Monday, March 17, 2014

The Jordache Look: A Look Back at Rich Man, Poor Man


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.
Damn, That Peter Strauss Is Devastatingly Handsome
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!


Ungrateful hussy
Most Hated Fictional Female TV Character
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 Design
The 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. 

15 comments:

  1. Thanks for the excellent article. I missed the Rich Man, Poor Man series when it aired and never saw it at any rental place throughout the years, so my viewing it over Christmas was a joy and a long time coming. I thought Nolte, Strauss, and Asner hit it out of the park. Reed also was good as the sleazy older man. Blakely was also very good, but like the writer of this article, I began to really dislike her whiny, selfish character and I was actually a bit glad when they killed her off in Book 2.

    Book 2 was a train wreck. The supporting cast just didn't have the charisma and screen presence to pull it off, and the writing and plot line ranged from weak to horrible. And the ending my have been the worst in TV history.

    Anyone see Beggerman, Thief, the real sequel to RMPM?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have to laugh at the fact that there are other RMPM fans still interested in reminiscing about a TV series that I loved and watched as a pre-teen kid when it first came out in the 70's. I just watched it again ... first time since it aired almost 40 years ago). I had such a crush on Peter Strauss (Rudy Jordache) back then and, I'd say it's only grown (exponentially) since then. The character of Rudy possessed that attractive combination of strength (in character) as well as an endearing vulnerability, which made him, at least for me, incredibly attractive.

    While the ending was a huge disappointment, as has been mentioned, I got such a kick out of watching it again. It brought back some great memories of that time in the 70's when it launched; when the pace of life was much slower and families actually sat down and for dinner together, and then gather round the TV to watch shows such as RMPM. Miss the pace of those days but, enjoy slowing things down more as I get older and, taking the time to watch some of the oldies but goodies, such as RMPM. I wish (movie & TV) writers wrote more characters like Rudy Jordache ... and then of course, cast them with Peter Strauss in them! ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Both endings were dreadful but Book II's finale was a kick in the gut.

    But by far, Rudy Jordache/Peter Strauss..... can't take your eyes off of him. Couldn't 35+ years ago and still can't after re watching the series.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Don't blame Irwin Shaw for RMPM Book II: he didn't write any of it! When RMPM was published around 1970, it had sold well, but when the 1976 TV miniseries began, sales of the book went through the roof. Shaw decided (or was encouraged by his publisher) to capitalise on this by writing a sequel, Beggarman, Thief. He was working on this when the TV producers informed him they were exercising their rights to make a TV sequel and asked him if he had ideas to contribute. He told them he was already writing his own sequel but his ideas did not match what they planned to do and in any case they didn't want to wait around for him to finish writing it as they wanted to get their sequel ready for broadcast asap. So they assembled a team of writers to concoct a storyline (which they called RMPM Book II) using Shaw's characters which would run for a whole season. Early plans included bringing back Nick Nolte, either as Tom, (who had never died, his funeral had been staged) or as Wesley, but Nolte was not available, and Susan Blackley who declined to return for a whole series, returning only so that her character could be quickly killed off. The series did drag a bit, looked significantly cheaper than the original miniseries and lacked many of its colourful characters. Strauss became disenchanted with the role, and asked to have his character killed off at the end of the series. The writers did it in such a way that if he relented and returned for a Book III, he could be shown to have survived, but Struass had other plans. None of this was Shaw's creation (or fault). Ironically, when making a TV movie of Shaw's Beggarman Thief a few years later, the producers felt that the role of Rudy was still so associated in viewers' minds with Strauss that they wrote his (central) character out of the movie to focus on his sister Gretchen, in a neat twist on the original RMPM miniseries, which had written out Gretchen's character!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I actually found this site by Googling "Rich Man Poor Man Book II Unsatisfactory Ending"!
    Although Book II was a notch down from the original, it certainly kept me engaged. Very outrageous ending, though, after all of that character build-up! I watched the original in '76 with my parents and, like the rest of the country, was transfixed. Not sure what prompted me to look it up after nearly 40 years, but found it on YouTube, and then found out about Book II, which I had missed (senior year in HS...too many other distractions!). It really is remarkable how times have changed in 40 years...seems so recently, but so much is so different. Things that were risqué or breaking taboos back then would be laughable today.
    But, yes, agree totally about Peter Strauss...I think that's what got me to buy the DVD! LOL!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I just finished reading an old copy of RMPM, and was interested in watching the series advertised on the front cover of the book. First, though, I had to look around for the plot to judge accuracy.

