Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) Chapter 5

Chapter 5 starts things fresh in “Rich Man, Poor Man.”  Ed Asner has succumbed to his failures, having bailed Nick Nolte out of one last jam, pulling the rug out from Peter Strauss’ dream in the process.  However, Ed is the failure of the past and Nick is the failure of the present.  “Rich Man, Poor Man” hinges on the future of the American dream and somehow, plucky Peter Strauss will come to represent that, good and bad.

It’s now 1950 and prodigal son Nick is returning to his small hometown, but wife Talia Shire is not allowed to detrain with him.  “This ain’t a social call,” he tells her, though she’s so far into wild overacting (her gum chewing would do a 1930s moll proud), that she isn’t really paying attention anyway.  Also on the train with them is Normal Fell, Nick’s boxing manager.  Didn’t know Nick was a boxer?  Yeah, we kind of skipped that part, so Normal has some dialogue with a fellow train passenger to clear it all up.

When Nick arrives on his street, he finds the long-discussed supermarket has indeed put his family out of business and his house is actually nowhere to be found.  An unkindly neighbor who remembers Nick as “a little gangster” can’t help.  “They just left, that’s all I know,” she says, before deciding to tell him that his pa, Ed Asner, offed himself.

Nick, who has played more scenes in the rain than a duck, is somewhat dumbstruck, but all is literally sunshine and roses for Peter, who is graduating from college and has been offered a “teaching fellowship” at Columbia.  There at graduation is the ever-weird Robert Reed, more fey than ever, asking about Susan.  He informs Peter that he tracks Susan and she’s no longer an actress.  He takes delight in torturing these two, even though they have no idea they are being tortured.  “She’s in the book, under her maiden name,” he advises Peter should he want to go to NYC and see her.

Things are also going very well for Peter at Ray Milland’s department store, where old Ray feels paternal to him and even gives him a fancy watch and a job offer, in that order.  “What would the job be?” Peter asks.  “Just what you’ve been doing, little bit of this little bit of that, only more so,” Ray says, with is either the worst description of a retail job in television history or the best offer the CIA could give without having to be specific.  When Ray hears the only other offer Peter has is teaching, he launches into a tirade about progress and money that would make old Adam Smith come back to life.  It is also a speech that contains most of the nuggets adding up to so many of “Rich Man, Poor Man’s” themes.

Ray calms down enough to inform Peter that he has “a new gimmick they’ve come up with to scare you…high cholesterol!”  It’s 1950, remember, a time when people wrapped butter sticks in bacon.  So, he needs some help running the store, some help that comes with “zing” and freshness, but NOT a business school “snot.”

When Peter tells his mother the news, Dorothy McGuire, who has turned into a sickly old lady in the three years since we last saw her, isn’t impressed with the money Ray has offered or the diploma Peter shows her.  However, she may be going around the bend a little because she wishes Ed could see the diploma, and Peter has to remind her he’s dead.  She feels since no body was ever discovered, “he’s somewhere this minute laughing up his sleeve.”  She’s also gone all guilt-mother-from-hell on him.  When he says he’s going to New York, she says, “don’t worry about me, I’ll just eat a nice can of beans of something.”  She tells her son to remind his friend to “drive carefully…I don’t know what’ll happen to me if something happens to you.”  Well, it seems she wouldn’t bother with mourning, that’s for sure.  It’s a shame that the writing for this character has become downright bad because Mother Jordache has been one of the most consistently complex and interesting characters, with McGuire giving a fantastic performance.

Since he is going to New York City anyway, Peter decides to look up Susan.  She’s living in Greenwich Village with now-husband and still-sloshed Bill Bixby and a baby.  Bill and Peter do not exactly hit it off, with Bill tossing nasty quips about “the Great American Dream” Peter’s way, though Peter doesn’t get too riled.

Susan has taken up photography, but has yet to sell a photo.  She long ago realized acting wasn’t her thing, though she can still quote her beloved “As You Like It.”  A very uncomfortable dinner follows, complete with a vamp girlfriend of Susan’s and Bill’s increasingly bad attitude.  Peter sleeps with the vamp, but leaves at 4am to get to his knew job, though she gets awfully crazy about it.  First she plays the lonely card and then hurls an ash tray at his head.

Drunken Bill couldn’t be pulled from sleep and had an article due (“this month’s rent”), so Susan finished it for him.  Actress, photographer, writer.  An argument ensues because Bill is jealous of Peter.  “You’re having your name taken out of the telephone book!” he roars.  “Oh, really?” she replies.  “No, O’Reilly.” Crickets.  The argument continues, but Bill manages to joke his way back into Susan’s good graces.

Peter has been “working pretty hard” at the store, but still keeps in touch with his economics professor, Lawrence Pressman, a rather bland character until he invites Peter to attend a rally against killing the Rosenbergs.  That instantly makes him a lefty, which was not a good thing to be in 1950.

Peter is frustrated at his stagnating life (which is actually going pretty well) and more fits from his mother, and right before a big fight of Nick’s, Talia goes into labor with their first child.  He packs her off to the hospital with Norman while Nick stays and fights.  Nick, still in his gloves, rushes to the hospital to find out he has a son.  “There ain’t nothing in the world’s gonna stop me now,” he says.

Categories: Romance Miniseries

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