James Woods is rapidly becoming television's contemporary version of Jimmy Stewart--always the perfect choice for a story about an ordinary man facing an extraordinary moral dilemma.
In "The Summer of Ben Tyler," an atmospheric look at a small Southern town in 1942, Woods is called upon to bring strength and character to the role of Temple Rayburn, a struggling young lawyer. And he succeeds superbly, with a deceptively laid-back but riveting interpretation that builds inexorably toward its inevitable emotional climax.
Woods' character, Rayburn, and his wife, Celia (in a warmly sympathetic rendering by Elizabeth McGovern), have complicated their lives dramatically by taking in Ben Tyler (Charles Mattocks), the retarded orphan son of their late African American housekeeper. It is a gesture of charity that stretches the limits of local acceptability in the still-segregated '40s to the breaking point.
Rayburn's professional prospects, nonetheless, begin to climb when he is asked to run for the state Senate by the town's leading citizen, Spencer Maitland (Len Cariou). Before the election takes place, however, Rayburn is asked to defend Maitland's son, Junius, who has killed an elderly woman in a car accident. When Rayburn discovers that the charges are true, he must make a choice about whether to go forward with the case, knowing that his decision will powerfully impact both his political future and his legal career.
It remains for the mentally "slow" Tyler, in his infinitely wise, infinitely loving way, to help put Rayburn on the right track. Mattocks, making his network television debut, plays the tricky role with dignity and conviction.
To the credit of writer Robert Inman and director Arthur Allan Seidelman, Rayburn's eventual decision--as well as the consequences he faces--remains well within the social fabric of the story's period setting. But the moral issue he faces, as well as a subtext about the importance of family, are timeless elements in a story which, like the best Jimmy Stewart outings, ultimately refuses to be confined to its own era.
* "The Summer of Ben Tyler" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on CBS (Channel 2).