Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) Chapter 2

When we last left “Rich Man, Poor Man,” Susan Blakely was getting on a bus for a ride that could ruin her relationship with Peter Strauss, such a good boy that he can’t even fathom having sex with her.  His brother Nick Nolte easily could, and watching all of them is town buzzard Robert Reed, whose motives have yet to become apparent.  

Mama Dorothy McGuire has told Peter that he can have a suit for his birthday, but didn’t run it by her husband, Ed Asner.  “People are very generous with my money,” he scowls and hurls a book at her (it’s only a paperback, but still!).  Dorothy chides him that she works just as hard as he does, behind the counter of their bakery, “eight hours a day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year.”  But, her complaints are stopped dead in their tracks by his oafish brutality, which alternates between pure anger and nasty sarcasm.  By the end of an exceedingly well-acted scene, we find out at least one reason for Ed’s ire.  Not that he admits it, but he’s scared of what will happen when the plans for a large town supermarket come to fruition and puts all of the locals out of business.  
Susan has taken the bus to meet a man from the hospital, but he’s not there when she arrives on the bus.  She’s unsure of what to do, so when unctuous Robert Reed, the town big shot, drives up an offers to take her to a place where “they serve daiquiris,” she accepts.  Cue the alcoholism?  This is the second time we’ve seen her loving the sauce, but no, not yet.  She gets hammered on them as Robert, decimating his Mike Brady image, asks her age.  She’s eighteen and he feigns disappointment, saying, “I had always hoped to contribute to the delinquency of a minor before I go.”  He may not know it, but Robert Reed is setting miniseries villains on their path.  Cut out the slave overseers and Hitler, I mean the smooth guys who charm everyone and then reveal themselves to be rats.  They will become far more over-the-top and obvious, but remember, “Rich Man, Poor Man” is only the beginning.  Think of Philip Casnoff in “North and South.”  He is handsome, rich, endearing…at least on the surface and then turns into one hell of a reprobate.  
Since Susan is completely wasted, Robert takes her to his palatial home.  He may seem gayer than Liberace in a store full of sequins, but he’s plays all man when he slips off a robe and gets into bed with Susan.  This is only 1976, so that’s all we see, but I don’t believe that to be entirely the fault of censors, because it leaves open the question of whether or not she wanted it too.  The cad then deposits cash in her purse while she slumbers.  That’s a villainous trick if ever there was one.  Only after she gets home and basks in the glow of sex that she sees the cash, but doesn’t object.  
When Nick leaves the bakery with a dirty cup, morose Dorothy tells Peter, “I don’t know how two boys can be so different…when I found out I was pregnant with [Nick] I cried.  I just sat down and cried.”  In her own way, she’s as responsible for his inability to lead a good life as his oafish father.  
A friend of Nick’s spots Susan getting in Robert’s car, and he can’t wait to tell Nick the news.  They hop the fence at the manse and sneak through the greenhouse to get to the main building, where they eventually see Robert naked making drinks.  “I wish that stupid brother of mine could…” Nick says, stopping that cruel sentence when an even uglier notion comes to mind.  He lights fires in the greenhouse because Peter is on “civil defense” that night and would have to respond to a fire alert.  The fire blazes out of control very quickly, interrupting an inane conversation between Robert and Susan.  Nick’s friend catches fire and is badly burned.  Because Nick helps him, he’s around long enough for Susan to see him from the window.  Robert wants to get Susan out quickly, via the back road.  “If you’re worried about my reputation, it’s already shot.”  “Mine isn’t,” he retorts.  Yes, what will the boys at the bar think of him seducing a teenage female?  Nick drops his friend off callously, with big threats not to tell anyone they were there.  
As for Susan, she decides to brush off Robert, freaked by knowing Nick has seen her.  At home, Gloria has found her stash of cash and the note that went with it.  She knows Susan has to leave their small town.  
We know the miniseries maxim on bad luck: when things are at their worst, put on a smile, because they are about to get worse.  Peter is rejected by the local college (where Robert has a lot of pull, FYI).  Peter finally tracks down Susan, whom he hasn’t seen since the night they didn’t have sex for the first time, but she’s emotionless because her mind is already in NYC.  She’s put their shared dreams aside since taking up with a rich man for money.  “Maybe I just grew up,” she says, though Peter only confesses his eternal love.  
Peter gets a teeny birthday party from his immediate family, though Ed is already drunk.  There wasn’t enough money for the suit Dorothy wanted to buy him, so they settled for a shirt.  This too starts an argument, with Ed berating her for wishing they had more money.  “Can’t we even pretend for one day that we’re a family?  Why do we have to keep tearing at each other?” she asks through tears.  “Just one big happy family,” Nick quips as Peter comforts his mother.  
Peter makes the arrangements for Nick to leave town and when he tells Ed, his father says something curious about his wife.  “Promise me you’ll always take care of her, no matter what happens to me.”  Peter is confused, so drunken Ed tells him the story of how he came to America: he killed an Englishman for his money.  Undaunted, Peter actually feels sorry for Ed and volunteers to take over bakery duty for him, but Ed calls it his “penance” for the two men he’s killed, for dashing the hopes of his wife, all of Nicks problems and everything else, “the sins of the father” as he calls them.  “I’m sorry, I tried to do my best,” he tells Peter to end the conversation.  
Remember, innocent Peter knows nothing of the true circumstances swirling around Nick’s hasty escape from town.  Nick doesn’t reveal anything either, muttering that he hit his father for all the time he got hit, non-specific and not believable either.  “Is it because of me?  The fight?  Is that why you’re leaving?” he asks.  Now here comes one of those great moments of truth where a character has the power of the future in his hands, to make it or kill it.  Nick admits to setting the fire, but when Peter asks him why, he pauses.  Should he tell him about Susan?  He pauses, the tarnished side of him wanting to tell the truth, but the true good side of him saying merely, “beats me.”  He’s preserved Peter’s future with that one little lie.  “Happy birthday, buddy boy,” he chirps as his bus pulls away.  Dorothy shows up a moment too late to bid her son goodbye, but she’s not really there for him.  She’s there to tell Peter that Ed has decided to give him all of his savings for college.  
On the bus, tears fill Nick’s eyes. 

Categories: Romance Miniseries

Leave a Comment or Question