Movies We Like
Rich Man, Poor Man
The "mini-series" was a cultural phenomenon on late '70s and early '80s television. With the massive success of Rich Man, Poor Man (followed by the even more popular Roots a year later), it became a rite of passage for television executives to find a thick book and a match it with a classy cast for a rating bonanza. Finally out on DVD, Rich Man, Poor Man is the epitome of the mini-series epic, 12 one-hour episodes spanning 25 years in the life of the Jordache brothers. It made a star of the then unknown actor Nick Nolte and gave a bunch of out of work ex-TV stars a chance to chew on some scenery. And though at times it may feel dated, it still makes for some gripping, addictive watching.
Based on novelist Irwin Shaw’s (The Young Lions) massively long best seller, the enormous scope of the cast of characters would put a paycheck in a lot of mid-'70s actor pockets. Along the way a who’s who of names pop up in supporting roles including Gloria Grahame, Dick Sargent, Talia Shire, Ray Milland, Lynda Day George, Norman Fell, Fionnula Flanagan, Dorothy Malone, Van Johnson, Murray Hamilton, and Kim Darby (the original True Grit girl).
Sons of German immigrant parents, played by Ed Asner (Lou Grant) and Dorothy McGuire (Gentleman’s Agreement), Tom (Nolte) and Rudy Jordache (Peter Strauss) are brothers, but opposites. In the East Of Eden tradition, Tom is deemed wild and bad, while the college bound and hardworking Rudy seems to have everything going for him, except he is haunted by his high school love, Julie Prescott (Susan Blakely). After roughing up his drunken father, Tom hits the road and goes from gas pumper to boxer to merchant marine and usually finds trouble everywhere he goes, even when he tries to do the right thing. Rudy excels in college and becomes an entrepreneur and then a politician. Julie goes to New York with the hopes of becoming an actress, instead she finds herself in twisted relationships with much older men (Robert Reed and Bill Bixby, both excellent). Eventually Rudy and Julie find each other and wed, but by then Julie, damaged, has hit the bottle and Rudy is beyond uptight.
While Rudy peaks and then spirals down, Tom eventually gains some inner peace and stability, becoming a boat tour owner in Italy he reunites with a long lost son and finds a perky, loving wife (Kay Lanz). Unfortunately he too is haunted by his past in the guise of an old enemy, the menacing Falconetti (William Smith as one of television's all-time great creeps); their final confrontation puts the last nail in Tom’s bucket and helps lead to Rudy and Julie’s marriage collapsing. In the end Tom may have turned out to be the “rich man” - if you don’t look at bank account status, but affection from others - while Rudy seems miserable. Ironic? Obvious? Yes. But compelling? Absolutely.
The entire cast is exceptional. Asner stands out as the boys' brutish father with a role that lets him act up a storm. Reed and Bixby (who also directed an episode) get to break away from their sitcommy pasts and show they have some real chops and charm. Rich Man, Poor Man also made stars of the unknowns, Strauss and Blakely deservingly became permanent fixtures in television with varying degrees of quality. But Nolte is one who soared. His performance is towering; his tough guy with a heart of gold and pugilist good looks are reminiscent of a young Brando. And of course, he’s had an interesting career since then, once he got out of the pretty-boy mode with films like The Deep and went back to brooding. ABC tried to capitalize on the craze with Rich Man, Poor Man Book II (also included on the new DVD) but without Nolte it amounts to just bland '70s TV. As a nostalgic piece of television yore watchers who sat through it the first time will enjoy the experience again. For others, it’s a good reminder that even in television’s possibly worst decade, something great could be created when the suits and the right cast and material get together.