‘Breaking Up is Hard to Do’ (1979): Forgotten TV movie is a true gem

Worthwhile, even remarkable-at-times, made-for-TV drama; perfect viewing for post-football withdrawal…if you’re a real man.

By Paul Mavis

I’m not sure if Sony Pictures still has their Choice Collection line of hard-to-find cult and library titles (…because the bitches don’t send us any), but awhile back, they released Breaking Up is Hard to Do, the two-part ABC made-for-TV movie from 1979 starring Ted Bessell, Jeff Conaway, Robert Conrad, Billy Crystal, Tony Musante, and David Ogden Stiers. Straight from the “Sensitive Seventies,” Breaking Up is Hard to Do shows that formerly married men in the 1970s had feelings, too…even when they were hip-deep in beautiful Malibu babes. A determinedly honest, uncompromising script and superlative performances from the wonderfully eclectic cast makes this forgotten 70s gem an important re-discovery. It’s one of the best movies—on the big or little screen—I’ve seen about divorced and separated men coming to terms with their new lives.

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Malibu, California. 1979. Big-time Hollywood talent agent Frank Scapa (Robert Conrad) has the use of one of his client’s beachfront house from May to October. His estranged wife, beautiful actress Tina Scapa (Elaine Giftos), skips out on him one morning, leaving him there alone. Looking for company, Frank decides to invite his friend, rookie associate movie producer Danny Doyle (Billy Crystal), to stay with him for the summer. Doyle, separated from his wife and two boys who live in the Midwest, agrees, hoping to have the boys come stay for two weeks later that summer.

Soon, Frank is inviting all his close friends in the moviemaking business to crash at the beach house on weekends—all of whom happen to be separated or divorced from their wives. Roy Fletcher (Jeff Conaway), a staff-level talent agent, has been divorced for some time. Now, he’s being pressured by his boss to offer “stud service” to the agency’s appreciative clients, particularly big screen star, Diane Sealey (Susan Sullivan), whom Roy has been instructed to “keep happy”…or lose his job. Divorced Sal Falcone (Tony Musante), a film editor, has no trouble playing the field, until he meets his beautiful new assistant, Leslie (Trish Stewart), who sees right through his macho user ways.

Boring accountant Howard Freed (David Ogden Stiers) has just been told by his wife that she wants a divorce (the grounds? He’s boring), so the beach and the company of his friends offer the only solace he has for his grief. And finally, casting agent Pete McCann (Ted Bessell), who’s suffering from cancer, comes out to the beach, as well. Unable to return to his loving wife, Laura (Bridget Hanley) and his adorable daughter, Coops (Lina Lambert) because of the cancer (or because he simply wants out?), Pete becomes a wild-haired, van-driving libertine under his friends’ care, until a tragedy changes him even more. Will the other men follow suit, when the sun and sand and bikinis don’t satisfy them any longer?

I was pretty much blown away at how good Breaking Up is Hard to Do turned out to be. If I saw it back in ’79, I don’t remember it (looking back at the TV listings for that night back in September, 1979, I’m betting a repeat of Kim Basinger in Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold probably occupied my time). And anyone, after reading the brief synopsis and seeing the strange cast (hothead Conrad paired with wimpy Crystal? Light comedian Bessell teamed with brooding Musante?), would frankly be excused for expecting a nightmare of 70s “Me decade” cliches, filtered through a still-safe network TV sensibility, embracing feel-good, cringe-worthy Phil Donahue/Alan Alda “sensitive male” platitudes (the only thing missing from that nightmare scenario would be the inclusion of that most hated song of the 1970s—no, no wait…the entire 20th century: Feelings). Indeed, when Breaking Up is Hard to Do first started, with the camera slowly panning over the empty, overcast Malibu beach while Neil Sedaka disturbingly warbled the title song, I groaned at what I had gotten myself into here.

Big mistake. As we move inside the sweet beachfront house Conrad is using for the upcoming summer, some rather interesting, polished camera moves from A Face in the Crowd and A New Leaf‘s ace cinematographer Gayne Rescher (you don’t normally see those in rushed, cheap made-for-TVs back then) highlight an amusing little cat-and-mouse game between drowsy Conrad and his (separated) wife, Elaine Giftos, who’s quietly trying to vacate the premises without him knowing. We’re intrigued, thinking this is going to be light comedy…until Conrad chases her outside, yelling after her speeding-away car, “Come back! I won’t touch you! You’re still my wife!”, with anger and pain etched across his face. Now we’re really intrigued, and over the next 2 1/2 hours or so, Breaking Up is Hard to Do continues to surprise us by going against our expectations for what we think will be an innocuous, pat MTV.

