Note: there are spoilers in this post.
Last week I was a little bit down in the dumps. I felt so empty, and so betrayed.
You see, I had finally finished watching the entire series of Rich Man, Poor Man on DVD...all 12 episodes of Book I and 22 episodes of Book II. No small feat. I've been binging on the series for the past few weeks, requesting the next installment of disks from my library's network while the current ones were still warm from spinning in my DVD player, lest there be a lapse in my RMPM enjoyment.
I was really expecting a fantastic finale to this series. But, Irwin Shaw and Ann Beckett, who wrote the script for Book II, are clearly cold-hearted, soulless cretins, because...
Rich Man, Poor Man has the WORST ENDING EVER OF ANY MINISERIES/SERIES I'VE EVER SEEN. For nights on end I got sucked into Rudy Jordache's world...his marital problems followed by new romances...his senator career in jeopardy...his life in danger because of something dumb and selfish that his stupid, slutty alcoholic first wife did...his nephew and stepson's personal dramas.
And what was my reward for getting engrossed in these storylines for the equivalent of weeks of television viewing?
RUDY JORDACHE DIES. He dies! He gets murdered in the final minutes of the entire series! Shot in the back by the same villain who killed his brother, Tom, who relentlessly pursues him all throughout Book II! What the hell!
Shaw and Beckett should be ashamed of themselves! How dare they do this to me! I was so upset I actually woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it. I haven't been this peeved over a TV series' finale since ABC botched the American version of Life on Mars.
(Takes deep breath; repeats "It's only a TV series, Pam, it's only a TV series" over and over again.)
And actually, Book I had a horrible ending (Tom dies)...but Book II's was worse.
If I am pissed, then I can only imagine how TV viewers who stayed at home for episodes on end (the VCR hadn't been invented yet, after all) must have felt the morning after the finale. The worst part is they didn't have the Internet and social media channels to voice their displeasure. Well, 1976/77 viewers, my wrath is for you. I feel your pain, believe me! Rudy Jordache should have lived! There should have been a wedding to Maggie! And what becomes of Wes, Billy, Diane, Annie, Ramona and Kate?
Well, there was a 1979 TV movie that continued the storyline called Beggarman, Thief; however, I can't think about that right now. And despite the rubbish ending, there's much to be loved about Rich Man, Poor Man.
This was the first miniseries created for network television. I remember watching many miniseries during the 1980s. Rich Man, Poor Man really launched the genre and set the stage for Roots, North and South, Shogun, The Thorn Birds, Lace and countless others. It was based on a 1970 novel by Irwin Shaw. (Its sequel, Beggarman, Thief, was released in 1977 and Book II of the TV series actually isn't based on this book at all, although Shaw helped write the screenplay for it.)
The series made household names of both Peter Strauss and Nick Nolte. Nolte had previously done mostly television roles but after RMPM got his first major big screen gig in The Deep. Strauss had previously appeared on The Streets of San Francisco, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Hawaii Five-O. After RMPM he would go on to star in several other TV miniseries and movies.
I don't want to take up too much time describing the RMPM plot, but basically, it's the story of two brothers, Rudy (Strauss) and Tom (Nolte) Jordache, sons of a German immigrant father (Ed Asner) who runs a bakery. The series opens with their hometown celebrating the end of WWII and takes us up through the late 1960s.
Rudy is a Dudley Do-Right in every sense of the word--he helps his pop with his bakery, wants to go to college and eventually marry his high school sweetheart, Julie Prescott (Susan Blakely.)
Tom is the quintessential bad boy. Always getting into scrapes, causing trouble, chasing the wrong type of women, etc. A lot of the stuff he does is just juvenile, dumb and makes you shake your head. He and a friend even set a fire in a greenhouse one night because Rudy is a volunteer firefighter and Tom thinks it would be funny to make his brother come and help put out the fire.
As they grow up and get older, Rudy carves out a career for himself first as a department store chain executive and later, as a U.S. senator. He's the rich man. Tom develops a knack for boxing which eventually becomes his way of earning a living, making him the poor man.
Of course, along the way, a lot of other stuff happens. I was hooked instantly. But instead of giving you a synopsis of the entire series, I thought I'd instead make a list of the aspects of the series I loved the most, and which make it such a time capsule of 1970s TV Americana...
|Stone cold fox. Hottie. Studmuffin. Rudy Jordache.|
Well, that's a no-brainer given that I grew up on Strauss during the 1980s. However, as Rudy Jordache (particularly the older Rudy Jordache, as I'll get to in a second) Strauss gives Jon Hamm's Don Draper character a serious run for his money in more ways then one. In fact, I'd say he has Draper beat ten miles. The amazing thing about Strauss' character is that as Rudy ages, he gets better looking. At the beginning of the series he looks like a high school kid (Strauss was 28 or so when Book I aired) with a boyish haircut. As Rudy matures, he gets more debonair with touches of gray in the Brylcreemed hair, some fine facial lines (kudos to the makeup team) and a killer wardrobe (hello, turtlenecks with jackets, my favorite late 60s look for men!) Strauss was also in great physical shape when this series was filmed...lean, muscular, great abs. He also appears to have a tan in many scenes. Rudy is passionate about both his department store and political career, and works his way up without backstabbing anyone. And the way he talks to the women in his life will make any female swoon. Don Draper who? Look at him. He's gorgeous. Yes, I know that Nick Nolte was crowned The Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine in 1992 and he was a hottie in his own right in RMPM, but it's Rudy for me all the way. And I mean ALL the way. Tee hee!
