe AIDS as the big, mean eraser, and I wonder how much bigger and brighter the picture would look now without it.

What a concept, Quinn. And you worked on the AIDS Project Los Angeles Hotline….
After four years of watching my neighborhood, my business, and my world get decimated, I couldn’t do nothing any more. Since the sight of blood makes me woozy, I guessed I wasn’t going to cure AIDS so I got myself where I could be of service. It was early days as far as services went. We had a binder that covered all the services available throughout the U.S. which wasn’t even an inch thick; certain states had exactly one page of contact numbers. Sometimes not even that—I’m looking at you, Alabama. [She smirks and shrugs.] Before the cocktails were around, before AZT, these calls, these stories, could be brutal. Sometimes, I’d pick up the phone and just hear sobbing. I’m ashamed to say I made it six months before I burned out.

But you…did it. I wasn’t brave enough then. I did become a “phone buddy,” though. Have you contributed in any other way?
I’ve done a couple of Walks, donated money—not nearly enough—droned on endlessly about safer sex to single people. I can make a brunch with acquaintances into a Teachable Moment, which probably explains why I don’t get invited back to brunch very often.

Yovol! Will you be on my team, Lovie?! [We chuckle.] Say, I know you have a boyfriend, but do you get tested? 
I got tested regularly when I was single, probably more than was absolutely necessary, considering how monogamous and safe I was, but all it takes is a few sessions working an AIDS hotline to know that weird stuff happens. I know there’s some talk of home-testing, but I can’t imagine how challenging that would be for the person who finds out they’re HIV-positive. Those nurses and counselors are there for a reason.

Have you broached the topic of HIV/STI prevention with your daughter yet? 
We live in an area which has more than its fair share of AIDS prevention billboards. She’d have to be blind for this topic not to have come up, which meant the topic came up earlier in our house than it might have in other people’s houses. We’ve had The Conversation, and The Other Conversation, and many, many conversations after that. She knows I worked on the hotline, she knows her parents treasure her, and she knows we want her to treasure herself and stay around for a very, very long time.

How lucky she is to have informed parents. [People walk by, talking boisterously.] You’ve worked with some iconic actors. I have to know about some of them!  What was Sada Thompson [A&U, January 2007] and Kristy McNichol like?
Sada was a lady, in the best sense of the word. One day she brought me in a book she had loved as a child, which she had found at a second-hand bookstore, because she thought I might like it—which I did. Kristy was an exceptionally decent kid. I’m so happy that she’s now gotten the fulfilling life she wanted.

And Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss?

Marsha Mason and Quinn Cummings in their Oscar-nominated roles in a scene from The Goodbye Girl, which also garnered noms for Best Director and Best Picture as well as an Oscar win for Richard Dreyfuss

Marsha Mason was kind, smart, and capable of making the hard work seem effortless. And Richard…charming, crazy-smart, and nice to me!

Before I say, “Goodbye, Girl” and let you go….Oh, my apologies, that was a horrible pun—what are your current thoughts on the epidemic?
When it first started cutting its swathe, no one could have foreseen a world where protease inhibitors would mean years, decades of life. Science can be wonderful. But I also couldn’t have imagined that we’d still be explaining to people how to not get sick, and that people would still be getting infected in totally preventable ways. People can be maddening.

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]

September 2012