Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) Chapter 11

Folks, we have hit the penultimate episode of “Rich Man, Poor Man.”  There are only about 90 minutes left to wrap up the story.  In Chapter 10, brothers Peter Strauss and Nick Nolte were reunited after many years to face the death of Mama Dorothy McGuire.  Peter won his election to the state senate, which caused Susan to crawl further into the bottle and become a danger to his career.  Meanwhile, Nick got the money to start his yacht charter business in Marseilles with pal William Jefferson, though ever aware that the mob is on his tail for an offense committed many years ago.  However, a more recent fight may cause his security to unravel.

We pick up the story three years after we last left it, in 1965.  Susan, sober at breakfast, is still a bit touchy, especially when Peter’s career intrudes on their time together.  She has had no letter from her son, but she actually delights in a letter from Nick, who reveals in minute detail what has been going on with his yacht charter business.  “Yeah, but is he making any money?” Peter asks, now as icy and cold as perhaps his old mentor Robert Reed.  Nick and Susan came face to face with each other and settled their past in Chapter 10.

All is not actually well in this house.  Knowing Nick needs rich people to charter his boat, which he has named after his long-ago love Fionnula Flanagan, Susan suggests Peter tell Van and his wife Dorothy Malone they should hire him.  Yes, she admits she wants him gone for a while because “he scares me,” although she can’t explain why.  Peter says he might have to bring his political backer home for lunch, which Susan takes as a warning not to get “looped before lunch.”

Peter has to dart off to his old college, where he’s donated some equipment to the school paper he once helped to run.  The current editor, a youth of another generation, challenges him.  He wants to know if Peter will run for national election in 1966, and Van Johnson asks if he would vote for him.  Seemingly not, as Peter represents the old guard, though Peter reminds him of his voting record and that they actually may be on the same page.  Peter takes the ribbing, which Van Johnson sees as a sign that Peter may have “the right touch” with the youth.  The conversation then turns to Susan, whom Van hints is becoming a political liability.  Peter suggests Van and Dorothy use Nick’s boat.

And they do.  The two arrive looking like the lead characters in “La Cage Aux Folles” (okay that’s a cheap shot since Van Johnson still had the role of Georges in that show looming on his fading horizon), both sporting fake hair and lots of make-up.  The only problem is that their cook has never materialized and the Van Johnsons were promised a good cook.  The one they hired has landed himself in jail, but they find one in volunteering Kay Lenz, a perky blonde with legs for days (and a black eye from the cook who landed himself in jail by giving it to her).  The snappy banter between Kay and Nick is proof that sparks will fly.  That’s been obvious since the movies started using sound, but it’s a BIG ongoing way of introducing lovers in miniseries.  She gets the job and the yacht “shoves off.”

Kay has a hit with her first dish, fish chowder, which Van and Dorothy adore.  “You better hang onto her, we may be taking her home with us,” Van tells Nick, much to Dorothy’s dismay.  She’s noticed her husband looking at Kay.  She needn’t worry, as Van Johnson plays this role gayer than any other role he played on film, and that’s pretty damn gay, but then again, Dorothy Malone is intent on stealing whatever moment she can, even if it’s campy and in a caftan.

Nick has of course fallen for Kay already, and acts like a goofy teenager around her, the second step to love after snappy banter in the handbook.

Two weeks go by, with Van and Dorothy having had a wonderful time, but Nick confides in Kay, now wearing nothing but skimpy bikinis, that they have no charters lined up and they desperately need money.  He also tells her about his son and how his wife took him.  “She was an alley cat…and so was I, no better,” he notes, an awfully mature statement from our growing-and-learning bad boy.  As for his son, it’s rather unbelievable that nitwit Talia Shire has managed to keep him hidden all these years, especially now that bigwig Peter Strauss has people looking for him.  But, that’s Irwin Shaw’s issue; we just have to deal with it.

Just when you thought there was no camp in “Rich Man, Poor Man,” and I admit that we’ve made it through nearly 11 episodes with it relegated safely to Bill Bixby, who was dispatched ages ago, old hams Van Johnson and Dorothy Malone spew it all over the place.  You see, Dorothy wants to get into port and Van orders Nick to do it.  However, there are rocks in their path, so they have to take the long way, which will mean another night on board.  Dorothy, stripping down to a very unflattering bathing suit (from a very unflattering caftan), threatens to swim back if the boat isn’t turned the right way and Van, as drunk as she is, orders Nick to do so.  Nick refuses and as Dorothy is wailing, Van Johnson punches Nick Nolte.  Yes, Van Johnson, who spent much of his career cuddling up to the likes of Judy Garland, punches one of film’s all-time badasses, Nick Nolte

Actually, Van departs, sober, apologizing for his behavior and giving Nick a lot more than promised, also telling him he’ll refer his rich friends.  Dorothy even tells Kay “you’re a good cook.”  They want to book the entire month of June next year.  See, sober movie stars can be humble.  With violins going full tilt, Nick asks Kay to stay on permanently, wrapping her in his arms.  After having had sex, Kay wants to know where the name of the boat came from, but he replies, “someone I knew I was a boy,” which is the truth.  His language is awfully flowery as he confesses his love to Kay.

