On March 3, 1983, a father set ablaze the room where his 6-year-old son lay sleeping. The boy received third-degree burns over 90% of his body--but he didn’t die. Here is the astonishing story of David Rothenberg, his tragedy and triumph, as seen through the eyes of his remarkable mother. --From the book jacket of “David,” a biography by Marie Rothenberg and Mel White
Bundled up in a gray wool coat and pink-and-magenta scarf and gloves to ward off the “February” chill, Bernadette Peters walked slowly through the “Brooklyn” playground. She was taking her young son to school on what was to be one of the last normal days of his life.
Peters looked very maternal, her trademark frizzy hair tightly pulled back and braided. It was a short scene, and as soon as she could she removed her wintry garments. An elementary school on the West Coast may stand in for one on the East Coast, but a hot day in Los Angeles is a far cry from February in Brooklyn.
Peters is not an obvious choice to play Marie, whom she describes as “the mother of all mothers, except for Mother Teresa.” A Broadway musical star (“Sunday in the Park With George,” “Into the Woods”), she has no children. And her image to date in such movies as “Pennies From Heaven” and “Annie” has been that of a helpless waif.
Yet, Peters says in her distinctively breathy little-girl voice, “I seem to have those motherly instincts. You always find those things in you that are exactly like the character. I could see being in a situation where someone I love is not being cared for the way I want. I have the energy and strength to do something about it.”
When Marie Rothenberg discovered that her former husband almost succeeded in deliberately burning their son to death (he claimed that he had intended to kill himself as well, but lost his nerve at the last minute), she virtually moved into the hospital to be with the youngster. She assumed David would die and wanted to make his last hours easier.
“David had 1,000-1 odds against surviving,” Peters says. “Marie thought, ‘What could he be feeling? He goes away on vacation with his father, and his father tries to kill him.’ He can’t talk and he can’t see, but he can hear. She decided that even if he had 2 days to live, 2 hours or just 2 minutes, he’d feel secure, loved and not alone. That’s a wonderful thing to do for someone. That strength she gave him made him live.”
David Rothenberg is now 12. He lives with his mother and stepfather in Fullerton, and is continually undergoing plastic surgery to reconstruct his face and body. Charles Rothenberg was convicted of attempting to murder his son. Now in Soledad Penitentiary, he will be eligible for parole next year. Meanwhile, mother and son have cooperated with ABC-TV in a 2-hour docudrama, “David,” based on Rothenberg’s book. It airs Tuesday.
“This is a very, very moving story,” says Peters, who insists that the project will not be exploitative. “No pictures of the real David will be used. It’s obvious Marie wanted her story told. It’s our job to not make it maudlin.”
“David” is Peters’ first major television work since her 1976 series “All’s Fair” with Richard Crenna. She came to the project after completing “Slaves of New York,” an upcoming Merchant/Ivory film based on the best seller by Tama Janowitz. Peters plays a hat designer in arty low-rent downtown New York who lives with a boorish artist.
People regarded the character in “Slaves” as “a victim,” Peters says, “but I thought of her as someone unconscious. She seemed to be me 8 years ago, someone who didn’t really appreciate herself enough. She was in a fog. She didn’t know her strength.”
At 40, Peters believes that she finally has matured. (“Maybe it took so long because I was working on stage, and I didn’t have time to figure out my social skills.”) And it’s this personal growth that convinced “David” director John Erman (“An Early Frost,” “Who Will Love My Children?”) that she was right for the part of Marie Rothenberg.
“I directed Bernadette in her first film 18 years ago, ‘Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies’ (with a story by Steven Spielberg),” Erman recalls. “It was an ignominious flop, but we’ve been friends ever since. I’ve watched her grow in strength and maturity. . . .
“I think there’s a certain place in your life when all of a sudden you change and approach things as an adult. The way Bernadette seems to view the world and deal with people indicates she is no longer a child/victim. She is an adult taking care of herself.”
The same transformation occurs with Marie Rothenberg. “Marie starts out as a child/victim,” Erman continues. “She’s pulled between two men--her ex-husband and her fiance--and she never says what she wants. Then this incident happens. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get someone who’s just been through that, rather than get someone totally grounded for the last 10 years?’ ”
Erman has developed a reputation for dealing with touchy subjects. “I seem to be drawn to these morbid pieces,” he agrees. “Whatever my dark side is comes out in my work. One thing that got me going on this piece was the power struggle these parents go through. (It) parallels what I went through as a child: both parents trying to claim you and hold onto you and get you to love them more than the other.”
While making the movie, he recalls, “the greatest day for me was when we got the real mother and real boy together with Bernadette and the movie boy (Matthew Lawrence) in a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. David was sitting there not talking. All of a sudden, our little boy took out a deck of cards and started doing card tricks. David’s eyes focused on this boy with such love. It was heartbreaking. There was a soul there that hadn’t been destroyed.”
Peters believes that “David” offers “a lesson for all of us. Marie teaches David that people really see what you want them to see. If you want them to see what’s inside you, you must teach them to look. And you must teach yourself to show what’s inside you--if you have the courage.
“David had to muster up his courage. Because he doesn’t look like everyone else, he had to reach down and show his real self. Most people spend all their lives covering up. We’re all concerned with externals. David shows his true self, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
“David” will be televised at 9 p.m. Tuesday on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42.