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.
By Paul Mavis
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 (read our review for that first installment, here).
…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.
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Picking up somewhat confusingly from where the original miniseries left off (I thought Rudy’s Senate career was over after beating up that hippie?), Senator Rudy Jordache (Peter Strauss) has his hands full. Splitting from his wife, Julie (Susan Blakely), Rudy concentrates on his business career again, when he inherits an electronics firm from former boss Duncan Calderwood (Ray Milland). Hoping to reconstruct a family unit for himself when Julie dies in Vietnam, Rudy brings his nephew Wesley Jordache (Gregg Henry) and his stepson Billy (James Carroll Jordan), to his home in Whitby, New York. Both young men are damaged by the deaths of their parents, and prove to be tough-sells for positions in Rudy’s “one big happy family” scheme. Rudy suggests that Wes start working at his electronics plant, where the sensitive Wes falls in love with Ramona (Penny Peyser), the daughter of strident, gruff union leader Scotty (John Anderson). Angry hustler Billy doesn’t want Rudy’s help (he still blames Rudy for the death of his father, played by Bill Bixby in the original mini), so he goes into business for himself, squeezing his way into Greenway Records, a once-hot New York hitmaker run by Phil Greenberg (Sorrell Booke).
Trouble brews, though, for this makeshift family when Rudy discovers nefarious goings-on with the shadowy Tricorp company, run by even more mysterious billionaire powerbroker, Charles Estep (Peter Haskell). Intent on ruining Rudy once he can’t buy him off with the keys to the White House, Rudy must race against time to discover what secret Estep is afraid that Rudy might uncover before Estep runs him out of office or worse—kills him, by way of convenient Jordache nemesis, Arthur Falconetti (William Smith), the psychopath that killed Rudy’s brother Tom. Wes finds romance difficult with virgin Romana…particularly when hotshot Billy sleeps with her first, and eventually all the Jordaches are out to kill Falconetti (and vice versa) when Estep puts his final plan into action to eliminate Rudy.
I know I didn’t tune into Rich Man, Poor Man: Book II back in the fall of 1976…most likely because it was on Tuesday nights against favorites M*A*S*H, One Day at a Time, and Police Woman—a colossally dumb “power scheduling” move by ABC. Why throw this second go-around up against such heavy competition? While Rich Man, Poor Man: Book II earned entirely respectable ratings (it was the 21st most popular show of the 1976-1977 season), think what it could have done if ABC just copied the release of Book I: Monday nights, after ABC NFL Monday Night Football had its run, with weak competition like All’s Fair, Executive Suite, The Andros Targets, and dying Maude and The Sonny and Cher Show? It worked spectacularly when ABC ran Roots in the same slot that winter—why not follow up that blockbuster with Book II?
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Entirely different in tone from the original mini, Rich Man, Poor Man had the trappings of Irwin Shaw’s middle-brow seriousness layered over its epic, almost Biblical tale of two brothers getting lost in the post-WWII bloom of America. Rich Man, Poor Man: Book II, however, is unabashed night-time soap opera, looking exactly like a prototype for super-successful outings such as Dallas, Falcon Crest, Dynasty, and Knots Landing that would follow only a few years later.
Clearly, there’s an effort here to recreate the kind of sibling rivalry that fueled the first mini, but equally clearly, Gregg Henry and James Carroll Jordan ain’t Strauss and Nolte. In fact, the least interesting aspect of Rich Man, Poor Man: Book II are these attempts by the screenwriters to dredge up memories of the first mini by plugging in Wes or Billy into situations that are supposed to remind us that they’re the heir apparents of their more famous (and better written) parent characters. About a third of the way through the 22 “chapters” of this mini, I wrote in my notes, “I don’t care about these creeps,” and that about sums it up for the Wes and Billy characters (Wes, the son of that rowdy sonavabitch Tom Jordache, is indescribably wimpy, while Billy is laughably jivy and false-hip). Now, I’ve enjoyed both Jordan and Henry in subsequent outings (Henry in particular made me laugh out loud in his great turn with Mel Gibson in Payback), so let’s chalk this outing up to youthful inexperience. Even with that caveat, though, it’s difficult at best to warm up to these two callow, unbelievable ciphers whose dialogue is as haphazard as their thesping.
Not helping matters in the script department is the clunky opening episodes that throw out two zero-interest main subplots—union troubles and the record-making biz—neither of which are put over with even a modicum of either realism or entertaining outrageousness. Only when Rich Man, Poor Man: Book II starts to indulge in post-Watergate hangover fantasies (even though the story is set in 1968, on the verge of Nixon gaining office) about all-powerful corporations and powerbrokers controlling every aspect of the U.S. government (Google “that could never happen today,” before Facebook and Twitter decide who your next vote is going to be flipped for), does the series begin to take off. Rudy’s battle against Charles Estep has a confident, methodical sweep to it that I found quite entertaining, and particularly reminiscent of later night- time soap shenanigans involving politics and business (especially some of the complicated Knots Landing plots with William Devane’s Greg Sumner character).
The script has to do back-flips to explain how Republican Rudy isn’t as evil as his evil Republican and Democrat counterparts, which is all the more entertaining, in context, when you realize this series was being produced during the “euphoria” of Jimmy Carter’s impending presidency (give me a minute to get up off the floor—I fell there, laughing). Balanced against this relatively exciting, suspenseful subplot, the delightfully looney storyline of William Smith’s Falconetti character trying to waste everyone in sight, kicks Rich Man, Poor Man: Book II into overdrive. Anyone growing up on endless cop and detective shows of the 1970s will recognize this subplot from countless other episodes from series like Mannix, Cannon, The Rookies, or Hawaii Five-O, where a crazed, mad-dog killer whines and mewls like a poisoned dog while stalking and zapping people left and right. The fact that exploitation icon William Smith gets a chance to do this not in just one episode but in almost 22, makes Rich Man, Poor Man: Book II something of classic for devotees of trash TV.
Indeed, hilarious touches abound throughout Rich Man, Poor Man: Book II, from the intentional (clueless virgin Ramona reads Valley of the Dolls for guidance) to the unintentional…and the unintentional ones definitely win out. It doesn’t get much more amusing than seeing 60s hippie icon Arlo Guthrie not only try to “act” but try to “sing” two songs (I’ll Fly Away and what else: the execrable Alice’s Restaurant for the gazillionth, unwanted time). Or poor Cassie Yates channeling Stevie Nicks for her cleaned-up Janis Joplin character, lip-synching So Mamma, Leave the Front Door Open To-Nite, while she discusses the rights of her body to an uncomprehending Billy. She also owns the most hysterical bit of dialogue in Rich Man, Poor Man: Book II, when she throatily exclaims, “Come here, Billy. I’m going to make love to you…be brave.” What the hell does that mean: “be brave?” If I heard that, I’d immediately head for the hills….
Falcon Crest fans will enjoy cold, hard, absolutely edible Susan Sullivan “faking it” with Rudy because it’s enough already and she just wants to get some sleep. Billy and Ramona can’t even get skinny dipping right—they leave their clothes on (that’s…fun), and in the series’ best scene, the principal from Fame, Ken Swofford, not only beats the crap out of Cro-Magnon-American actor William Smith (riiiiiiiiiiight…), but makes him crawl on the floor after it’s over. Jackpot! Now that’s garbage TV, and once you forget about wimps Wes and Billy and add in the zippy political espionage subplot of Rudy’s battle with the evil Tricorp Company, you’ve got yourself a hell of an entertaining (and unintentionally funny) prime-time mini-soaper.