Saul Bellow's frantic and tragically humorous "Seize the Day" transfers to TV in a ribbon of dark, nervous energy. A "Great Performances" production airing at 8 tonight on Channel 24 and at 9 tonight on Channels 28 and 15 (plus Saturday at 8 p.m. on Channel 50), its 90 masterful minutes hum from start to finish.
The time is the 1950s, when the central character of Bellow's novella--failed actor-turned-failed salesman Tommy Wilhelm--is in a run of bad luck. He's a panicking, drowning, suffocating, near-broke, chain-smoking middle-aged Jew, lonely and alone, having lost his marriage, job and self-esteem.
"It's the same mistakes--I just keep getting burned again and again," he says after blowing his meager savings in the commodities market. His cold, rigid, lecturing father listens, but the old man is heartless and unsympathetic, offering platitudes, not money.
Tommy is Bellow's metaphor for man's struggle in modern urban society, a funny/grim New Yorker played with seething, raging, self-effacing eloquence by Robin Williams.
Nearly always the comic or comedic actor, Williams is no obvious choice as Tommy, being neither Bellow's strapping blond victim nor a New York type. But he is excellent, whether going to pieces as his teetering world tips over or rooting like a horse bettor as his stocks zoom then plummet on the board in the smoky, chaotic market.
Jerry Stiller almost steals the show at times as Tamkin, the philosophizing, fast-talking, phony doctor whom Tommy mistakenly trusts, and Joseph Wiseman is appropriately severe and steely as Tommy's aged father. There are also some delicious cameos by Jo Van Fleet and William Hickey.
These seedy characters live in an old, symbolically decadent hotel called the Gloriana, where the elevator malfunctions--as do the mostly elderly, eccentric residents who spend hours in steam baths and on massage tables.
Ronald Ribman alters some time sequences but retains the core and essence of Pulitzer Prize-winning Bellow's story in shaping it for TV, and director Fielder Cook evokes the right tones and textures. His camera races along the humid Manhattan streets with Tommy, conveying his sweaty desperation, fusing the frustrating city and the frustrated man.
"Seize the Day" is sometimes very funny, but ultimately quite sad. Tommy runs and runs and runs before suddenly finding himself at a mysterious funeral. And then he weeps.