I thought I’d given myself a safe assignment by choosing to pair two of this week’s most harmless-sounding TV movies, Michael Landon, the Father I Knew and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The Movie. Here, surely, was programming that would avoid accusations of disturbing the perhaps already troubled minds of its intended youth audience, right?
Well, turns out there’s no safe haven anywhere, friends. The Dr. Quinn telefilm — a sop to fans who were shocked when CBS yanked the popular Western from its schedule last year after six seasons — has a scenario rife with corporate conniving and an attitude toward guns that might make Charlton Heston consider signing up to costar in a sequel. And The Father I Knew proves to be nothing less than a mean-spirited debunking of a TV favorite. This production, directed by Michael Landon Jr., from a story by Landon Jr. and scriptwriter Linda Bergman, depicts the shaggy-haired star of Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven as a compulsive womanizer and control freak who drove his son to drugs and drink. The movie, it seems, is Junior’s revenge against Dad.
Dr. Quinn’s vengeance is wholly fictional, though it doesn’t offer the series closure fans may have desired; it’s just a two-hour episode of the adventures of Jane Seymour’s Dr. Michaela Quinn — ”Dr. Mike” to those who love her, and nobody here doesn’t — and that Fabio of the Old West, her husband, Sully (Joe Lando). Medicine Woman: The Movie commences with a shameless plot device: the kidnapping of the couple’s cute little daughter Katie. Quinn and Sully suspect the child was abducted by a greedy businessman whose plans to mine their town for copper have been thwarted by Sully.
A posse is formed, including faithful Indian tracker Cloud Dancing, who talks in Tonto-speak (”I will help find”), and Quinn’s son Brian, who caresses a rifle given to him by town fool Loren (Orson Bean). Quinn begs the boy to leave the gun behind, but he says: ”I’m not a boy anymore — I’m keepin’ it.” Dismayingly, Dr. Quinn, anti-violence emblem, backs down.
Under the direction of Seymour’s husband, actor James Keach, Dr. Quinn follows a few unexpected twists and turns, but I can’t imagine it will truly satisfy devotees. The series was a canny combination of throwback-Western action and Harlequin Romance kissy-poo between Dr. Mike and Sully; this longer version canters when it should gallop and skimps on the lovey-dovey stuff.
Similarly love starved, Michael Landon Jr. harbors little affection for one of TV’s most beloved stars. Where the public saw the elder Landon as a cocky-but-concerned family man, Junior recalls a workaholic who neglected the kids of his multiple marriages in favor of a succession of ever-younger wives. Since Landon pere did his best-known work for NBC, CBS seems to have had little compunction in letting Landon fils drive a stake into his father’s heart. ”Every rule Dad’s taught us, he’s broken,” says Joel Berti’s Landon Jr. ”He’s lied, he’s cheated!”
The TV movie gets high marks, however, for the mesmerizingly peculiar idea of having Landon Sr. played by John Schneider — that’s right, The Dukes of Hazzard’s Bo Duke! Not for a second can we suspend our disbelief as the movie years roll by and the actor dons a succession of absurdly fluffy, increasingly silver-streaked wigs. Schneider looks more like a cross between Joey Lawrence and Warren Beatty circa Shampoo. And poor Cheryl Ladd: She must act the betrayed second wife, delivering banal lines like ”Her youth won’t bring back yours!” even as she remains, in middle age, far foxier than any of the replacements Landon/Schneider trades down for.
Landon Jr., using his bad childhood to establish himself as a producer in his own right, must be given credit for making himself seem at least as unsympathetic as his father; in Berti’s stiff-yet-whiny performance, Mike Jr. is a self-righteous prig. As therapy for its creator, The Father I Knew is probably healing; as drama for us, it’s congealing. But the movie is also so excessive — in its abject emotionalism, its dime-store psychologizing, its casting — that this version of Daddy Dearest exerts a certain undeniable pull.
Michael Landon: C+
Dr. Quinn: The Movie: C