We’ve talked a lot about the prolific career of director Paul Wendkos at B&S About Movies. While Wendkos got his start directing Jayne Mansfield in the since forgotten rom-com The Burglar (1957) and directed a lot of Gidget movies, he built up pretty cool horror movie oeuvre with the theatrical feature The Mephisto Waltz, and the TV movies Good Against Evil, Haunts of the Very Rich, the 1985 remake of TV remake of The Bad Seed, and the legendary 1975 TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden.
In 1976 Wendkos was hired by NBC-TV to direct this, the second of two U.S. TV movies Robby Benson shot at the height of his teen idoldom, just before experiencing his first taste of international fame with his back-to-back theatrical hits of Ode to Billy Joe (1976) and One on One (1977). Benson’s first TV movie was ABC-TV’s Death Be Not Proud (1975).
Here, Benson stars in this true story based on the grim article and non-fiction book by Thomas Thompson regarding a father forced to kill his drug-crazed teenage son who came at him with an ice pick after one of their arguments about his litany of drug-induced troubles and his less-than-desirable friends (Charles Fleischer of A Nightmare on Elm Street and the voice of Roger Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Clint Howard of Ice Cream Man and Tango & Cash fame).
Keen eyes of ‘70s TV will notice “Capt. Nicole Davidoff,” Susan Pratt from the Saturday Morning “Star Wars,” Jason of Star Command, (one of my favorite ‘70s actors) John Friedrich (Thank God It’s Friday, Almost Summer, The Wanderers, and The Final Terror), and Cindy Eilbacher (TV movie Bad Ronald and Slumber Party Massacre II) as Richie’s friends. Lance Kerwin (of the TV movies The Loneliest Runner and James at 15; “Wooster” in Enemy Mine), Ben Gazzara (The Neptune Factor and Inchon; “Brad Wesley” in Roadhouse), and Eileen Brennan (FM) star as Richie’s put-upon family.
Critics have written this off as an Afterschool Special (we’re reviewing a few of those this week) with violence added. I disagree. This is an intense, emotionally sad story; one that, unlike most book-to-film transitions, is very faithful to the book. And even though you know the outcome, you remain gripped to the screen because you wonder just how much worse things will digress.
Since this was a ratings juggernaut that everyone in middle school watched, most of us went out and bought the book ($1.25 new!). Our school’s library even carried it. And we watched the film in civics class more than once. The subsequent VHS release dropped “The Death of” prefix and released this under the book’s original title of Richie—even toning down some of the violence from the original TV print, which is forever lost. Beware of the DVDs marketed as “digitally remastered”; there’s no official DVDs and all are grey market rips of varying quality.
This spins frequency as part of EPIX’s cable catalog (their print is rife with sound and visual issues). While you can also stream it on Amazon Prime, we found two free rips on You Tube HERE and HERE—and those same prints air on EPIX. You can read the scans of Thompson’s Life Magazine article HERE and HERE. Here’s the network TV trailer.