    What? Writing out Gretchen's character entirely? A character which drove central events and who's story took up nearly a third of the book's many pages? Changing Rudolph's wife, completely changing his approach to women(in the book he gets married a bit before 30 to a woman he dated for maybe a year!)? Completely changing the fate of Falconetti, altering Tom's character in a severe way?

    Reducing the roles of minor characters, altering plot points, shortening conversations and reveals, ok. But striking the third most important character from the book? Really.

    I will not be able to watch this, it will ruin the book for me.

    I am glad to know, though, that Shaw published a sequel to his book! I'll read that, instead.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I borrowed the entire nine-disc Mini series from the library, realized in the first 20 minutes that Gretchen had been erased from the story, Pulled it out of my player, and took it back.
      Excellent Book - Enraging motion picture.
      (Oh, and by the way, all three siblings were equally important in driving the plot - kudos on calling Gretchen the "third" most important character. Way to misogyny!!)

      Delete
  7. The Drinking Game: Strauss' hands on his hips may have begun here,
    but it's manifest throughout his career. A serious binge-watch of
    his filmography hi-lights this, & another Strauss Distinction: Cuffs!
    He HeartStoppingly rolls up the sleeves of anything that has sleeves.

    ReplyDelete
  8. My sentiments also. What a RIDICULOUS way to end RMPM mini series lol lol lol. But remember, it was the first....lots of hugh mistakes to learn from....Soooooo others could not embarrass... themselves...There are a few good ones out there...I will say this Nick Nolte was the was the best actor in RMPM...to have killed him off killed the depth of the series....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. RMPM ends exactly as its supposed to. Just as it does in the book, which is marvelous. If you don't get why Tom has to die then the story meaning is not yet clear to you. Would you think Romeo and Juliet would be a better story if they survived? I don't think it would be.

      Delete
  9. I read both books many times over and I always prefer the books over the miniseries. I was only 17 years old when it was shown on TV. During that time, there was no closed captioning, and due to the fact that I am hard of hearing, it did not make any sense for me to sit through all the episodes, not understanding the dialogue. When it came out on DVD a few years ago, I thought it would be great to buy this set and see what the hullabaloo was all about, unfortunately, the DVD did not offer captions or subtitles. Admittedly, I was disappointed; however, I decided to watch this series on youtube with the volume turned up and I have to agree that the plots were terrible. I agree with the reviewers. I am reading this book now for the umpteenth time and I can say that in my mind's eye, the "movie" is great! Some people would find the miniseries spectacular and it is a shame that A & E did not bother to include subtitles. It's an insult to deaf people.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I felt the same way, loved the series but HATED the ending! I thought there must be more coming, had to be a mistake, that is why I am looking now after around 40 years! Nope, he really died at the end, so ridiculous!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I absolutely LOVE this series! I Stumbled upon it while channel surfing a year ago and just could not stop watching but I only saw 2/3 of Book 1. My SO came to me earlier this year with a surprise. He had both books on DVD and I was #extremely excited. I watched hours of chapters after work everyday for a week. OMG!! The lines they had. LoL.. Ed Asner has the most incredible lines of all. Rudy is definitely the epitome of a fine gentleman. And although he was wealthy and Tom was not, financially. Tom was rich with adventure, taking chances, true friends and surrounded by love, where as Rudy sadly was seeking the want from an unrequited love and people who were opportunist.So he was poor in a sense.This series is so deep and seriously heartfelt. But seriously, I had to pick my jaw off the floor when Rudy was killed. I was really rooting for him. Yet, isn't that the irony of life? The answer, my friends, is yes; yes it is. Thank you for this post. :)

    ReplyDelete
  12. I absolutely LOVE this series! I Stumbled upon it while channel surfing a year ago and just could not stop watching but I only saw 2/3 of Book 1. My SO came to me earlier this year with a surprise. He had both books on DVD and I was #extremely excited. I watched hours of chapters after work everyday for a week. OMG!! The lines they had. LoL.. Ed Asner has the most incredible lines of all. Rudy is definitely the epitome of a fine gentleman. And although he was wealthy and Tom was not, financially. Tom was rich with adventure, taking chances, true friends and surrounded by love, where as Rudy sadly was seeking the want from an unrequited love and people who were opportunist.So he was poor in a sense.This series is so deep and seriously heartfelt. But seriously, I had to pick my jaw off the floor when Rudy was killed. I was really rooting for him. Yet, isn't that the irony of life? The answer, my friends, is yes; yes it is. Thank you for this post. :)

    ReplyDelete
  13. Shaw had nothing to do with Rich Man, Poor Man Book II. He in fact never planned a sequel, but felt one was necessary after Rich Man, Poor Man Book II. Thus, he wrote Beggarman, Thief. It has a far better, more poetic ending.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Like This Post? Share It!