This is another review from my mini-marathon of original live TV classics and the movies they made of them. I've done "Marty", "Patterns" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight" now "Bang the Drum Slowly" and will do "The Days of Wine and Roses". I'd love to see the original "12 Angry Men" with Bob Cummings but it doesn't seem to be available. I'd love to see a cable channel devoted to these old shows, even some non-classics if they represented early work by famous actors, directors and writers, (as so many of them did). But this will do for now.
I love the simplicity of the 1956 US Steel Hour production of this play. Paul Newman, in one of his first big roles, addresses the audience on a darkened stage and explains why "he", (Henry Wiggins, a star pitcher for the New York Mammoths), wrote this story of what happened to his catcher and friend, Bruce Pierson, (Albert Salmi in what would become atypically fine performance), who succumbed to an unnamed disease that somehow didn't prevent him from playing baseball for another season. Pierson didn't want the ball club or his teammates to know about his condition because they'd probably get rid of him. Wiggin agrees to keep it a secret until the end of the season but ultimately can't. There's really only 4-5 scenes in this simple, bittersweet story and Newman introduces each, much like the stage manager he would play decades later in "Our Town". It's short and sweet, a simple story simply told.
The film, made 17 years later, "opens" the play up with large numbers of outdoor sequences, many of them filmed in an empty-looking Shea Stadium. Side characters are given much more play and there are more humorous sequences included. The big gain is a classic performance as the manager by the great character actor, Vincent Gardenia. But on the whole, the additional time given to the story and the outdoor sequences add very little to the basic story, ("The Musical Mammoths"?!?). Newman's and Salmi's basic warmth comes across better than Michael Moriarity's rather diffident and Robert DeNiro's intense method-acting performances.
As always with these old shows, it's fun to see some famous actors early in their careers. That would include the leads but also George Peppard as "Piney Woods", the southern hayseed who is a threat to replace Pierson in the teleplay along with Clu Gulager, Bert Remsen and Arch Johnson as other teammates. In the film, Heather McRae is Moriarity's wife and Ann Wedgeworth DeNiro's girlfriend while Barbara Babcock, 20 years before "Dr. Quinn", looks young and beautiful, like a fashion model as the team owner.
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