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Friday, November 20, 2015

The Golden Age of TV Movies: Death Be Not Proud (1975)

Posted By on Fri, Nov 20, 2015 at 1:00 PM

Robby Benson, left, as Johnny Jr, with Arthur Hill as John Sr. - ABC TV
  • ABC TV
  • Robby Benson, left, as Johnny Jr, with Arthur Hill as John Sr.

Welcome to The Golden Age of TV Movies, a monthly column about those wonderful TV movies of yesteryear.

John Gunther
(1901-1970) was one of the most important and respected journalists of his day, During his lifetime Gunther traveled the world, winning great acclaim for best selling tomes such as Inside Asia, Inside Latin America, and Inside USA.

Today Gunther is best remembered for the memoir Death Be Not Proud, in which he chronicled his son's battle with a malignant brain tumor. John Gunther Jr (1929-1947) had been considered a prodigy, a scientist who corresponded with Albert Einstein about physics. He died at age 17, two weeks after graduating from high school. He had already passed his college entrance exams and had been accepted into Harvard. 


click to enlarge John Gunther Jr as a child. - FIND A GRAVE
  • Find A Grave
  • John Gunther Jr as a child.
Still in print today, Death Be Not Proud is considered to be an important work due to its stark honesty in dealing with the pain and tragedy of facing a terminal illness. Yet Death Be Not Proud remains a life-affirming story. The book's final chapter was written by Frances Gunther, Johnny Jr's mother, who was a respected writer in her own right.   

The book's title comes from John Donne's same named sonnet.

ABC adapted Death Be Not Proud as a movie of the week in 1975. Arthur Hill and Jane Alexander were cast as John and Frances Gunther, with teen-idol Robby Benson getting a rare opportunity to flex his acting muscles as Johnny Jr. Benson gives a compelling and nuanced performance as a young man of depth and maturity who faces the truth about his fate even as it terrifies him. 

The three leads work beautifully together. John Sr. and Frances are friendly divorcees when their son fall ill. Clearly they still love each other, even though they know their relationship wasn't a healthy one—it was based more on their compatibility as journalists than on their desire to build a life together. Their son's illness brings them back together, at least for awhile. The tragedy forces them to confront what they mean to each other and how they feel about Johnny. John Jr fights for his son's life even as the battle appears to be lost. In a particularly powerful scene, Frances asks him who he's really fighting for, Johnny or himself? 

Benson, who was never taken seriously as an actor by Hollywood, allows the audience to get a fairly good idea of the emotions that the real Johnny Jr must have grappled with as he struggled to graduate with his class, to get accepted into the college of his choice,  to experience his first kiss, and to stay alive. 

Death Be Not Proud
is no pity party. The film, like the book, is a work of astonishing maturity. Spiritual and profound, the story of John Gunther Jr. is a powerful statement on the fragility of life and the concept of living to the fullest.

An honorable mention must go to character actor Linden Chiles, who gives a strong performance as Dr. Tracy Putnam, John Jr's no-nonsense doctor. Putnam's  blunt honesty with the elder John and Frances isn't easy to listen to, but he always tells them the truth. Chiles was one of those wonderful, old school actors who always worked yet never achieved recognition. He was still working when he died in 2013, aged 80. You can see his final film The Rising Light here.

John Gunther Sr's stunning memoir to his beloved son can be purchased at Amazon.                
   

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