'Tis the season to be sporty.
Hold the tra-la-las, though, for "Quiet Victory: The Charlie Wedemeyer Story" (9 tonight on Channels 2 and 8) is nothing to sing about. It hardly does justice to the incredible saga of a man who went on to football-coaching glory after refusing to be conquered by Lou Gehrig's disease.
"It's very, very cliched," Lucy Wedemeyer said recently of the CBS movie about her husband and their life together after he became seriously ill. And some of it is "not very factual," she added.
"Quiet Victory" reflects a sudden burst in sports-related TV movies. It's the third in December alone, following "Glory Days," an unreal yet predictable story about a 53-year-old family man who became a college football star, and "Dead Solid Perfect," HBO's dead-solid-putrid version of Dan Jenkins' book about a professional golfer.
Two more sports movies arrive next month (not counting "The Comeback" Jan. 8 on CBS, about a former football star whose off-the-field comeback includes surrendering to the advances of his son's girlfriend).
Coming Jan. 11 on the new TNT cable network is TV's first movie dealing with the growing problem of steroids in athletics. The protagonists of "Finish Line" are an aggressive father and a son whose efforts to excel in college track lead him to take dangerous steroids with tragic results.
Just as topical in its own way is "Unconquered," a 1960s sports/civil rights story arriving on CBS Jan. 15, the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. "Unconquered" traces the life of Richmond Flowers Jr., a white Alabaman who became a track and football star despite illness, a physical handicap and threats from racists irate about the liberal views of his well-known father.
On one level, "Unconquered" does appear to be yet another telling of a black civil rights story from the perspective of whites, and there's no knowing, moreover, whether it or "Finish Line" will live up to the promise of its press releases. But on paper, at least, each approaches sports as one of life's interrelated components, not merely as games that can be insulated from the issues and influences deeply touching the rest of society.
"Unconquered"--but certainly not "Finish Line"--is a title that would fit Charlie Wedemeyer's story, too.
Just imagine it: Former Michigan State football star becomes football coach at Los Gatos (Calif.) High School where, in 1976, at age 30, he is told that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a degenerative affliction that is usually terminal within a few years.
But no! As his body atrophies, his will soars and he continues to coach, even--incredibly--after he can no longer stand or speak. At one point, he coaches in an all-star game from his hospital bed while watching the action on local TV, with Lucy reading his lips and relaying his play-calling to his assistants by phone.
And in 1985--his last season as head coach--he guides the Los Gatos Wildcats to a state championship, sitting speechless in a golf cart on the sidelines as Lucy again relays his instructions.
Yes, the material for a compelling movie is there, and so is the cast. Not only does Michael Nouri have Charlie's physical movements down pat, he also superbly captures the inner resolve and tenacity. And Pam Dawber does a nice job as the magnificently loyal and determined Lucy.
Yet "Quiet Victory" is a movie without energy and texture.
That the Wedemeyer story should turn out flat on CBS is almost as amazing as Charlie's heroic endurance against enormous odds. Linda Otto was the producer for Campbell Soup Co. and BBDO Inc., in association with the Landsburg Co., but director Roy Campanella II and writer Barry Morrow must get most of the blame for the failure.
The story certainly wasn't flat in "One More Season," the fine documentary about the Wedemeyers by Ken Ellis and Deborah Gee that appeared on PBS last year. Yet when the movie attempts to echo segments of the documentary (the hospital and state championship coaching sequences, for example), results range from limp to stagey.
Ironically, it was "Brian's Song"--the 1971 prototype for sports/disease movies on TV--that had inspired Charlie even before he took ill. "Brian's Song" recalled the close bond between former Chicago Bears star Gayle Sayers and his dying teammate Brian Piccolo.
"It showed so much humor in dealing with compassion and devastation and made me see much more clearly how precious life is and how temporary it can be," Charlie said by phone from Los Gatos, speaking through Lucy. "And after I was diagnosed, that really helped."
From a late-1988 perspective, TV's mounting residue of triumph-over-adversity sports stories with "Rocky" endings may have finally taken its toll, making acceptance of "Quiet Victory" difficult under any circumstances. Yet it might have been more successful in other hands.