Retro Television Review: The Death of Richie (dir by Paul Wendkos)

Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past!  On Sundays, I will be reviewing the made-for-television movies that used to be a primetime mainstay.  Today’s film is 1977’s The Death of Richie.  It  can be viewed on YouTube!

It’s not a spoiler to tell you that this film ends with the death of a teenager named Richie.  It’s right there in the title.  We start the film knowing that Richie is going to die.  The only question is how it’s going to happen and who, if anyone, is going to be held responsible for it.

Played by Robby Benson, Richie Werner is a sensitive teenager living in the suburbs.  He’s painfully shy and he deals with that shyness by taking the drugs that are supplied to him by friends like Brick (Charles Fleischer) and Peanuts (Clint Howard, yes that Clint Howard).  His parents, George (Ben Gazzara) and Carol (Eileen Brennan), knows that Richie is struggling with both drugs and school.  However, neither one of them have a clue as to how to help him.  Carol spends most of the film silently hoping that things will somehow just magically get better.  Meanwhile, George can’t understand his son and, even worse, he makes no attempt to understand him.  George holds back his feelings and he’s obviously uncomfortable with his emotional son.  George is the type who retreats to his basement when he needs to get away from the world and yet, he can’t understand why his son needs a similar sanctuary.  When he discovers that Richie has set up a mini-bedroom in his closet, George destroys it.

Throughout the film, Richie tries to get his life straightened out.  He gets a job working at a restaurant but he quits after his friends laugh at his dorky uniform.  He tries to date a girl named Sheila (Cindy Eilbacher) but is heartbroken when he discovers that she’s going out with someone else.  When Richie tries to talk his dad, George refuses to listen.  When George tries to talk to Richie, Richie tells him to get out of his room.  Finally, after Richie crashes his car one last time, it leads to an act of shocking violence.  After all, the film is called The Death of Richie.

It’s also based on a true story, though there’s some debate over whether or not the film gets the story correct.  In real life, Richie’s named was George Richard “Richie” Diener and he lived in Long Island.  (The film appears to take place in a generic California suburb.)  Richie’s death inspired a magazine article and book, both of which inspired this film.  While I was doing research for this review, I came across a website about Richie’s death, one that argued that both the film and the book were too sympathetic to George’s version of what happened the day that Richie died.  The site has comments from many of the people who knew Richie and I recommend it to anyone who watches this film and want to know the other side of the story.

As for the film itself, it’s well-directed, intense, and, at times, rather heart-breaking.  As portrayed in the film, Richie is so desperate for some sort of approval that your heart just goes out to him.  Robby Benson is one of those actors who you come across in a lot of 70s films.  I’ve always found his performances to be a bit inconsistent and that’s certainly the case here.  He’s good when he’s allowed a quiet moment or two but there are other times when he gets so shrill that it takes you out of the reality of the film.  Ben Gazarra does a good job playing George as someone who loves his family but who is incapable of understanding his son’s pain.  Gazarra adds just a hint of ambiguity to his anger toward Richie.  Is he upset because Richie keeps getting trouble or has he reached the point where he’s just looking for an excuse to get Richie out of the family’s life?  According to the comments that I read at the blog mentioned above, both the film and the subsequent book based solely their portrayal of the last minutes of Richie’s life on George’s account.  Many people felt that there was more to what happened.

The film is a bit quick to blame all of Richie’s problems on the drugs.  While the drugs probably didn’t help, there are times when the film seems to suggesting that Richie would have been a happy, go-lucky kid if he had never taken that first Seconal.  Watching the film today, it’s obvious that there was a lot more going on with Richie than just weed and pills and it’s also obvious that calling the cops having them search his room while he watched was not the solution either.  Richie needed someone to talk to and, in the film at least, that was apparently the one thing that he could not get.  As the song says, things get a little easier once you understand.

One response to “Retro Television Review: The Death of Richie (dir by Paul Wendkos)

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 9/5/22 — 9/11/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

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