Movie Review: Rich Man, Poor Man (1976)

The epic TV series to end epic TV series __ 6/10

Rich Man, Poor ManNo quotes on the IMDb page for Rich Man, Poor Man, probably because the DVD has only been released this year (2010). Even if you surf the Web, not much comes up that improves on the IMDb information; and I don’t remember anything on the DVD’s bonus material. So all that stuff on background of the miniseries remains a mystery. Wikipedia gives us a little about the book written by Irwin Shaw. Too bad about the lack of insider Hollywood info, too, because the series must have launched the acting careers of Nick Nolte (Tom Jordache), Peter Strauss (Rudy Jordache), and others into celebrity status. Several actors earned awards, notably Ed Asner playing the repressed father of the two Jordache boys.

Directed by David Greene
Novel Irwin Shaw

Peter Strauss … Rudy Jordache
Nick Nolte … Tom Jordache
Susan Blakely … Julie Prescott
Dorothy McGuire … Mary Jordache
Tim McIntire … Brad Knight
Ray Milland … Duncan Calderwood
Robert Reed … Teddy Boylan
Bill Bixby … Willie Abbott
Norman Fell … Smitty
Kim Darby … Virginia Calderwood
Herbert Jefferson Jr. … Roy Dwyer
Van Johnson … Marsh Goodwin
William Smith … Johnnie Falconetti
Talia Shire … Teresa Santoro
Edward Asner … Axel Jordache
Dorothy Malone … Irene Goodwin

Another thing missing from the IMDb site are names of all the actors. For one, I cannot find the actor or the character, Charles Esteffe(sp?) played by (?), and he’s a vital part of the story later on: basically the embodiment of the Money Power on the corporate side of the state vs. the banking side. Again, perhaps the lack of info is due to the late DVD release, which may have been due to who knows what kind of financial disputes among the producers, investors, actors, etc., Rich Man, Poor Man was supposedly a big event in its day, 1976, one of the first true miniseries [maxiseries].

I was a young man, newly married, preoccupied with the politics and culture of that time, also trying to make a living, still with the Wayne State University Biomechanics dept. as an associate project engineer. It was nice working in “midtown” Detroit in those days, the city still clung to life… hanging on the ropes thanks to the continued assaults of the city planners and racial politics a la Coleman “the Commie” Young. I’m only giving this snippet of my personal history to indicate that I was somewhat “with it” in 70s culture, and Rich Man, Poor Man didn’t register on my radar. I didn’t watch a single episode, and I don’t remember it being around.

The series starts in a small town in New York, when World War II has just ended, where the Jordache brothers—Rudy (Strauss) and Tom (Nolte) are in their last years of high school. The family is not well-to-do; the father Axel (Ed Asner) runs a bakery out of his home, and the mother (Dorothy McGuire) works in it. They live upstairs, the boys actually share a bed. Rudy is the “good son,” actually sort of a Mama’s Boy, who wants to do the right thing, including not succumbing to the temptations of sex with his honey Julie Prescott (Susan Blakely). Julie, on the other hand, constantly thinks about sex and wants it. She’s running out of patience with ol’ Rudy.

A sign of the times, but compare a miniseries like this one in the 1970s with a soap opera series today in how they describe sexual matters. RMPM is a time capsule. We see Julie—Susan Blakely playing a teenage hottie—when her mother leaves the house, she runs into her mom’s bedroom and rolls around on the bed, hugging the pillows, rolling her eyes and giving longing looks. Today, writers and directors would have her straight-out pleasuring herself… either directly or talking about it. [As evidenced by Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) in the 1998 film Pleasantville when she explains to Betty Parker (Joan Allen) that a man isn’t always necessary in order to have fun.]

Tom Jordache on the other hand is the bad boy, readily enjoying girls and somewhat of a brawler to get his way. The first few episodes follow the two brothers and Julie as they go their separate ways for different reasons. First, Tom, who is at loggerheads with his brutal father, leaves to live with Axel’s brother upstate. He begins to make friends, mainly discovering women and falling in love… with Teresa Santoro (Talia Shire, before she became Mrs. Rocky Balboa). But also making enemies and developing boxing skills. There’s a pregnancy, a boy born, Teresa flies the coop. All of which become seeds for large drama down the road.

This series is a marathon, 23 episodes, so there’s no way I could summarize it. But as the title suggests, one of the brothers becomes rich the other poor. Nor do I consider it a spoiler to let out that Rudy becomes the conventionally (very) rich one, even eventually a United States Senator—a rare one who gives a rat’s ass about ethics. Tom, on the other hand takes a less direct and less purposeful route through life, but his instincts are good. Basically, it simply takes Tom a long time to jettison his issues with the old man. In the long run, somewhere along episode 14(?), Tom is ready to lead his dream life as skipper of a tour boat off a rich port of the Mediterranean Coast.

Julie is also a major player in the series, I won’t let on whether she ever reconnects with Rudy, but she’s definitely depicted as a liberated woman who likes sex. As an aspiring actress, Julie winds up in New York, then discovers she’s a world class photographer and writer, to boot. She has a child, also a boy. Like Tom’s son through Teresa, Julie’s boy becomes a major player in his own right with ambitions up the wazoo. Acting? Frankly, Susan Blakely, as so many of the actors in the series, seems stuck with rather prosaic writing.

From these three initial threads, the whole story unfolds, from 1946 to, well, we’re told the late 1960s, but as I stated, Rudy becomes a US senator, and he’s not much older than 40, if that. If you try to make the time periods match up with the ages of the characters, you’ll go batty. What’s important is to take each episode as it comes. I personally find the early phase the most watchable, perhaps because these episodes benefit from the acting of veterans like Ed Asner and Dorothy McGuire. I think the storyline in those early years, say until the brothers are late 20s, has the most dramatic impact on how you feel about the people personally.

Later, especially toward the end, when Senator Jordache has to fry bigger fishies, I find myself not caring as much. But as I indicated at the top, we do see a believable cinematic incarnation of a truly menacing leader-member of the power elite: Charles Esteffe. This one man essentially controls the entire US Congress, especially the Senate. And Rudy becomes the man’s archenemy, which is refreshing, also scary… to think all that stands between a bought Congress and the people is one honest Senator. It all plays out, some of it more believable, some of it less believable; I find it hard to argue that the series shouldn’t have ended after episode 8. Candidly, I feel the writers started going through the motions, with a lot of triteness, after that point.

I mentioned that RMPM launched the careers of many actors into overdrive, like Nolte and Strauss who became stars. But the one actor who stands out in RMPM, above all, and who has the maximum effect on characters in the story, is William Smith, who plays the bully Johnnie Falconetti. Smith plays such a pure psychotic thug it’s as if he distilled the essence of deadly creepiness from every street-level hoodlum in history. You’ll recognize him as one of the early muscular guys in movies and TV, almost always playing a bone-chilling bad guy. In many ways, Rich Man, Poor Man belongs to William Smith, actually quite an accomplished intellect and actor.

Why did I decide to watch RMPM? Well, because it was referred to in one of my favorite little movies, Beautiful Girls. The Matt Dillon character, instead of going to the big high school reunion where he might run into an old girlfriend, says he’s going to stay up all night SunFLOWerwatching Rich Man Poor Man, commercials and all. So when RMPM came out on DVD, I went for it. Definitely worth the time, if only to have commonality of the endurance experience with millions of American TV viewers.

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