These days made-for-TV movies on network and basic cable channels are relegated to the Lifetime network (television for women… and gay men) and mostly continue the practice of the “women in jeopardy” genre, often with “fatal” or “deadly” in the title. But the TV movie and mini-series were staples of network programming in the 1960s and ’70s, and they didn’t just exist to provide work for Barbara Eden, Barbara Feldon, or Karen Valentine. They attracted movie stars (Bing Crosby in Dr. Cook’s Garden, Bette Davis in Madame Sin) and also let the small screen favorites of the day flex their acting chops in different kinds of roles (Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery in A Case Of Rape and The Legend of Lizzie Borden or Andy Griffith in Savages). Sometimes they were pilots for potential series (Kojak was spawned from The Marcus-Nelson Murders and Peter Falk’s detective Columbo came from Prescription: Murder). And sometimes they were just a fun ride (think Connie Stevens in Call Her Mom or Clint Walker battling an alien-controlled bulldozer in Killdozer).
They also tackled the social and political issues of the day (teenage drug abuse in Go Ask Alice, multiple personality with the Emmy-award winning Sybil, and Alzheimer’s disease in Do You Remember Love). Alex Haley’s Roots became a national phenomenon and started a national dialogue on race relations (Oh, how far we’ve come…not!). What eventually killed the TV film was the networks’ preoccupation with the “disease of the week” genre. You almost expected to see Paper Cuts: One Woman’s Nightmare appear next, and in the ’90s the titles given these “dramas” just got worse: “She Woke Up Pregnant” or “Mother May I Sleep With Danger”.
For a while though, the small screen produced some fine films. Here’s a small list of some of the best TV movies or mini-series that are currently available on DVD.
Helter Skelter: This creepy 1976 entry adapted prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book about Charles Manson and his hippie “family” who were responsible for one of the most shocking series of murders in Southern California in August 1969. Actress Sharon Tate (who was pregnant by director-husband Roman Polanski) was one of the victims. Steve Railsback is eerie as cult leader Manson and Nancy Wolfe channels follower Susan Atkins to disturbing perfection.
Trilogy of Terror: Three separate horror stories all starring Karen Black. The last (and the best one) is about a woman being terrorized in her apartment by an African tribal doll that comes to life. Directed by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis, it also stars DS alumni John Karlen and James Storm.
Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring: This film might seem very dated now, but when it aired in 1971 it packed a wallop. Sally Field (effortlessly erasing her Gidget persona) stars as a young girl who returns to her suburban home after living a “hippie” lifestyle. Eleanor Parker and Jackie Cooper are her clueless parents (cocktails good, marijuana bad) who are doomed to repeat the same parenting mistakes with younger daughter Lane Bradbury, and David Carradine is Field’s commune boyfriend, who comes searching for her. One big negative in the film is a fantasy sequence with animation that just doesn’t belong there. But the ending is still killer, man.
Playing for Time: Playwright Arthur Miller penned this Holocaust drama about women prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp who survive by playing classical music for their captors. The cast includes Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Alexander, Christine Baranski and a pre-thirtysomething Melanie Mayron.
Not available but should be:
The Winter Of Our Discontent: Based on John Steinbeck’s novel and starring Donald Sutherland and Teri Garr (both in excellent form). Sutherland plays a model husband and father who has to make some hard moral choices about his business and his family. Also stars Tuesday Weld as a woman with whom he has a flirtation and Richard Masur as a mentally handicapped neighbor. Your heart bleeds for the always underrated Sutherland as his world comes crashing down.
That Certain Summer: Hal Holbrook (who should have won the Oscar for Into The Wild) is a divorced father, Martin Sheen his partner and Scott Jacoby (Emmy Award winner) the teenage son who becomes suspicious about their relationship. Hope Lange is the anguished ex-wife who tells Sheen “If you were a woman, I would know how to compete with you.” This film was considered groundbreaking at the time for tackling homosexuality with compassion and honesty, but like other gay-themed films of the era, homosexuality equaled heartache.
The Girl Most Likely To… : Stockard Channing is a mistreated homely girl who after an accident is transformed by plastic surgery into a looker. She still has issues though and starts murdering those who did her wrong in the past. Ed Asner is the enamored cop investigating the case and the supporting cast includes future Love Boater Fred Grandy and Annette O’Toole. Written by Joan Rivers. Hmm…plastic surgery…Joan Rivers…who would have thought?
Death In Canaan: Based on the book by Joan Barthel (played in the telemovie by Stephanie Powers), Death In Canaan is the true story of Peter Reilly, a Connecticut teenager accused of murdering his mother. The mishandling of the case by police leads the townspeople to rally around the adolescent. A young Conchata Ferrell (Two and a Half Men) is a standout as one of his supporters in Tony Richardson’s small- screen directing debut.
Some other notable titles that I’d like to see released on DVD or at least aired again are Tribes with Jan-Michael Vincent and Darren McGavin, The Neon Ceiling with Gig Young and Lee Grant, Who Will Love My Children? starring Ann-Margret, Fatal Vision with Gary Cole and Karl Malden, Murder in Texas with Farrah Fawcett and Andy Griffith, and Daughter Of the Mind with Ray Milland. Some smart TV executive (guess that’s an oxymoron) should start a TV Movie network (A TCM for the telemovie) and open those vaults.
What TV films would you like to see again?