Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rich Man, Poor Man

I think most adults have had the experience of re-visiting one of their old homes or schools and most say the same thing – “It seems so much smaller than I remember.”  Sometimes seeing a movie or TV show from years ago can have the same effect. I was surprised to find that my reaction to the 1976 mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man was the same as visiting my old school – it just didn’t seem as impressive as it did the first time around.

A&E Home Video has released a boxed DVD set of both the original and sequel of this ground-breaking television event. Rich Man, Poor Man was the first of its kind, the mini-series that has since become a staple of television programming. When it debuted on February 1, 1976 on ABC, it caught the attention of the nation and kept it for the 8 weeks of its run (there are 12 episodes in total, 4 of which were shown as 2-hour specials). In those days before recording technology, Rich Man, Poor Man dominated its Monday night time slot.

Based on Irwin Shaw’s popular novel, Rich Man, Poor Man is the story of what we now refer to as a dysfunctional family. It portrays the life of the Jordache family during the period from the end of World War II to the late 1960’s. It is fascinating to watch for those who lived through those years as well as younger audiences who can experience a time before they were born. Axel Jordache (Ed Asner) is a harsh man, a German immigrant who runs a bakery with his discontented American-born wife Mary (Dorothy McGuire) and two sons, Rudy (Peter Strauss) and Tom (Nick Nolte). Rudy is the golden boy, and Tom the black sheep of the family, a dynamic that affects the feelings of the brothers toward each other and sets the stage for lifelong conflict. This is essentially the story of the two brothers whose lives disconnect as very young men. Rudy takes the path of higher education and successful business, while Tom is a wanderer trying to find his way in a hard world. The parallel, though very different, lives of the brothers eventually converge in later years with painful consequences.

34-year old Nick Nolte, who had already established an acting career, became an “overnight” star with his performance in Rich Man, Poor Man. His role as Tom was by far the meatiest and reflects more depth than Strauss’s Rudy. Tom breaks your heart, while Rudy’s rise to riches and power makes his character rather smarmy and hypocritical. Strauss, although handsome and charming, does not have the acting chops of Nolte, whose performance is tour-de-force. Strauss’s career continued in some good, some forgettable television roles, while Nolte went on to movie stardom. Susan Blakely, a young model turned actress, plays Julie Prescott, a beautiful young girl whose ambitions cause her to hurt others as well as herself. Blakely is lovely and was very popular at the time, but in my opinion not a good enough actress to carry the part. She continued acting in movies and television, notably as Frances Farmer in the TV movie Will There Really Be A Morning.

Rich Man, Poor Man was notable for its cameo roles by classic-era movie stars, including Dorothy McGuire, Van Johnson, Ray Milland, Gloria Grahame and Barry Sullivan. Even in 1976, television was considered by many movie actors as a step down, but Rich Man, Poor Man attracted them for its ground-breaking distinction and popularity of Shaw's novel. Dorothy McGuire's role in particular gave the opportunity for real acting. In a departure from her better-known movie roles, McGuire plays a frustrated, unstable woman as Mary Jordache, and her performance in this role was excellent. Others had fairly small roles that didn’t take much effort. I remember when The Towering Inferno hit movie theatres, William Holden said of his part “I could have phoned it in.” The same unfortunately applies to other famous stars who appeared in Rich Man, Poor Man, including one of my favorites, Ray Milland. It was great to see them, but some of them could have phoned in their parts too.  ( A note of interest:  The Towering Inferno was one of Susan Blakely's early movie roles, in which she played William Holden's daughter.)

The series was also a good vehicle for younger stars such as Talia Shire, Kim Darby and Kay Lenz. Television star Robert Reed gave a solid performance as Teddy Boylan, a man who affected the lives of all three principal characters. Bill Bixby, another popular television actor, was quite good in his role as Julie’s alcoholic husband. And of course, one of television’s best, most-hated villains was created in the series by William Smith as Falconetti. Smith’s forte is villains, and his character in Rich Man, Poor Man was by far his best work. The story of Falconetti and Tom in particular is so well-done that it is difficult to see unfold. Falconetti is indeed despicable, and Smith plays it to the hilt.

