Peter Horton wants to make one thing clear about "The Cure," with which he makes his theatrical film debut as a director: "This isn't a movie about a boy dying from AIDS."
In point of fact, the film is about a boy with AIDS, and his fate is not much in doubt from the beginning. But the director suggests the film is more about boys in general -- and perhaps himself in particular.
The shaggy-haired regular on television's "thirtysomething" (he played English professor Gary, who died in a bicycle-car accident during the series' last season) says he chose Robert Kuhn's script in part as a way to remember lost childhood.
The setting of "The Cure" in small-town Stillwater, Minn., evoked the kind of "Norman Rockwellian" world he recalls from his younger years in Bellevue, Wash., he says.
"My family moved rather abruptly when I was 8, to Hong Kong," he reminisces, during a recent press tour stop in Washington. His father was in the shipping business and got transferred; the family later settled in Marin County, Calif.
"I think part of me never quite left Bellevue. I think I wanted to go back just one more time and sort of live in it for awhile, to find some kind of closure," he says.
Mr. Horton remembers lots of greenery, and waterways upon which to float away idyllic summer days, as do Dexter and Erik, the 11-year-old characters of "The Cure" (played by Joseph Mazzello and Brad Renfro).
"We chose very specifically to keep this about the boys and their world," says the director. "Whenever we started getting into the adult version of this [AIDS], the movie really insisted that we come back to what it's about, which is their world, their experience," Mr. Horton says.
Thus, he asserts, the movie is really about friendship, as seen through Erik's naive reactions to AIDS-afflicted Dexter: first fearfully aggressive, then painfully -- and dangerously -- earnest.
Adults play only supporting roles in "The Cure" -- Annabella Sciorra as Dexter's warm mother and Diana Scarwid as Erik's unhappy, alcoholic single mom.
Mr. Horton is pleased when an interviewer likens the movie to the comic strip "Peanuts," where adults are never seen. "Except for one scene one or the other of the boys is in every scene in the film," he says.
Noting that AIDS is a disease, not a moral judgment, is part of the point of "The Cure," Mr. Horton says. But it was not based on any real-life case, including the well-known story of the late Ryan White.
The director has high praise for both young actors. Joseph has been seen in "Jurassic Park," "Shadowlands" and "The River Wild." Brad is making only his second film, after playing the boy at the center of "The Client."
Ironically, however, Mr. Horton says acting in movies is no life for a youngster.
"It's a real tricky one for me. I don't think it's a healthy place for kids, although it's a necessity," he acknowledges. "There's a reality that they are in an adult world, and they are being asked to bear part of the adult burden, which is the whole thing of making a multi-million dollar film. There's no way they can't feel that pressure and be affected by it, as much as we try to protect them."
If he had children he would not want them involved, says the director, who is divorced from actress Michelle Pfeiffer.
Mr. Horton himself did not fall for show business as a youngster. He studied music theory at Principia College in Illinois and earned a degree in composition from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
It was there he fell into acting. He auditioned to be the pianist for a production of "Butterflies Are Free" at the Santa Barbara Repertory Company, but was cast in a role instead. He loved acting and began studying with acting coaches Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Milton Katselas. His first TV role was a guest shot on "The White Shadow."
Early on, however, Mr. Horton was drawn to directing. He says he was always hanging out with the crew and "trying to get into the editing booth with them" -- although he's not sure why.
"I certainly don't think it's a preferable lifestyle. Actors have it made, you know. You get to go and do a film for three months and go home . . . and you get paid a lot more money," he says, laughing.
But, he adds, "directing is what I love to do. There's something satisfying about it that's hard to explain."
He began making short films with his video camera, such as "Three Hours Between Planes," based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. He cast friends from an acting class, and the movie credits Ms. Pfeiffer, his wife then, as executive producer.
The film was so "murky" with moody, low lighting "that you can barely see it," he says. But after showing it to officials of Highgate Films, he landed a job directing a well-regarded ABC Afterschool Special, "One Too Many," which starred Ms. Pfeiffer, Mare Winningham and Val Kilmer.
Though he continued acting -- his movie credits include "Split Image," "Children of the Corn" and, most recently, "Singles" -- Mr. Horton also kept directing. He contributed a segment of the anthology film "Amazon Women on the Moon," and also did a TV movie, "Extreme Close-up," and pilots for two series, "Class of '96" and "Birdland."
Asked to take a part on "thirtysomething," he turned it down three times -- until he was promised he could direct some episodes.
Mr. Horton says his time as Gary from the popular TV show does bring him recognition in public. But he's philosophical about making the breakthrough to be considered a director first.
"I look at Ron Howard, who had to overcome Opie ["The Andy Griffith Show"], and Rob Reiner, who had to overcome Meathead ["All In the Family"]," he says.