‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ (1976): Racy event television from a lost era

Well…now that the seven angels have blasted their horns, rumbling them into a wild, dark winter, inventing entirely new, terrible beasts while we line up with our seven bowls to meekly beseech, “Please, sir, I’d like some more,” (Lionel Bart’s smash West End musical Oliver!, with book by John the Elder and Heinrich Heine), there doesn’t seem to be much more to do while we await our re-education camp assignments than to watch some vintage television, right?

And since we’re heading into TV’s traditional February “sweeps” period, what better way to prepare for the club and the boot than to re-experience ABC’s blockbuster 1976 miniseries, Rich Man, Poor Man, based on millionaire author Irwin Shaw’s best-selling book that bitched about, among other things, the American capitalist system, the same system that allows authors to become millionaires by writing books—from fabulous residences in Paris and Switzerland—bitching about the American capitalist system.

By Paul Mavis

A true television “event,” back when a show could catch fire with the huge, largely unified network TV audience and actually depress attendance at restaurants and movie theaters on broadcast nights (while stressing city sewer systems during commercial breaks), Rich Man, Poor Man, starring Peter Strauss, Nick Nolte, Susan Blakely, and a host of familiar TV and movie star names, broke Nielsen records for the newly-minted “miniseries” genre. 45 years of changing societal attitudes and tastes—as well as the anything-goes sexual nature of today’s media environment—has eliminated almost all of the power to shock that Rich Man, Poor Man did so well back during the Bicentennial…but a good yarn is a good yarn, regardless of context. Sporting impressive lead performances from the then-relatively unknown young cast, and a page-turning equivalent of a screenplay with primal, Biblical appeal, Rich Man, Poor Man is still compulsive TV viewing.

…as for Rich Man, Poor Man: Book II—yes, there was a sequel, rushed out by ABC for their fall 1976 schedule (and it’s included on A&E’s Rich Man, Poor Man: The Complete Collection DVD set)—it’s an acquired taste…especially if you like pure soap and TV exploitation. It’s dynamite junk. But for now, let’s look at Book I, shall we?

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A detailed synopsis, although helpful to the later discussion, isn’t possible in the scope of this review, so we’ll just have to hit the high points…with possible spoilers, so be forewarned. Port Philip, New York, on VE Night, 1945. Two brothers celebrate in two entirely different ways. Ambitious, determined straight-arrow Rudy Jordache (Peter Strauss) blows America the Beautiful on his horn for the reverent teens at the local bonfire, while younger brother/hellcat/trouble-maker Tom Jordache (Nick Nolte) sits atop the football field goal post, sneering, “How corny can you get?” before sneaking into a movie theatre and starting a vicious fight with a veteran.

Love, competition, and diametrically opposed views on how to live their lives mark the brothers’ contentious relationship, no doubt directly influenced by their emotionally-closed off, complicated father, Axel Jordache (Edward Asner). A German immigrant who survived the horrors of WWI, Axel works in a tiny, rented bakery, salting away what little money he earns. Violent, distrustful of everyone, and bitterly cynical, Axel’s relationship with his wife, Mary (Dorothy McGuire), is fraught with disappointments and recriminations on both sides: Mary hates Axel for driving her from the church and failing to become a financial success, and Axel hates her for her pious rejection of him as a man.

Enter Julie Prescott (Susan Blakely), an absolutely luscious innocent in bobby sox and black Maryjanes who works at a local veterans’ hospital when she’s not in school, and who longs to ditch her jerkwater hometown. Not so innocent is her eventual desire for sex with her boyfriend Rudy, who, as expected, flubs his one shot at it, before she almost sets her sights on taboo sex partner Arnold Simms (Mike Evans), a black serviceman who knowingly plays on Julie’s sublimated, but unmistakable, desires. Eventually, Julie discovers the wonderments of illicit, immoral carnality with silky, perverse factory owner Teddy Boylan (Robert Reed), who delights in introducing Julie to more adult pleasures, but who hypocritically wants Julie to stay quiet about her own increasingly frank, open sexuality.

