Written by Diane Tillis
Considered by many to be the first televised miniseries, Rich Man, Poor Man became a television ‘event’ in the late 1970s and opened the doorway for other miniseries to follow. A&E and NBC Universal restored and compiled the two-part, thirty-four episode long show on DVD format in this one-of-a-kind collection. It was difficult for me to grasp the importance of this show just by watching it because I wasn’t born until the late 80’s. I decided to surf the internet to gain insight on a true fan’s response to the show and their impression of this collection. It was not hard to discover that the fans of Rich Man, Poor Man have been waiting with bated breath for the show to be released on DVD.
Based upon Irwin Shaw’s best-selling novel, Rich Man, Poor Man follows the story of the Jordache brothers after the end of World War II. The series opens on VE night in 1945. The first episode is devoted to introducing the main characters and setting up the mode of the series. Axel Jordache (Edward Asner) owns a bakery in Port Philip, New York. An immigrant from Germany, Axel managed to start a new life in America, but is left with the scars from his past. He is an ogre-like character; mistrustful, violent, and cynical. Mary Jordache (Dorothy McGuire) was abandoned as an infant on the steps of a church and raised as a Catholic until she married Axel. Their relationship is anything but loving. Mary resents Axel for pushing her away from the church, while Axel resents Mary for never seeing him as a truly capable man. They have two sons: Rudy (Peter Staruss) and Tom (Nick Nolte) who could not be more opposite. Rudy is the college-bound eldest son who helps out with the family business, plays the trumpet, and had a steady relationship with girlfriend Julie Prescott (Susan Blakely). Tom, on the other hand, is a trouble maker, violent like his father, a playboy, an all around bad boy. Rudy and Tom constantly get in to bickering fights, but it is obvious that they have a brotherly love for each other.
It is impossible to sum up the complex narrative of Rich Man, Poor Man without giving away spoilers. Instead I will try to sum up the main characters of each book and give a glimpse into their characteristics.
In Book 1, the ‘rich man’ is Rudy. Rudy’s ambitious nature and intelligence allow him to obtain more power and earn more money than most people can imagine. His downfall is a bad marriage to Julie and few friends. The ‘poor man’ Tom lives life day to day, barely making enough money to survive. However, Tom manages to find joy in his simple life, a purpose to his life by raising his young son, and love at every corner. Book I chronicles Rudy and Tom as they grow to manhood and reconnect on several occasions.
In Book II, the lines are not as clearly drawn as the previous book. The main characters shift to Julie’s son from a previous marriage, Rudy’s stepson, Billy (James Carroll Jordan), and Tom’s son Wesley (Gregg Henry). Billy blames Rudy for his childhood turmoil, but ends up looking for support from Rudy after his mother dies. Wesley is much like his father: a playboy, and desires only the simple life. Both boys go on a journey of self-discovery and along the way learn the true meaning of family.
When Rich Man, Poor Man first aired, it was considered to be scandalous. I read this before I watched the series and quietly chuckled to myself. Scandalous to us twenty-first century viewers means something completely different than to viewers in the late 70’s.
The scandalous nature of Rich Man, Poor Man lies with the female characters and their vivacious sexual appetites. In every episode, at least one woman will feel sexually attracted to one of the male leads, and she does not hide this fact. The women of Rich Man, Poor Man seem free to express their desires not only for sexual gratification, but also for wealth and popularity. Julie, for example, is the main female lead, who expresses her desire for Rudy in the very first episode. She pleads for him to stay the night since her mother is away, but Rudy’s good-boy nature says it is not a good idea. Julie ends up sleeping with a wealthy man twice her age in the following episode. Continuously Julie demonstrates her desires for independence, popularity, and wealth to the men in her life. In the end, Julie gets the life she wanted, but at a heavy price. There are several sexually-related scenes of characters nude (covered with a sheet of course) in bed, surprise visits in the bathtub, and teenage pregnancies. In comparison, Rich Man, Poor Man seems tame compared to a majority of shows airing of primetime television today.
After completing the series, I noticed that there was a distinct difference between Book I and Book II. Book I was more like a literary story of epic proportions, while Book II resembled a soap opera full of young hunky leads and juicy television exploitation. In Book I the narrative was unveiled slowly and deliberately. I was always left wanting more and curious to find out what would happen next. Book II was disappointing in comparison. Anyone who has seen a modern day soap opera can anticipate the coming events and how each character will survive. Half way through I started to get bored. I wondered where the charisma of the first book went and if it was possible for the second book to make a comeback.
Each episode is presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The restoration quality of Rich Man, Poor Man is not the best I have seen, but I have also seen worse. The damage to the original film reel is noticeable by small flickering scratches on the picture screen in every episode. The color levels are average for a television series from the late 1970s.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo system does an adequate job. The DVDs do not come with subtitles, closed-captions, or a choice of spoken language other than English. The fine print on the covers for Book II of the series notes that the music is different from the original televised episodes. While I cannot say how they are different, the music sounds very similar between Book I and II.
The only special feature of this collection is the Audio Commentary for Book I: Chapter 1 featuring star Peter Strauss and television historian David Bianculli. They essentially talk about the history of the show and some interesting behind-the-scenes details.
I will admit it was hard for me to get interested in Rich Man, Poor Man. It has a slow pace that can be difficult to adjust to. I did give it a chance, and three episodes in – I was hooked. I ended up watching the entire collection back-to-back, sacrificing sleep and schoolwork just because I couldn’t help myself. Book I appears as the outline to most modern-day miniseries. Book II is more like a guilty pleasure you watch after a bad day at school or work. As I mentioned, I was disinterested towards the end of Book II because soap operas are not something I enjoy on a regular basis. However I did read reviews by fans that do love this series and were counting down the days till it was released. Overall I recommend watching the first book if you are interested in seeing the first miniseries on television and how it has evolved over the years. I would leave the second book to the die-hard fans that have been waiting years for this DVD collection.