Gay film history should have a category for ads and infomercials -- and Los Angeles producer Philip Labhart should be one of the first stars to be installed on that sidewalk of fame. Ads and infomercials may be despised by some, yet they've become their own kind of art form, a vital part of our culture, with their own awards, their own fans, and an enduring appeal by the best in the genre. Philip was a master at turning a commercial or institutional or political plug into a mini-movie with a focus on real human drama that was rooted in his gay sensibilities. In his lifetime, he won every award in his field, including a Bronze Lion at the Cannes Film Festival.
If Philip was around today, he'd be working for the Obama campaign, turning out the kind of persuasive ads that he did for the Bill Clinton campaign in 1992.
Philip Dwayne Labhart was born in west Texas in 1955 and graduated from Texas Wesleyan University. He came out while he was there, and started his media career in Los Angeles at the illustrious advertising firm of D'Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles. Variety bio-ed him later: "As an executive producer and editor for them, he worked on numerous commercial campaigns, including Denny's, Van De Kamps and Security Pacific Bank. In addition to the Bronze Lion, he won Gold and Silver Medals at the New York International Film Festival and several Belding Awards."
In 1989, itching to produce on his own and be more creative, Philip left DMB&B and formed his own independent Labhart Production Group (LPF) located on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Philip still had commercial accounts. But he had grown deeply concerned about human rights. So he branched out into cutting-edge infomercials for nonprofits that dealt with all kinds of issues and causes, ranging from the environment to hate crime to Latina women with AIDS.
His own discovery that he was HIV+ spurred his gutsy professional support for AIDS-related causes. Those were the days (late 1980s into early 1990s) when many in Hollywood were still deep in ugly denialism over the inroads of AIDS in the industry. As one of the first producers to go public with his status, Philip plunged into early activism on behalf of his fellow PWAs, notably through Hollywood Supports. For several years, Philip was tapped by APLA to produce their gala event "Commitment to Life," honoring stars who had also made themselves visible in the fight.
Inevitably Philip wanted to expand his creativity still further -- from short format into long format. I.e. he wanted to make feature films.
Living in Top Gear
I first met Philip in 1991, when he contacted my agent about developing a film version of my new historical novel One Is the Sun. (He wanted to produce The Front Runner too, but at that time the book's film rights were not available.) Philip and I got together for our first lunch and I found myself captivated by his breezy Texas personality. But at first I was dubious about an ad producer taking on my sensitive and offbeat story about Native American women healers. To me, producing an ad was like writing a sonnet -- but a story like Earth Thunder's was more of an epic poem.
Then, when Philip sent his director's reel over to my office and I looked at it, I was bowled over. He was multi-talented -- good at directing as well as producing. Again and again, his sense of story and scene unfolded, in a way that went beyond the usual stagey ad scenarios, into a kind of reality mode that you seldom saw in ads. In his Sea World ad, what he showed you was the impact on spectators -- the awe and excitement -- as they watched a baby orca being born. In his 15-minute infomercial on an Easter Egg hunt for blind children, the eggs hidden in the grass had little beepers to guide the children to them. The way Philip captured the children's moves and expressions told me that he was the right guy.
So I moved to Los Angeles, and started working with LPG, on the strength of my conviction that Philip had a big future ahead of him in feature film. LPG's offices were located on the cramped 2nd floor of the Sunset Stage, a recently remodeled and updated sound stage on Sunset Boulevard. The walls were hung with plaques of their awards, and the place was a madhouse -- phones rang and meetings happened all day long.
In an industry known for its tyrants and divas, Philip was actually fun to work with. His unpretentiousness and earthy sense of humor could always ease the tensions when things got dicey on the set.
The one challenge about Philip was just keeping up with him, as I learned when he and I worked together on an infomercial for the wildlife nonprofit S.O.S. Cares. His straight brown hair always had a windblown look, and no wonder -- he was always racing somewhere in his Jeep Wrangler, and could cram 48 hours of living into 24 hours. LPG had just upgraded to the first and only (at that time) state-of-the-art laser-disk editing system in Los Angeles. With the sound stage downstairs and a major post firm next door, the LPG staff could script, shoot, edit and post an ad in 24 hours flat. Philip loved to wear all the hats at once -- producer, director, script writer, editor -- as he sat at the console of that editing system and worked it like a concert organist -- usually barefoot, wearing his favorite shorts and Hawaiian shirt. LPG's speed records on production were one of the reasons why the Clinton campaign hired him in 1992 to do some of their spots.
Even when Philip and his partner, actor Richard Waterhouse, were relaxing at their home on Rosewood Avenue, regaling us with their favorite barbecue dishes, he seemed to be doing two or three things at once. Amid the frenzy, Philip also worked on the One Is the Sun script and played squash every day to keep himself healthy.
But suddenly, in late 1992, almost overnight, his immune system took a dive. He was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, a disease that moves at its own top speed. In the hospital, he kept up that old drive as long as he could manage, with his laptop on his knees. Then, on January 18, with his usual style -- like a sports car passing you at 300 mph -- he was gone. He was 38.
When the memorial service was held at the Sunset Stage, Hollywood big names packed the place -- proof of the high regard that Philip enjoyed in the industry. His business partner Tory and his staff celebrated his life with one last production off that laser-disk system -- a short film full of photos and clips of Philip being his irrepressible self. The parade of celebrities who came to the mike to tell stories about Philip, finally had everybody laughing their heads off. This was the right send-off for Philip.
For at least a year after Philip died, the Sea World ad -- probably the most popular one he ever did -- was still aired sometimes on TV.
What He Did Create
Often we lament the loss of LGBT artistic talents who were cut off before their prime by AIDS. And it's tempting to be sad about the feature films that Philip never got to make. But I think it's important to remember and recognize what he did create. And I'm concerned to see that the LGBT film and TV business seems to have forgotten him. A Google on his name brings up his Variety obit and a few things I've written about him, but that's all. It's time for some major LGBT film festival to gather together all his short-format works and organize an evening of celebrating his achievements in his genre.
At a time when Here! TV and LOGO and "Queer Eye" were still far in the future, when gay people still didn't have much visibility on either the big screen or the little screen, Philip was one of the out gay pioneers behind the scenes. In recent years, a great deal of what LGBT people achieved politically has been done through TV advertising and its growing power to deliver credible, human messages about issues like same-sex marriage and hate crime. Philip was one of those who helped develop the best ways to present those sensitive messages to the public -- who put a foundation of intensely dedicated professionalism and experience under that kind of advertising. His humanism, his vision, his care -- and his unstoppable energy -- went into everything he did, right down to his efforts on the Clinton campaign, which were among the last jobs he did before entering the hospital. It's time for his achievement to be recognized today.
After last night's Presidential debate, Obama's team produced the masterful "90 Percent" ad that was airing on TV by this morning. Twelve hours is an impressive turn-around -- and the improvement of digital technology has made that possible. But Philip Labhart was helping to pioneer that kind of political speed record a decade and a half ago.
If Philip was around today, he'd be right in the thick of the Presidential campaign, and the Prop 8 campaign in California, and any others you could name -- and doing it all at once, at supersonic speed, with his hair on fire.