He took the INS to court in 1979, and later filed a separate lawsuit on the constitutionality of denying gays the right to marry.
His position appeared strong. Gay couples always thought they would have to sue for the right to marry in the first place, but Adams was defending a marriage he had been officially granted.
Despite reaching the highest federal appeals courts, he was met only with rejections.
The couple did became a hot topic, especially as Sullivan's deportation became likely in the mid-1980s, and they appeared on the "Today" show and "The Phil Donahue Show," giving some of the first national attention to gay marriage when it was considered an oddity even by future supporters.
Adams' application for Australian residency was also denied, so the couple spent a year in Europe before returning to the United States and leading a low-profile life in Los Angeles.
But they recently reemerged as their issue finally gained traction in courts and voting booths.
They're the subject of an upcoming documentary, "Limited Partnership." And just two days before Adams' death they were working with Soloway on a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, one of two gay-marriage laws the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear in its upcoming term.
"After 40 years of fighting he missed the outcome at the Supreme Court," Soloway said, "but he felt optimistic."
And he got to see what he deemed a major victory for his particular cause, gay couples and immigration, in October when the Obama Administration issued written policy guidelines saying same-sex couples in long-term partnerships "rise to the level of a 'family relationship'" when it comes to deportation.
"You can draw a straight line from Tony and Richard's efforts in the 1970s to that piece of paper in 2012," Soloway said.