Spinning off from the safe confines of Port Philip, Julie tries her luck in New York as an actress (via all that money Teddy Boylan paid her); Rudy goes off to college (again via Teddy Boylan’s influence), and Tom is run out of town on a rail…after burning down Teddy Boylan’s greenhouse. Thus sets into motion the constantly departing and intertwining lives of these three young Americans as they navigate the seemingly safe but nervous decades between WWII and the Vietnam War. Rudy, through hard work and an association with department store magnet Duncan Calderwood (Ray Milland), becomes a millionaire businessman who naturally gravitates towards politics (with the shifty guidance of powerbroker Marsh Goodwin, played by Van Johnson). Julie has a child with a weak, sniveling philanderer, writer Willie Abbott (Bill Bixby), before she discovers her talents as a photojournalist (and her eventual craving for the bottle). And Tom ekes out a meager existence boxing, before he, too, marries (badly, in this case, to alley cat Talia Shire), and buys a boat and settles in the south of France. But none of the three can escape their seemingly pre-ordained fates—particularly when that fate is embodied by dangerous psychopathic murderer/rapist Arthur Falconetti (William Smith).

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I’ve written several times before about the evolution of the miniseries format, so I’m not going to go into great detail about it again, but suffice it to say that Rich Man, Poor Man, although not “the first-ever dramatic miniseries to appear on American television,” as A&E incorrectly states on the back cover of their DVD case, was certainly the first sustained blockbuster of the genre. NBC actually holds rights to producing the first American “mini” with their 1973 broadcast of Joseph Wambaugh’s The Blue Knight, starring William Holden (we’re not going to count PBS importing British limited series like Upstairs Downstairs because they weren’t produced as “event” minis for rating “sweeps” periods). In April of 1974, ABC scored a ratings’ success with an all-star adaptation of Leon Uris’ best-seller, QB VII (which the reliably inaccurate Wikipedia incorrectly states is the first network mini), a movie that looks closer to the miniseries model you see in Rich Man, Poor Man.

There’s no question, though, that Rich Man, Poor Man‘s debut on February 1st, 1976, started the ball rolling for the “golden age” of the miniseries (roughly the late 70s through the late 80s), creating a template of sorts for many future productions (best-selling source novel, lots of star cameos and supporting turns, plenty of sex and action). At the time, Rich Man, Poor Man was the absolute cutting edge of technology, if you will, in presenting televised drama, and its appearance created a tsunami in the Nielsens that’s difficult to comprehend in today’s TV world (with just twelve episodes in February and March of 1976, Rich Man, Poor Man still managed to come in as the second-most watched show in the country for the entire 1975-1976 season, right behind ratings Godzilla, All in the Family).

With that being said, it’s impossible to divorce nostalgia from the positive experience of watching Rich Man, Poor Man again, because there’s no way to replicate the dramatic, powerful impact it had on its original viewers back in 1976. Too many elements have changed on today’s television landscape for Rich Man, Poor Man to startle new viewers, at least in terms of its then-salacious, taboo subject matters, since those outsized audience draws for 1976 have all but been negated by the common-place, in-your-face nature of sex and violence in today’s TV series. I was 10 when Rich Man, Poor Man first aired, and believe me, the buzz from viewers and critics back then was, “this is hot stuff for TV.” Of course, the serial nature of the long-form story continued to bring back viewers, along with the so-called “new” format of the mini (a form that we’ve seen wasn’t all that new in February, 1976), but what viewers really talked about the next day was the frank nature of the show’s storyline.

“Mature” television wasn’t a novelty by 1976 (it had been advancing quietly on all fronts before All in the Family really brought down the floodgates), but regular TV audiences were still taken aback by Rich Man, Poor Man‘s bluntness. Scenes such as Tom telling Rudy he better “nail” Julie before someone else does; Axel calling Tom’s French teacher a “slut” for letting her “boobs hang out” before he viciously slaps her; Julie coming this close to sleeping with African-American Arnold; the almost subconsciously-filmed suggestion that Julie is laying down on her bed, preparing to masturbate over thoughts of either Rudy or Arnold; Julie’s dalliance with Teddy that results in her getting paid for her services (she doesn’t give the money back…and she doesn’t stop having sex with him, later telling her husband, “The bed part I liked better than anything that ever had happened to me.”); Tom’s naked bathtub scene with his first true love, Irish maid Clothilde (played by Fionnula Flanagan, who won an Emmy for her performance here); Lynda Day George’s character looking boxer Tom up and down before hungrily saying, “Thank god for roadwork…get naked!”; and most taboo of all, the rape of Tom’s buddy Ray Dwyer (Herbert Jefferson, Jr.) by psychotic Falconetti (the movie only suggests this…and then avoids any further mention of it like the plague)—all of that was raw stuff for viewers who were still accustomed to more “wholesome” mainstream 1976 network fare like Laverne & Shirley, Happy Days, The Waltons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Welcome Back, Kotter, The Bionic Woman, and The Six Million Dollar Man. Today, with television regularly offering R-to-X-rated doses of sex and violence for even the most casual viewer, those once- titillating scenes from Rich Man, Poor Man play almost as innocently as any random scene from those aforementioned family series.