After the great success of Rich Man, Poor Man, a sequel was planned immediately after. Nolte refused to appear because he felt the story should not be altered to create a sequel. He had the right idea, because the sequel was a poor follow-up to the original story. Its popularity did not come anywhere near that of the original. It is fun, however, to watch it as part of the DVD set just to see where it takes the story. The DVD set also features commentary in Book One, Chapter One by star Peter Strauss and TV historian David Bianculli which is quite interesting.

There was of course no category for best mini-series yet in the Emmy awards, but Rich Man, Poor Man garnered 24 nominations, winning 4 awards: Best Director David Greene (there were actually several directors throughout the series, including Bill Bixby), Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Performance Fionnula Flanagan for her poignant performance as the servant girl Clothtilde, Best Actor in a Limited Performance Ed Asner as Axel Jordache and Best Music Score Alex North. Asner, who was tremendously popular as the crusty but loveable Mr. Grant in the Mary Tyler Moore show, still going strong when the mini-series was made, gave a marvelous performance as the cruel, enraged Axel Jordache, which probably surprised a lot of the comedy series’ fans. Why Nolte did not win an Emmy is beyond me – his performance as the ill-fated Tom was superb, not to mention that he was the glue that held the whole thing together. I have to say that I don’t quite understand why the score by Alex North was given an award. It must have been a thin year for TV music. North, who composed several truly great movie scores, including A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus, Shoes of the Fisherman and The Children’s Hour, turned out what I thought of as insipid and unmemorable music for Rich Man, Poor Man, a surprising turn for such a talented composer.

Although my experience in watching Rich Man, Poor Man again after 34 years was unexpectedly disappointing overall, that may be because in my memory it had grown to greater proportions than it was able to deliver now. It is not a bad show nor is it a great one. I guess it is just “smaller than I remember.”


  1. Splendid review, Becky. I have not seen this series, but your write-up is informative and intriguing.

    I understand the concept of a series or film being "smaller than one remembers." I once talked to a guy who claimed he was a huge fan of TWIN PEAKS and told me that he was surprised that it only lasted three seasons. I said that it was actually a little less than a season and a half, with a total of only 30 episodes. He just stared at me, so he was either completely dumbfounded or I totally blew his mind.

    Becky, the best thing about your coverage of a DVD set is that I know I can most likely find it at Netflix. Thanks for a fun read!

  2. Becky, this is a very informative write-up of a historically significant TV miniseries. I think I'd enjoy watching it again! A sprawling family saga focusing on two brothers is right up my alley. I remember Nolte being quite good in this--I can't think of another actor who made the leap from miniseries to movie stardom (maybe Rachel Ward from THORN BIRDS, but she was never a star like Nolte). It'd be great to see RM, PM on a DVD set because you don't have to wait for the next episode. Thanks for highlighting this new DVD release.

  3. Excellent write up about a good miniseries, Becky. I haven't seen it for many years. I have always liked it. I thought the story was a good one. Now that I have read your outstanding review, I would really like to see it again. Thanks for reminding me of a miniseries I had forgotten about. Enjoyed reading your review.

  4. Enjoyed reading your review, Becky. I don't think I've ever seen the film or series. Personally, I think anything Ed Asner does is good, so I suspect the scenes in which he appears are quite good.

  5. Great Series. Great Review. DOES anyone know about the filming locations? None in the Movie database, none in Google... believe a lot of it was filmed in L.A (the golf scenes were at the Rose Bowl Country club area... believe the 'lost' baby scene with Blakely and Strauss talking on a hospital balcony was either Verdugo Hills Hosp or Glendale Adventist... South Pas may have been another location for some of the 'big homes'... anyone?