For me, it used to be Debra Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond. But after watching RMPM, that title has been easily toppled by Julie Prescott. Ugh! I wanted to punch her. She treats Rudy like crap pretty much from day one, is extremely selfish (she gets mad that he wants to further his education by going to college first instead of living in sin with her in the Village) and prefers losers and bad guys over Rudy. She gives her cherry away not to Rudy, but to an older, sophisticated rich man played by Mr. Brady himself, Robert Reed. She is a drunk, completely unsupportive of Rudy and his career--especially his political aspirations--and super sensitive to anything he says that she can twist into an excuse to get angry at him. The older she gets, the uglier her morose picklepuss expressions are. Double ugh! She's not good enough for my Rudy...and at one point, her hairdos become the most hideous caricatures of teased 60s hair you've ever seen. Thank God her continued role in Book II is short lived. Fortunately, Rudy finds himself a much better match in Book II with his attorney, Maggie, played by Falcon Crest's beautiful Susan Sullivan.
Forgiving Physical Features
As is the case with a lot of other 1970s television series, it was interesting to notice that many of the actors chosen for Rich Man, Poor Man didn't have perfect features, unlike the plastic-y "perfection" of who's on TV today. Imperfect skin and teeth is noticeable, as is Ed Asner's gorilla-like body hair (yuck!) Strauss has slight pock scars on his cheeks, a go-go dancer has a large mole on her thigh, and Gregg Henry who plays Tom's son Wesley has a crooked tooth. It's actually rather refreshing to see more real looking performers filling the roles compared to today's standards.
The Most Random Cameo by a Singer in a Miniseries Goes To...
Arlo Guthrie. He shows up during Book II performing "Alice's Restaurant" in a hippie coffeehouse, and even has a bit of dialogue afterwards. Who knew? I guess it was because he was needed to introduce the Annie character, a budding singer that Rudy's stepson, who is entering the record business, takes a liking to.
Shirley MacLaine, Is That You?
Speaking of Annie, she was played by Cassie Yates and reminded me so much of a young Shirley MacLaine. They even have similar voices. Annie is an aspiring singer who is discovered by Rudy's stepson, Billy, but ultimately cannot deal with the sudden fame. A scene where she performs with her long haired, bearded backup band for a senator and his stuffy friends is quite amusing. Unfortunately, the series ended with her storyline pretty much up in the air, as with all of the surviving characters. I would have liked to seen her get her act together and end up with Billy.
Let's Play the Rich Man, Poor Man Drinking Game
Every time Peter Strauss puts his hands on his hips in a scene, take a swig of your drink. You're gonna be awfully wasted after watching a few episodes in a row. Seriously, just about every scene of Rudy Jordache once he becomes a senator includes him putting his hand on his hips. Also comical after a while were the numerous shots of a camera dizzily panning up the side of a skyscraper to indicate that the next scene was taking place in Rudy's apartment, Maggie's apartment, a hotel, or another building of importance. Yeah, we get it.
Craptacular Set and Costume DesignThe clothing and decor in RMPM, particularly in Book II, represents the best and the worst of the 1960s and 1970s. Wide lapels, orange and brown for a suit combination, flowery shirts for men and prairie dresses just aren't flattering in my opinion, but they're all on display in their kitschy glory in RMPM. A lot of the sequences also take place in Las Vegas. You can't get tackier than a Las Vegas restaurant circa 1976.
The Dastardly Bastard Falconetti
The rugged actor William Smith (he is a former bodybuilder, and the last actor to play the Marlboro Man before the cigarette maker's commercials were banned from television) plays the villain Falconetti (or as I like to call him, Falcon Eddie) in RMPM who is responsible for Tom Jordache's death at the end of Book I and stalks and plots against Rudy all throughout Book II. I couldn't stand looking at him or listening to him--but I have to admit, Smith did an outstanding job in the role. Falconetti is psychotic, violent, and unpredictable; a real loose cannon who is as quick with a smile as he is with a punch. Many of the chase scenes involving Falconetti are just ridiculous; bullet and bullet is fired and not a single one ever seems to hit him. Of course, he always manages to get away. I don't like how the writers clearly favored the bad guy in this series.
It's a shame that for such an acclaimed series, it couldn't have delivered a better ending. Instead, the rug is jerked out from underneath you and you're left with so many unresolved questions. Part of the problem is Strauss was adamant about not reprising the Rudy Jordache role after Book II ended. Beggarman, Thief aired on TV in 1979, but without the original cast...and judging from online reviews, it had lost the RMPM magic by that point.
I'd like to think that after the screen turned black, Rudy Jordache was saved by the casino patrons on the street he collapsed on. He went into a coma, but recovered and celebrated his victory against a corrupt senator and married his lady friend Maggie. Yeah, that's exactly what happened.