What may resonate slightly more with modern viewers are Shaw’s (and screenwriter Dean Reisner’s) incidental commentaries on American life after WWII, even though the miniseries is careful to keep these asides firmly rooted in the context of the soapish storyline, and mostly in the background. There are a lot of ideas swirling around the various subplots here; even if they aren’t dealt with in a direct manner, they give this mini a layer of depth that’s missing from its regular series follow-up, Rich Man, Poor Man: Book II (maybe that’s a good thing…). Much is made of Rudy working hard to get ahead…only to pay a terrible emotional price for such industry (that hoary old anti-capitalist, class warfare notion that seemed terribly clichéd to anyone even remotely connected to the real world…but which seems to have remarkable staying power for the easily led), with Rudy unable to stop alienating everyone he loves during his climb to the top, while the prosperous America he helped build spits his accomplishments back in his face (I love Rudy’s summation of the sixties: “The ‘Love Generation’…vicious little creeps.”).

Tom pays, too, for embodying the restless, rebellious outsider who rejects mainstream societies’ morays; he doesn’t escape fate by rejecting the American go-getter life of his brother. Living a life of constant strife (due in no small part to his own violent, sexually open nature), Tom finally finds happiness outside the United States…only to get it in the end when he rejects the violent influences of his hated father and spares Falconetti’s life for the second time (if that is indeed Shaw’s argument in the novel—violence in yourself should be suppressed at all costs, even at the cost of our own life—it’s a goofy one). Far more interesting (due in no small part to palpably sexualized Susan Blakely’s performance) is the sexual awakening of Julie, who emerges from the clichés of post-WWII American girlhood, where “good” girls don’t have naughty thoughts, as a fully-functioning sexual being who actually enjoys the act…without guilt (my kind of girl…).

Later on, she has to endure the hypocrisy of her initiating lover who’s embarrassed by her honesty towards the subject, before she experiences personal emancipation from a bad marriage through her professional endeavors…only to fall prey to feeling trapped and unsatisfied in a so-called “good” marriage with Rudy. These big themes, along with many smaller sidebars on American capitalism (Bixby’s loser Willie Abbott whines about “lucky winners” in business, while Reed’s Boylan cynically acknowledges he owes his family mansion to “child labor and substandard working conditions”), the immigrant experience in America, and the politics of corruption in America, where politicians are measured by P.R., polls, and marketing, along with plenty of illegal campaign contributions, pop in and out among the romantic entanglements of Rich Man, Poor Man, giving those more conventional—and more prominent—dynamics, a bit of a boost.

Missed opportunities in the script do crop up, though—particularly a key bit of plotting that I would have thought was a certainty, considering how often the movie teased it. If I read the original Rich Man, Poor Man years and years ago (I think I did…), I don’t remember the details, but I do know that the character of Julie has been altered significantly: she was Rudy’s and Tom’s sister in the book. Making such a significant change, it seems strange that the series would tease several scenes to suggest that both Tom and Julie like what they see in each other (Tom hitting on Julie at the dance, and later his startled reaction to seeing her naked in Teddy’s window, and later Julie’s obvious up-and-down approval at seeing handsome boxer Tom after so many years), only to keep them romantically apart. It’s a small note of discontented expectation, but a discordant one, since TV viewers have been trained to pick up on scenes such as those (it would have added a hell of a dynamic to the brothers’ already prickly relationship).

Overall, though, the script construction by Dean Riesner is mostly adept at juggling the various subplots here (aided by veteran directors David Greene and Boris Sagal), although there are some awkward jumps in the continuity from time to time, as the viewer has to readjust their bearings before figuring out exactly what’s going on (such as the jump from Rudy getting into college, and then suddenly showing up at Ray Milland’s office as a college intern for his department store). And as I’ve written many times before, the appeal of the long-form serial is right within its very structure: we have to keep coming back for more, because—quite simply—we need to know what’s going to happen next to the characters we’ve come to like…or hate. The appeal is the on-going repetition. It’s really no different than a soap opera, or even a nighttime serial, such as ABC’s previous “groundbreaking” format experiment, Peyton Place. Rich Man, Poor Man may have aspirations to say something important—and indeed, it may do so from time to time—but the dramatic conventions that carry along those messages are as old as the hills (Cain and Abel to start with). And there’s nothing wrong with that. As George (of the college-educated types George and Martha) once said, the most familiar stories are always the best ones.

