How a Wagner Associate Dean Helped Bring the AIDS Crisis to the Big Screen

David Schachter, left, with Geoff Edholm in "Buddies." (Photo courtesy of Frameline Distribution)

David Schachter Reflects on Starring in the First Feature Film About the Disease

After he filmed Buddies in 1985, David Schachter’s life changed. But not in the way you might expect for a young actor who had just starred in a movie. Buddies was not a box office success. Schachter (Tisch BFA, 1982; Wagner MPA, 1994) did not go on to fame and fortune. Instead, he was inspired to switch careers entirely, from acting to public service.

Buddies, directed by Arthur J. Bressan, Jr., was the first feature film about AIDS, and was named for the volunteers who supported and cared for people dying from the disease. It starred Geoff Edholm as Robert, a man dying of AIDS, and Schachter as his “buddy,” David.

After Buddies’ limited release, the film all but disappeared. Meanwhile, Schachter began volunteering at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, now known as GMHC. Soon, he was working there as a community organizer in charge of the AIDS Walk and other major events. Eventually, he returned to New York University—where he had earned his BFA in drama from the Tisch School of the Arts in 1982—to pursue his master’s degree in public administration at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. He has spent nearly 20 years at Wagner, pioneering the school’s much-emulated career services and is now associate dean for admissions and student affairs.

“Life started to imitate art,” Schachter says. After the movie debuted, “people would come up to me as if I were the actual buddy in the film and share their stories. It was rather humbling to say the least. I wanted to be involved on a more personal level.”

Still, life has a way of circling around. Early in 2018, Schachter got a call from film historian Jenni Olson, who was working with Roe Bressan, Arthur Bressan’s sister, to bring Buddiesand other films back through the Bressan Project. Buddieswhich first premiered at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on Sept. 12, 1985, re-premiered at Frameline: The San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival in June 2018, and also ran for a week at the Quad Cinema in New York. Wagner will screen the film the evening of Saturday, December 1, which is World AIDS Day.

Schachter shared his experiences working on the film and thoughts about its enduring impact. Read the full Q&A