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Back Again With the Jordache Clan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A miniseries was unheard of in 1976 when ABC aired the 12-hour “Rich Man, Poor Man.” While many experts may have scoffed at the idea, Americans sat glued to their TV sets for the groundbreaking saga, which TNT replays this week.

Based on Irwin Shaw’s best-selling 1970 novel of the same name, “Rich Man, Poor Man” told the colorful, melodramatic tale of the immigrant Jordache family from 1945 to 1965.

Peter Strauss, who had appeared in such films as “Soldier Blue” and guest-starred on numerous TV series, played the “Rich Man” of the title: Rudy Jordache, a young man fueled by ambition who goes from a life of poverty to the U.S. Senate.

People magazine’s 1992 Sexiest Man Alive, Nick Nolte, then a virtual unknown, stole the series as the “Poor Man,” Rudy’s brother Tom. A tough guy with a heart of gold, Tom never is able to find himself.

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The supporting cast was equally strong. Ed Asner won an Emmy for his marvelous performance as Tom and Rudy’s tyrannical German-born father, Axel. Dorothy McGuire was their mother, Mary. Former model Susan Blakely played Julie Prescott, the love of Rudy’s life. Other co-stars included Fionnula Flanagan (who also won an Emmy), Bill Bixby, Ray Milland, William Smith, Robert Reed, Kim Darby, Talia Shire, Lawrence Pressman, Kay Lenz, Van Johnson, Steve Allen, Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Malone.

In 1976, ABC aired “Rich Man, Poor Man” in weekly two-hour installments from Feb. 1 through March 15. The 12-part serial was so successful it placed third in the Nielsen ratings for the season, garnered 23 Emmy nominations and won three.

Not only did “Rich Man, Poor Man” spawn a whole batch of novels-for-television, it also was spun off into a weekly series, “Rich Man, Poor Man Book II.” That series, which premiered in the fall of 1976, starred Strauss, William Smith and Kay Lenz from the original series. The sequel, though, was not a success and the “Book” was closed March 8, 1977.

Strauss went on to become TV’s “king of the miniseries” (along with Richard Chamberlain). Nolte has become one of filmdom’s most respected actors, culminating this year with a best actor nomination for “Prince of Tides.”

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“Rich Man, Poor Man” airs Sunday-Tuesday at 5 p.m. on TNT.


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