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Rich Man, Poor Man DVD Review
on September 13, 2010
Although it involves none of the same characters, you could call Irwin Shaw's Rich Man, Poor Man a sequel of sorts to his masterpiece The Young Lions, as he again undertakes an epic story crossing continents and decades, the tale of the two Jordache brothers, and occasionally their sister as they traverse the panorama of turbulent times. The story picks up where The Young Lions left off with the end of the Second World War, chronicling the years from 1946 to the late 1960s in the lives of the lower class Jordache family. At the time of the novel's release, the critics ravaged the piece calling Shaw out of touch with America as he had spent most of the past two decades living in Europe. But the public loved it, turning it into a best seller. Shaw, had as always, crafted a character driven piece, using his immense skills as a writer to pull the reader into the story even if it really didn't go anywhere original.
ABC TV bought the book after the success of turning Leon Uris' QB VII into a mini-series in 1974. In the early spring of 1976 the 12 hour Rich Man, Poor Man debuted to phenomenal ratings success, spurring on the coming decade of mini-series mania that included Roots and Holocaust. The critics loved the story as it translated to the small screen, the often times meandering tale of Shaw's novel having been splendidly reworked for television, making a handful of clever changes. The most notable and powerful change was combining the three major female characters into one, replacing three shifting, often redundant characters with a single powerful one played by Susan Blakely. Also of note was the combining of the two key villains into one played with relish by William Smith, an actor who excelled in such roles.
Peter Strauss, a supporting player in television movies after a failed go at the big screen with Soldier Blue in 1970, played Rudy Jordache and Nick Nolte, a player in B Movies up to then, turned the scene stealing tough guy Tom Jordache into a vehicle that propelled him into movie stardom. Blakely, as Julie Prescott was Rudy's love interest, the sister having been eliminated from the story with all her major story elements folded into the new female lead.
Rudy is a social climbing money maker, the Rich Man of the story, who ascends to the top of the heap landing in the United States Senate (New York State Senate in the book) by the series' end, while brother Tom, a ne'er do well trouble maker, the Poor Man, struggles as a middle weight boxer who is forced to flee the country when he beats up a mob sponsored boxer.
Nolte easily stole the show, not necessarily because of superior acting skills, but because he WAS Tom Jordache in many ways as we were to discover in the years to come. But equally powerful were the amazing performances of the supporting cast, Ed Asner as the father, a force so overwhelming that he overshadows Nolte and Strauss like the moon blotting out the sun during an eclipse in their scenes together. The Brady Bunch's Robert Reed delivers a canny performance as the wealthy Teddy Boylen, Julie lover early in the story and Rudy's mentor. The series is littered with similar performances, Ray Milland, Kim Darby and a surprisingly effective Bill Bixby as Julie's first husband.
I think what made the story so successful was that it was the first time a truly epic novel had been translated onto film, meaning not just television but the features as well, an impossibility for a two or even three hour film. During the course of the series we can see Rudy and Tom aging and changing as Rudy loses his moral center and Tom gains his.
It's a great piece, well worth seeing, but the problem with the new release of the series on DVD is the price. Universal has chosen to tack onto the set the misbegotten sequel series from 1976-77, a 22 episode soap opera that Shaw did not write, Nolte refused to take part in, Blakely left after the initial two hour opener and which even Strauss bailed on by season's end. It was banal and pointless, rarely rising above the level of an afternoon soap, though it did in fact presage the coming prime time soaps, Dallas and Dynasty. Worst of all is that none of the many storylines excepting the one featuring Peter Strauss were resolved at season's end. The only highpoint of Book Two is that it featured the acting debut of Gregg Henry as Nick Nolte's son, a solid player who's produced a three decade career as a supporting actor in roles as diverse as one of the villains in 1998's Start Trek: Insurrection.
So, in order to wring some bucks out of the so-called Rich Man, Poor Man Book II, as they knew no one would buy it on its own, Universal has added on its lame 22 episodes demanding an ungodly $80.00 US, $100.00 Canadian for the show. Even with Amazon's discount, it's still ludicrously expensive, $50.00 US and $70.00 Canadian respectively. The original mini-series would easily fit onto three DVDs with a price of $30.00 before Amazon's discount being more then reasonable.
Despite how good the original mini-series was, my advice is to wait, as this overpriced turkey is bound to end up in the discount bin at Wal-Mart within six months or a year as I can't imagine its sales will keep it in the prime price range for long. Only proceed to the checkout counter if you have money to spare. This really is a disappointment after waiting so long for Rich Man, Poor Man to make its way to DVD.