Cicely Tyson, Cloris Leachman, Hal Holbrook and the Heyday of the TV Movie

By Ed Martin Report Archives
Cover image for  article: Cicely Tyson, Cloris Leachman, Hal Holbrook and the Heyday of the TV Movie

The passing of Larry King two weeks ago had me thinking about the end of the television interview as it had once been known. Hour-long conversations, of which King was a master, have largely given way to seven-minute power-chats that in turn are often subdivided into sound bites. Three more recent losses have me longing for the made-for-television movies of yesteryear (and cringing at the thought that the '70s are now legitimately referred to by that term).

Cloris Leachman, Cicely Tyson and Hal Holbrook are all known for their uncommonly numerous accomplishments across a variety of media, but they all starred in seminal TV movies back when they were referred to as "movies of the week" and were gleaming jewels in the crowns of CBS, NBC and especially ABC. Indeed, the ABC Movie of the Week, which was so powerful a franchise that the network made it the centerpiece of two nights per week, was talked about at the time by teenagers, adults and seniors alike with all the excitement one might associate with conversations about All in the Family, The Carol Burnett Show, M*A*S*H, The Flip Wilson Show, The Brady Bunch, Room 222, The Mary Tyler Moore Showand too many other hits of that era to mention.

I'll toss out just a couple: Duel, Tribes, Brian's Song, Gargoyles, Bad Ronald, The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, The Missiles of October, Born Innocent, A Case of Rape, Trilogy of Terror, Eleanor and Franklin, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, Sybil, The Execution of Private Slovik, Helter Skelter, The Miracle Worker. The mix of genres was itself intoxicating. For every TV movie that sought only to entertain it seemed there was another that took a deep dive into exploring an issue of the day (or an issue that hadn't been explored on television before).

In most instances, these movies mattered. Viewers came to them in droves.

Tyson arguably made the biggest impact with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the groundbreaking 1974 television movie for which she won two Best Actress Emmy Awards, back when the Emmys were structured in such a way that double honors could happen. Miss Jane Pittman still resonates. The impact of this movie in its day was just as profound as that of the legendary miniseries Roots, which would follow two years later. Tyson had a memorable supporting role in that production.

Leachman is remembered primarily for her portrayal in the '70s of Mary Richards' self-involved friend and landlady Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its second spin-off, Phyllis, as well as her Academy Award-winning portrayal of a desperately lonely housewife in the classic The Last Picture Show and her scene-stealing performance in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. But during those same years, this tireless actress could also have been legitimately crowned Queen of Made for TV Movies, having starred in almost 20 in the '70s alone, most notably A Brand New Life (for which she won an Emmy) and The Migrants (for which she was honored with an Emmy nomination). The subject matter of both (making decisions about a surprise pregnancy; the trials of immigration) remain as relevant today as they were at the time.

Like Tyson and Leachman, Holbrook's participation in the '70s did much to advance the medium, as well, with 11 made-for-television movies in that decade -- the profound and highly controversial standouts being That Certain Summer and Pueblo. (He won two Best Actor Emmys for the latter.) Summer was the true groundbreaker. In it, Holbrook played a divorced father in love with another man (Martin Sheen) who strived to keep his sexuality a secret from his son until he no longer could. It may seem a bit melodramatic today, but Summer was seismic in its day, being the first television movie to depict two men living together as partners in a loving relationship.

With only an occasional exception the broadcast networks stopped producing television movies many years ago, ceding primarily to premium cable, where they continue to make news and earn awards. The streamers are also in the game, although comparisons there aren't really fair, as the first exhibition for most of those movies is theatrical, mainly to qualify them for Academy Award consideration. They then migrate, sometimes on the same day, to their respective streaming platform.

The broadcast movies of yesteryear were never considered equal in any way to more prestigious theatrical films, but that changed long ago. For performers today, TV is where it's at. Certainly, though, some of our most profoundly talented actors – among them Tyson, Leachman and Holbrook – knew better back when broadcast routinely commanded the largest and most vocal audiences of all. Remember, the TV movies of the '70s (and the '80s) were intended for the largest audiences possible, if not always for family viewing.

In hindsight, the work of those three extraordinary pioneers and that of their peers in the television movies of old has stood the test of time. Their parameters of their success at the time, though, will never be repeated.

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