Meanwhile, back in the USA, Peter has tracked down Nick’s old manager Norman Fell, living in squalor, on his quest to locate Nick’s son.  It turns out that the mafia no longer cares about the vendetta and Nick is not only safe to return, but “he can lead the Columbus Day Parade down Fifth Avenue,” in Norman’s colorful language.  Norman knows the name by which Talia Shire goes, but not where she lives.  Peter calls Nick in France to tell him he’s found his son and to get home immediately!

That’s good news for Nick’s son, but Susan’s son is in trouble.  He’s being kicked out of school, which means he could be sent to Vietnam.  Peter promises as soon as he reunites Nick and his son, they can fly to California and deal with her son.

So, what happened to Talia and the kid?  Well, Talia divorced Nick on grounds of desertion (which she actually did to him), sent the kid to a military school and has become a hooker.  “She’s a professional.  When I had her, she wasn’t even a gifted amateur,” Nick quips in a rare display of actual humor.  Susan interrupts Peter’s telling of the tale to Nick with a drunken harangue about her son again.  Nick and Peter actually notice that perhaps their lives have turned.  Nick is convinced that life would be the same if he had stayed: Peter would be successful and he would be the reject.  But, Nick’s boat is a success, he’s happy and in love, while Peter has a stressful career and a wife he always wanted, neither of which bring him any happiness.  Nick says aloud that he never knew “life could be so good.”  Oh, Nick, if only you knew!  That is a miniseries kiss of death!  But, you couldn’t know that since you are helping to invent these questionable rules.

Nick goes to find his son Michael Morgan at the military school, but tight-ass colonel in charge has a file on the kid that says his father is dead.  Nick flings his passport at him and then they exchange some witty banter about the kid’s mother.  Nick is informed that Michael has been “a problem” for fighting, but the colonel refuses to let the boy go until both parents agree to take him out.  Nick shows him the file on Talia and they can’t wait to get rid of him fast enough.

It’s here, with only moments to go in the second to last episode of the piece, that we know for sure Nick’s character has become a man.  He gets a child.  Sure, he sired the kid, but he was never a father.  Only oceans of time and space have made him ready for the task.  It’s worth nothing that Peter, who has always been the stable one, doesn’t have a child.  His was miscarried and the only one he has access to is his wife’s by a former marriage and he’s living 3000 miles away.  Once again, the question is asked, who is the rich man and who is the poor man?  We’re not talking about money anymore, we’re talking about quality of life.

But perhaps we always have been.

But you knew that.  We’ve been through enough together to be on the same page, my friends.

From there, it’s off to California to meet Susan’s son, future soap hunk Leigh McCloskey.  He couldn’t be less excited to see them.  He’s an ass from the start.  Talking to Susan, in yet another turban, he confesses that his girlfriend’s family doesn’t like him, because they think he smokes pot.  “Well, do you?” Susan asks.  “No, Mother, I prefer booze, like you,” he sasses.  Peter has to play the heavy, referred to as “the plastic hippie” by his stepson.  Apparently, Leigh has always thought Peter had his real father killed, and he blames his mother for both abandoning and spoiling him.  In fact, he wants nothing to do with either of them and asks to be cut from their lives, for the most part (one assumes he’ll still take their money).  “Goodbye Mother, I’ll write to you,” he says insincerely, crushing fragile Susan even further.

Six months later, Michael has become his father’s right arm on the yacht, blending into the family Nick has created along with Herbert and Kay seamlessly.  However, one afternoon, Nick and company leave the boy in charge of the boat.  His head is turned by two French cuties he invites aboard.  Meanwhile, Nick proposes to Kay in a very cute way, but Kay uses Michael as an excuse.  She feels the timing isn’t right, but tells Nick to ask her again after the boy has had time to get used to things.

Herbert arrives with the news that Michael, trying to impress the girls, took the boat out and banged it up.  Nick goes out furiously looking for him, roaming the streets all night.  How will Nick handle it?  Like his father would have, with a beating (that we see in a flashback)?  Nope, not this Nick.  He hugs his son and chirps, “tomorrow I’m going to show you how to fix a propeller.”

Aww, that’s sweet, and it would be a perfectly happy ending to the day if it weren’t observed by returning William Smith, sporting a patch over one eye and a lot of hatred in the other.

Categories: Romance Miniseries

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