Monday, November 01, 2010

Rich Man, Poor Man

Based on Irwin Shaw’s dense 1969 best-seller, RICH MAN, POOR MAN ran twelve hours and was a runaway success for ABC. It was the second highest rated series of the season, earned 23 Emmy nominations (winning four), and helped inspire television networks to adapt more novels for the small screen. The next few years would see networks handing over precious airtime to high-minded miniseries of ROOTS, THE CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS, THE WINDS OF WAR, SHOGUN, and even Shaw’s BEGGARMAN, THIEF, to name just a handful.

Dean Riesner’s adaptation follows the two scions of the Jordache family—all-American Rudy (Peter Strauss) and black sheep Tom (Nick Nolte)—from the end of World War II through the mid-1960s. The progeny of a brutal German immigrant, Axel Jordache (Edward Asner), and his wife Mary (Dorothy McGuire), who run a bakery in upper New York state, Rudy and Tom go their separate ways early—Rudy to college and then success as a businessman working for department store magnate Duncan Calderwood (Ray Milland), the disowned Tom as a mechanic working for Axel’s brother in California and eventually as a has-been boxer on the run from the Syndicate.

Missing from the miniseries is the Jordaches’ sister Gretchen, whom Riesner replaced with the upper-crust Julie Prescott (Susan Blakely), Rudy’s high-school girlfriend who experiences several romantic misadventures and a failed career as an actress in New York City. The creation of Julie is a good one, giving Rudy not only a romantic arc, but also an intriguing character trait of a man who claws his way to the top and has everything except the one woman he has always loved.

Riesner (DIRTY HARRY) and the series’ three directors—David Greene, Bill Bixby (who also plays Julie’s irresponsible writer husband Willie Abbott), and Boris Sagal—cut back and forth among the three major subplots, which occasionally bang into one another to create sparks. It’s a testament to everyone involved that all three storylines are fascinating, well-paced, and rest comfortably on the shoulders of Strauss, Nolte, and Blakely. All three earned Emmy nominations and became major Hollywood stars based on their work in RICH MAN, POOR MAN; of course, Nolte moved into motion pictures with THE DEEP and a big break in the raucous NORTH DALLAS FORTY.

Interestingly, RICH MAN, POOR MAN doesn’t appear to have crushed the budgets of executive producer Harve Bennett (THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN) or producer Jon Epstein (THE RAT PATROL); in fact, I imagine the directors barely left the Universal lot. The production is almost a throwback to the kitchen-sink era of dramatic television, and with a marvelous cast like RICH MAN, POOR MAN’s, one can see that standing back and letting the performers do their thing with Riesner’s layered script was the wise path to walk. Even when things threaten to get soapy near the end with the appearance of Tom’s archenemy Falconetti (William Smith), one of the scariest heavies in television history, the directors keep the drama on an even keel.

Alex North won an Emmy for his score, as did Greene for his direction and actors Asner and Fionnula Flanagan. Also supporting the leads are Robert Reed as the marvelously oily local tycoon Teddy Boylan, Kim Darby, Gloria Grahame, Tim McIntire, Murray Hamilton, Steve Allen, Talia Shire, Norman Fell, Craig Stevens, Lawrence Pressman, George Maharis, Lynda Day George, Van Johnson, Andrew Duggan, Berry Kroeger, Harvey Jason, George Wyner, Dick Sargent, Dorothy Malone, Kay Lenz, Dick Butkus, Herbert Jefferson Jr., and Dennis Dugan.

ABC first aired RICH MAN, POOR MAN within six weeks in February and March 1976 and again in the summer of 1977. In between, ABC tried to recapture lightning in a bottle by commissioning RICH MAN, POOR MAN: BOOK II, which had little to nothing to do with Irwin Shaw, but brought back Peter Strauss as Rudy Jordache, now raising the sons of Tom and Julie. Produced as a regular weekly one-hour series with 22 episodes for the 1976-77 season, BOOK II was also a ratings success, though not on the level of BOOK I (as the original miniseries was called in reruns).

1 comment:

James Reasoner said...

A great novel and probably my all-time favorite mini-series. I remember watching the first episode with my then-girlfriend (now wife). When it was over, we looked at each other and said, "When's the next one on?" The follow-up TV series was okay, we watched it all the way through, but not nearly as good as the original.