“LBJ: THE EARLY YEARS,” Sunday, 8-11 p.m....

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“LBJ: THE EARLY YEARS,” Sunday, 8-11 p.m. (4)(36)(39) (Illustrated on cover)--Randy Quaid, big and rough and thundering, is an overpowering Lyndon Baines Johnson in this three-hour profile of the Texas Democrat who became President after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

In fact, “The Early Years” stops just as the Johnson presidency begins, before the domestic successes of the Great Society, before he drifted into the bog of the Vietnam War and out of the White House.

Others will have to weigh the historical accuracy of this highly watchable NBC story by Ken Trevey, Guerdon Trueblood and executive producer Louis Rudolph, which begins in 1934 when Johnson was secretary to a Texas congressman. Undoubtedly, though, Quaid captures LBJ in the broadest sense, conveying the man’s scope, his lusts, driving energy, power and tyranny.


Quaid gives us the crudest, lewdest LBJ ever, the baddest of the good ol’ boys and hot sauciest of political barbecuers, the backslapping friend of Joe Bobs and Bobby Joes, the longest of the longhorns and true, twanging son of Texas.

And Quaid pulls it off without once lapsing into cheap caricature.

What a full and robust presidential portrait. It is well directed by Peter Werner and nicely supported by Patti LuPone as the shy, monied Lady Bird, even though LuPone, the “Evita” star, brings along an accent that’s a cross between Karnack, Tex., and Buenos Aires.

LBJ won his first congressional election in 1937 and became the protege of powerful House Speaker Sam Rayburn. Nine years later he was elected to the Senate, and in 1955 became Senate majority leader. That year he also suffered a near-fatal heart attack that Quaid depicts in a scene that simply puts you away. Johnson recovered, and five years later saw his bid to be the Democratic candidate for President thwarted by Kennedy.

He apparently resented the Kennedys, especially Robert Kennedy. “They got it all, looks, brains, money,” he says in the movie. “It just doesn’t seem right.”

The story takes some pokes at Robert Kennedy, who’s shown opposing Johnson’s selection as John Kennedy’s 1960 running mate and attempting to embarrass and humiliate LBJ at every juncture.

It was Johnson, though, whose domestic policies would leave their mark, but also whose presidency ultimately would be felled by an Indochina war that he inherited from his predecessor and then widened.


“The Early Years” is yet another TV stab at history, entering a murky area of programming that merges fact with entertainment to the extent that viewers cannot know whether the picture is true or distorted. As a precaution, therefore, suspend all trust, and merely sit back and enjoy Quaid.