Produced by the prolific team of Allen S. Epstein and Jim Green (responsible, separately and together, for numerous memorable TV movies and minis, such as Dying Room Only, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Black Market Baby, Deadly Intentions, and Stephen King’s It), Breaking Up is Hard to Do‘s long script, written by James Henerson (lots of episodic TV like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, as well as MTVs like Attica and heartbreaker Susan Blakely’s nymphomania epic, Secrets), has the luxury of taking its time, allowing us to get to know its characters thoroughly while slowly, carefully, revealing cracks in their facades and relationships, without hammering us over the head with A-B-C self-explanatory exposition.

For example, when jocular, kind Robert Conrad offers pal Billy Crystal not only a place to stay for the summer, but also a drink—nicely insisting on it, in fact—we wonder why Crystal looks at the offered drink with vague disapproval (it takes a while before we discover the depths of Crystal’s animosity towards his bullying “friend”). Throughout much of the movie, we wonder what, exactly, those subtle displays of Jeff Conaway’s defensiveness about his stud capabilities mean…until we get the surprising revelation towards the end (and no, he’s not gay). Many times, long-form MTVs from this period just meant there were more scenes of the same tired melodramatic formula; Breaking Up is Hard to Do‘s script, with impressive nuance for a network MTV, really uses its time to fully explore the dense, complicated, contradictory natures of its characters and their intertwined relationships.

Certainly of note is Breaking Up is Hard to Do‘s focus on men and their feelings—a rarity for the network MTV drama genre, which has historically concentrated almost exclusively on telling stories of women and their social/romantic/career/personal trials and tribulations. While Breaking Up is Hard to Do‘s “male bonding/revelation” structure resembles big-screen efforts like Paddy Chayefsky’s The Bachelor Party or Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, you’ll be hard-pressed to find very many similar models in the network MTV format. And if you do manage to unearth any from that time period, I doubt you’ll find one that’s as sensitive and knowing as Breaking Up is Hard to Do in showing men groping to express themselves beyond the images of “male” they’re expected to embody.

When David Ogden Stiers, the big “loser with women” of the bunch (his wife leaves him simply—and devastatingly—because he’s boring), cries at his wife’s decision, it isn’t a moment for laughs in Breaking Up is Hard to Do. All of his friends are sympathetic, offering varied help, including commiserating with him, cheering him up, or in Conrad’s case, gently chiding him into embracing his new found singleness—an abrasive, insensitive tactic that the other men silently frown upon. Ironically, that embrace of hedonism is what all the men do at first, when they begin to view Conrad’s beach house as a place of sanctuary where they can safely explore their changing lives without their spouses—and without judgment. Gradually, though, they leave behind the adolescent partying and sexual license; they all grow up after experiencing the freedom of being truly honest with each other and themselves. All except one, that is….

That sounds sort of “feel good” dramatics, but the dynamics don’t play out that way in Breaking Up is Hard to Do. We don’t wholeheartedly agree with everything the men do here; the script doesn’t make excuses for their faults and failures. And the realizations they come to at their journeys’ ends are hard-won. Just as importantly, the movie doesn’t unfairly judge the women who make brief appearances here, either. Stiers’ wife is clearly unhappy in her marriage; we may find his character amiable, but he’s obtuse to her hints they should talk. Why shouldn’t she leave him, when he’s probably never really listened to her?

When Tony Musante’s relentless pursuit of his leery assistant, Trish Stewart (who’s excellent here), finally lands him a first date, he lays on a pouting guilt trip when she refuses to sleep with him. In simple, straightforward terms, she calmly lays bare his predatory, morally empty bed-hopping antics, with almost surgical precision…and no little contempt. And yet, she can’t entirely let go of him, even though his behavior becomes more obsessive (when they do finally reach an uneasy accord, it’s at a terrible price).

