NBC pioneered the idea of made-for-TV movies with 1964’s See How They Run, but it was rival network ABC that picked up that ball and ran with it. The network’s “Tuesday Movie of the Week” quickly expanded to include “Wednesday Movie of the Week,” and eventually movies of the week were being produced at such a rate that the network aired them any time there was a slot available.
The made-for-TV genre was filmdom’s version of summer stock; it gave both TV actors on hiatus from their regular series and B-list (and below) movie stars an opportunity to keep their face in front of the public. It also allowed them to spread their acting “wings” and play characters contrary to their public image (e.g. Elizabeth Montgomery as axe-wielding Lizzie Borden). How many of these sometimes inspiring, sometimes cheesy entries do you remember?
1. Born Innocent
Linda Blair first gained fame as the pea soup-spewing Regan in The Exorcist, but for dedicated couch potatoes, she’ll always be remembered for her many poignant appearances in made-for-TV flicks. Her pièce de résistance was 1974’s Born Innocent, in which she portrayed an incorrigible runaway who ends up in the juvenile prison system. Harsh punishment for a non-violent crime, but the idea was to send a “scared straight” sort of message to teen girls watching at home who were teetering on the edge of delinquency. The film has a controversial shower rape scene that was accused of inspiring a similar crime and was eventually pulled from broadcasts.
Audiences first got to know James Brolin as the motorcycle-riding renegade doctor on Marcus Welby, MD, but he eventually became a fixture in the made-for-TV film world. In 1972’s A Short Walk to Daylight, he played a New York City cop who had to lead a subway car full of disparate strangers out of the crumbled underground tunnels after an earthquake. One year later he starred in Trapped, a classic man-against-beast film in which he played a mugging victim left unconscious in a department store restroom. When he regains consciousness, he discovers that not only has the store closed up shop for the weekend, it is also being patrolled by a pack of vicious attack dogs.
Long before the term “road rage” had been coined, Dennis Weaver experienced it on the small screen when he innocently passed a tanker truck that was spewing exhaust in front of him on a remote road. Apparently the trucker took this to be an insult to the size of his Peterbilt, and he proceeded to tailgate, blast his horn at, and nudge Weaver’s Plymouth Valiant in a bizarre cat-and-mouse game. Duel was directed by a 23-year-old guy named Steven Spielberg—his first feature-length film. The made-for-TV version was such a ratings success that several additional scenes were filmed after the fact to lengthen the film for theatrical release in Europe and Australia.
4. Bad Ronald
A nerdy high school kid is taunted by a little neighborhood girl. He shoves her in anger. Girl hits head on a cinder block and dies. Boy runs home to Mother and tearfully describes the accident. Does Mom call the police? No, she has Son break out his carpentry tools and wall himself inside a bathroom secreted under the stairs in their house. This was the premise for Bad Ronald, which starred Scott Jacoby, whom Golden Girls fans may recognize as Dorothy’s son Michael. The film took a turn for the creepy when Mom died (off-camera) during surgery and the house was sold (with all appliances and hidden Ronald included) to an unsuspecting family.
5. Go Ask Alice
The 1971 book Go Ask Alice was purported to be the real diary of a shy new-in-town teenage girl who discovered that the road to high school popularity was paved with LSD. The book was banned in many high school libraries, which only helped to increase sales and prompted Hollywood to come a-calling. The 1973 TV film starred Jamie Smith-Jackson as Alice and a bespectacled William Shatner as her clueless father. Despite both the film and book’s claim that the story was based on a real-life diary, many years later Mormon youth counselor Beatrice Sparks admitted that she was the book’s author, there was no “Alice,” and that the whole thing was a work of fiction.
6. A Cry in the Wilderness
Academy Award-winner George Kennedy took a break from his various Airport movies to portray a man frustrated with his cushy Chicago lifestyle and a hankerin’ to get back to his rough-and-tumble boyhood roots. So he uproots his wife and son and moves to a ramshackle house in a remote part of the Oregon wilderness (no phone, nearest neighbor is a two-day drive away). One afternoon while pulling tree stumps, George gets bitten by a skunk. He applies some Bactine to the wound and thinks nothing of it until he finds the same skunk lying dead a day later. He surmises that the skunk died of rabies and that he, too, will suffer the same fate unless he gets medical help. Recalling the old-fashioned homespun advice of his ancestors in such situations, he chains himself to a pole in the barn (so that he won’t attack his family once he becomes delusional) and sends his wife off in the family truck (which is, of course, low on gas) to seek assistance.
7. Brian’s Song
This 1971 Emmy-winner told the story of boisterous Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo and his unlikely friendship with fellow Bear, the shy and retiring Gale Sayers. Brian coaxed and encouraged Sayers through his lengthy rehab therapy after a serious knee injury threatened to cut his football career short. Shortly after Gale’s triumphant return to the gridiron, Brian is sidelined with what turned out to be embryonal cell carcinoma – testicular cancer that had spread to his lung. Brian Piccolo died in 1970 at age 26, but thanks to the millions of dollars contributed by the Piccolo Foundation to the Sloan-Kettering Research Center, today the five-year survival rate for this type of cancer is 95 percent.
8. Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring
By the early 1970s Sally Field was anxious to change her screen image from that of the bubbly Gidget and Flying Nun, so she signed on to play a hippie chick returning home to her family in Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring. The film points a finger of blame at yuppie suburbanite parents and their materialistic lifestyle as the reason their kids are rebellious and dissatisfied. Call me bourgeois, but those T-bone steaks Jackie Cooper grilled for dinner looked a heck of a lot more appetizing than the wilted produce Sally and David Carradine scrounged from the dumpster.
9. Sweet Hostage
First aired in 1975, this romantic drama was based on the book Welcome to Xanadu by Nathaniel Benchley. Martin Sheen portrays escaped mental patient Leonard Hatch who impulsively kidnaps teenage bumpkin Linda Blair from the side of the road and spirits her away to a remote mountain cabin. Blair braces herself for an expected sexual assault and is surprised to find that her captor’s only intent is to broaden her mind and mold her, Pygmalion-style, into an intellectual abstract thinker. Thanks to the long-haired Sheen’s rugged handsomeness and his habit of randomly quoting passages of poetry, it didn’t take long for the audience to root for the bad guy and hiss at law enforcement officials.
10. Someone I Touched
This well-meaning 1975 public service announcement about the dangers of syphilis was unintentionally hilarious from the opening credits, over which star Cloris Leachman sings the syrupy theme song. Leachman was 49 years old when she played a married career woman who is ever so excited to find out she’s pregnant with her first child. Unbeknownst to her, her loving husband had a recent lapse of judgment with a teenage supermarket cashier (Glynnis O’Connor) whose name he doesn’t even remember and now is infected with syphilis. Glynnis gets the news from a dedicated health department worker who personally tracks her down on the beach among the Greater Los Angeles area population of just over eight million people. Poor Cloris is so distraught after her blood test that she apparently confuses syphilis with Thalidomide, since she worries that “I could have given birth to a baby with no arrrmmsss!!”
11. The Longest Night
I’ll admit that this movie scared the bejeepers out of me when it first aired in 1972. I didn’t consider details like the victim was chosen because she had wealthy parents; I was fixated on the young woman being abducted from a motel room (where she’d been staying with her mother) and then buried alive in a specialized coffin. I slept fitfully in those Best Westerns during our next few family summer vacations. This film starred James Farentino as the coldly methodical kidnapper who holds David Janssen’s daughter captive underground for 83 hours. In real life, the character portrayed by Farentino was sentenced to life in prison and paroled after serving just 10 years.
12. The Morning After
When Dick Van Dyke read the script for The Morning After, his first thought was “Who’s been spying on me?” Unbeknownst to the viewing public, the actor who was beloved as TV’s Rob Petrie was an alcoholic. The Morning After was actually based on a best-selling novel by Jack B. Weiner, and Van Dyke’s personal experience enabled him to bring an ugly honesty to his portrayal of public relations executive Charlie Lester.
What set this film apart from the many other white collar closet alcoholic movies filmed at that time (and since) was that Charlie Lester didn’t suddenly emerge reformed after going through a 12-step program. Instead, the movie ends with Charlie leaving the hospital where he’s being treated (for the umpteenth time) to find the nearest bar, where he tearfully phones his wife after a few drinks to inform her that “It’s no use…I’m no damn good…goodbye, my heart…”
13. Intimate Strangers
Back in 1977, spousal abuse was something that was talked about only in hushed tones and was barely acknowledged as a crime. Hard to believe, but when this movie was shot there were only 30 active shelters in all of the 50 U.S. states for women seeking to escape an abusive husband. Here we have Sally Struthers as the wife of her high school sweetheart Dennis Weaver, an insurance salesman. Life was apparently idyllic for the couple for the first few years, but as Dennis’ sales declined and newer, younger talent usurped him at the office, he eventually took out his frustration physically on his wife. Despite one policeman’s initial indifference to the situation, Weaver eventually finds himself a social outcast after being outed as a “wife beater.” Even his co-worker/drinking buddy—the future J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman)—is repulsed when he finds out that the $315 he’d paid to bail Weaver out on a “242” was for misdemeanor battery.
14. Like Normal People
Shaun Cassidy was itching to stretch his acting legs a bit and break out of his “teen idol” status when he jumped at the chance to star in this 1979 film based on a book of the same name by Robert Meyers. Meyers’ story centered on his mentally disabled younger brother, Roger, and his romantic relationship with Virginia Hensler, whom he met at a live-in center for handicapped adults. Unfortunately, those who remember this TV movie seem to only recall Linda Purl’s over-the-top portrayal of Virginia and her constant refrain of “Ohh, Rah-jah!” In a 1980 interview, the real Roger Meyers commented that the film “made us look more retarded than we really are” and that “a few of our friends didn’t think it was the real ‘us’.”
Jan-Michael Vincent starred as an anti-war flower child who gets drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps in this 1970 Full Metal Jacket blueprint. Vincent’s Private Adrian confounds his Drill Instructor by mastering all the physically grueling tasks (like holding two sand-filled buckets aloft) with aplomb. The secret is meditation – transporting his mind to a “happy place” (complete with trippy sitar music). Other recruits ask Adrian to teach them the secret, and soon most of the platoon is smiling their way through Physical Training. Of course, boot camp is no place for serenity, so the D.I. has to work overtime to make life more miserable for his charges.