And along with the primal storytelling pull of Rich Man, Poor Man, which can’t help but draw in viewers, the large roster of actors gives the production of sense of scale, of largeness, of importance, that may be artificial, but which works all the same (the same can’t be said for the actual production design here, which is mostly restricted to small sets and the Universal backlot, unlike later blockbuster minis that would flaunt epic-sized, multi-million dollar location shoots, such as War and Remembrance, Peter the Great, and Marco Polo). Of the three leads, probably Blakely and Strauss had the best chance of sparking recognition from sharp-eyed TV viewers back 1976. Strauss’ big-screen career seemed assured after starring in 1970’s controversial, wrong-headed Western, Soldier Blue; however, according to Strauss, he returned to supporting roles on episodic TV, doing bits on series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Barnaby Jones, to further his acting training.

1975, the year of Rich Man, Poor Man‘s actual production, was a big one for Blakely, having scored a small but memorable role in the previous year’s blockbuster, The Towering Inferno, before moving on to a small lead role in the flop Report to the Commissioner and the subsequent drive-in and cable cult favorites Capone and The Lords of Flatbush (where she was beautiful and effective, as always). As for Nolte, it’s ironic the least-exposed actor in the bunch would arguably become the highest profile name afterwards, having secured tiny roles in made-for-TV fare like the excellent The California Kid with Martin Sheen, before exploding onto the scene with Rich Man, Poor Man (at least…highest profile in feature films; Strauss owned the lucrative mini and made-for-TV movie genres for almost two decades, with Blakely no slouch in the latter format, either).

Nolte has the flashiest role, to be sure, and it’s easy to see that his outsized personality and raw, edgy talent are too big for the smaller confines of the television screen (remember, many of us back in 1976 saw Rich Man, Poor Man on 19-inch screens or smaller…and quite a few of them still in black and white, if that’s even possible to comprehend). He has that dangerous unpredictability that lets you know he’s only going to be on TV for so long; it’s a perfect fit for the Tom character. His later scenes aren’t as effective (more from the scripting than the performance), but the impact of his earlier scenes stays with you.

Blakely, too, has a showy role here, going from not-so-innocent high-schooler (I get the vapors when I see her in her bobby sox and Maryjanes…), to unhappily married mother, to professional photojournalist, to rich man’s messy, alcoholic wife, and, as always with this criminally-underrated actress, she pulls it off without a hitch, particularly the earlier scenes where Blakely does dewy, soft eroticism better than any TV actress from that time (she has the loveliest, saddest blue eyes in TV). Strauss has probably the most difficult role—the “straight” one—where he must gradually evolve the young, earnest, slightly callow, naïve go-getter Rudy into an accomplished, powerful millionaire businessman/politician who wonders existentially where his life has gone wrong. That’s a tough line to walk over twelve episodes, and Strauss is remarkably controlled—considering the mini was probably shot out of sequence—in getting across that build.

Of all the actors that make brief or extended supporting turns here (and it’s an impressive list, including Dorothy McGuire, Van Johnson, Bill Bixby, Ray Milland, Gloria Grahame, Dorothy Malone, Craig Stevens, George Maharis, Lynda Day George, Steve Allen, Norman Fell, Talia Shire, Kay Lenz, Murray Hamilton, Mike Evans, Tim McIntire, and Andrew Duggan) the heaviest hitters are Edward Asner and Robert Reed. Reed, forever saddled with the baggage of being America’s favorite sitcom dad in the delightful The Brady Bunch, shows just how talented and underutilized he was as a dramatic actor with his silkily perverse turn as Teddy Boylan. Playing a character who constantly watches and calculates, Reed is creepily effective as he quietly looks over the three youths, figuring out how best to play with them.

Asner, who won an Emmy for his turn here, is equally memorable in an entirely different way, essaying a German immigrant whose barely suppressed rage has twisted and warped his view of life. It’s a powerhouse performance, particularly in startling comparison to his gruff but sweet and cuddly turn as Lou Grant in his best-remembered role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And almost to an actor, the rest are spot-on in their roles: Bill Bixby is weak and sniveling; Steve Allen is a disgusting creep; Ray Milland is alternately cranky and vulnerable; Van Johnson is beautifully smooth and shallow, Dorothy McGuire is at first put-upon and miserable, and then calcified and obstinate; Tim McIntire (another lost talent) is edgy, funny, and loud; and the incomparable William Smith is believably unhinged. Those turns, along with the socko lead performances and the can’t-miss serial script, make Rich Man, Poor Man a must-see TV mini…even if most of the thrill is gone after 45 years.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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