Jeff Conaway’s character is frequently found standing off to the side, mirroring his own ambivalent feelings about his career, which has alarmingly come to be defined by whether or not he’s willing to go the extra mile, and sleep with icily beautiful Susan Sullivan (in a sensational turn here: smart, sexy, and powerful). Once his “secret” is revealed—a secret shared, ironically, by Sullivan—a calm acceptance of his self comes over him…but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a “perfect” relationship with her.

Most problematic is Ted Bessell’s character, the character we want to like the most because he’s suffering the most (scarred by his possibly futile cancer treatments), and because he’s the most energetic, the most charismatic of the group. When Bessell turns into a full-blown pagan, with wild, frizzy hair and a beard, trying to squeeze the life out of every single last moment he thinks he has, we laugh. However…when we think about what he’s actually doing—pushing away a loving wife and adorable daughter because, deep down, he’s using his cancer to end a failed marriage—that laughter at his funny antics dies away fast. True to the script’s honesty, Musante calls him on this cop-out, and later, Bessell suffers through a tragedy to come out a more enlightened, more truly responsible man and father (I have never seen that criminally underrated talent, Ted Bessell, in anything like this role. He’s impressive as hell here).

Breaking Up is Hard to Do isn’t perfect, of course. The movie’s weakest link is Crystal’s character. We never understand the nature of his marriage’s breakup; cryptically, he tells his wife over the phone that his “problem” is under control…but what that problem is, we’re never told (the movie’s biggest groaner is when Crystal kicks Conrad’s ass…Conrad would have to be two years dead before that scenario could believably play out). And of course, on display there are inevitable and unavoidable behaviors from those times that, taken out of their context and viewed from today’s perspective, will grate some of today’s viewers: Musante’s worksite sexual harassment of Trish Stewart would get his ass not just fired, but arrested for assault, while Bessell’s and Conrad’s brief, innocent gay camping will no doubt offend someone out there looking to be offended (funny how nobody beefs, though, when “Emory-board” and Donald spoof masculine heteros in one of my favorites, The Boys in the Band…).

Some of the movie’s deliberately silly moments don’t exactly work, either, particularly that whole “biker” segment where the boys get into a rumble (director Lou Antonio throws in some Peckipah slo-mo spoofing that fizzles), but by the final act, these minor setbacks are completely forgotten as we realize how fully we’ve come to know and care about these men. As Conaway regretfully states, “Whatever it was, it’s all gone,” as the men grow up and realize life on the beach with Conrad, while nurturing at first, and vital to their “getting in touch with themselves,” is now empty and shallow.

Robert Conrad, giving a truly frightening, sad performance (god, why didn’t he get more parts like this, rather than wasting his time in entertaining piffles like Baa Baa Black Sheep and Battle of the Network Stars?), simply can not cross over into personal growth through acknowledgement and acceptance of his faults, spiraling down into alcoholism, violence, and utter humiliation (the movie doesn’t stint on punishing his character’s self-ignorance when the object of his spooky obsession coldly rejects him). With Conrad’s final refusal to talk to Bessell still in our thoughts (true to the movie’s forgiving nature, Bessell doesn’t hate Conrad in the end; he cries because he knows his friend is unable to help himself) Bessell gives Breaking Up is Hard to Do its simple, true coda: don’t expect much, and love what’s most important in your life. I’ve heard that sentiment before in countless MTVs. I bought it here.

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.

8 thoughts on “‘Breaking Up is Hard to Do’ (1979): Forgotten TV movie is a true gem”

  1. I remember watching this as a 2-part tv movie back in 1979. ABC aired it on 2 nights as 2-hour movies, sort of a mini-miniseries. Your posted ad is from the 2nd part on Friday night, Sept. 7. As the ad shows, ABC had moved FANTASY ISLAND there in a disastrous attempt to spread out its dominance all through the week. What I mostly remember is Conrad’s character getting in a fight then being left at the beach house all alone at the end.
    Billy Crystal is the only survivor now of the 6 actors who played the beach house residents. Bessell’s been gone the longest, more than 25 years now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Regarding Robert Conrad, my impression from various interviews with him that I read or heard is that he wasn’t really interested in parts that challenged him. He had a certain narrow range that was bankable for him over a long period and he preferred to stick with that.

    Oh, and I’d forgotten how gorgeous Elaine Giftos was until I googled her! One of the (many) actresses who should’ve had a bigger career than she did.

    Liked by 1 person

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