“The Death of Richie” (1977)

As we bring this installment of “Just Say No Month” to a close, we come to the inevitable “based on a true story,” 1977’s The Death of Richie, a grim account of a man forced to kill his drug crazed teenage son. How close to the true story does it end up being? Well, pretty close, surprisingly, or at least, close to the Thomas Thompson book upon which it’s based. The only difference is that the real Richie, a short, average looking high schooler with curly red hair, is played by dreamy Robby Benson, which makes his oft stated awkwardness around girls a bit implausible.

We begin with Richie’s funeral, and then learn how he got there. Like last week’s Not My Kid, the movie wastes no time in getting to a point where Richie’s drug problem is out of control–it’s already out of control, as Richie hangs out with a bad crowd, and spends much of his time in a secret black light poster decorated room in the back of his closet, where he trips on LSD and reads a book called How to Talk to Girls.

Richie is a source of growing frustration for his hard-ass father, George (Ben Gazzara), who relieves tension by filling targets full of lead at the local gun club, and Carol (Eileen Brennan), his loving but meek mother. Richie and George can’t seem to converse for more than two minutes without it dissolving into an argument, but rather than trying therapy or any of that namby-pamby nonsense, George prefers keeping the cops on Richie’s tail as a behavior deterrent instead.

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Richie does initially try to stay on the straight and narrow, getting a job at a burger restaurant and selling raffle tickets to try to impress a neighborhood girl, but when those ventures fail (his dirtbag friends, one of whom is played by a young Clint Howard, cause him to lose his job, the girl kindly declines his invitation to a dance), he descends further into drug use, turning to reds, flunking out of school, and continuing to hang out with a young Clint Howard.

As Richie’s behavior grows increasingly erratic and aggressive, it’s clear that he needs more than just stern admonishments and threats. Nevertheless, George steadfastly refuses to get the counseling the whole family urgently needs, deciding that the best course of action is to record Richie’s phone calls, essentially setting up his own son in a sting operation. The movie never explores why George sees having a child in jail as somehow less shameful than having a child in therapy, but if there’s one thing all three of the movies featured in this month’s theme emphasizes, it’s that parental concern over appearances will lead to disastrous consequences–and, in this case, a tragic one.

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Richie crashing the family car triggers one final, violent encounter. As George brandishes a gun to keep a knife wielding Richie at bay, Richie all but begs George to shoot him, to which he obliges, fatally. The action immediately returns to Richie’s funeral, where a title card reveals that a jury voted not to indict George, who “lives as a free man.” The real life George died in 1981 at just 52, as if that family hadn’t been through enough misery already.

Presumably because it was based on true events, without any unnecessary melodrama added to punch things up, The Death of Richie makes for some compelling viewing. Robby Benson is heartbreaking as the troubled, fragile Richie, all but cringing in the presence of his father, whom he fears, loves, resents, and desperately wants to please. As opposed to the previously reviewed Not My Kid, the movie makes a clear case for Richie turning to drugs to deal with some sort of unspecified emotional issues, rather than portraying him as a perfectly normal kid who takes a puff on a joint one day and then immediately tumbles into the abyss of addiction.

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Somewhat to the film’s detriment, Ben Gazzara is remarkably unsympathetic as George, reciting his dialogue in George C. Scott-esque strangled barks, though to be fair his real life counterpart comes off as an unbending martinet as well, railing at the “liberals” for his son’s crippling drug habit. In the movie, he expresses real human emotion exactly twice–at Richie’s funeral, and when he listens to a recording of Richie stating that he’s never felt wanted by anyone. In Richie’s presence, however, George’s inability to show him affection borders on an almost comical, Hank Hill level of stiffness. Richie almost literally cries out for love and acceptance, and George can only spare an occasional hearty clap on the shoulder.

The troubling aspects of the movie are no less troubling in the actual story. It’s presented as if killing Richie is the last resort of a desperate man, except that there are numerous resorts the family could have explored beforehand, but chose not to, for reasons which go unexplained. George coolly pointing his gun at an unhinged Richie and pulling the trigger without even wavering comes off more like Dirty Harry taking out some punk hopped up on goofballs than a father forced to take unspeakable action against his own son. Nevertheless, a jury found that it was a reasonable solution to a terrible problem.
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It’s an interesting experience to watch a movie like The Death of Richie in 2017, when we’re aware of such concepts as “toxic masculinity.” It’s still a struggle now for men to be comfortable expressing their own emotions, let alone allow other men to do so without fear of judgment. Certainly in the 70s, no one was going to fault a guy like George for not being able to connect with his teenage son on any meaningful level beyond sports or cars. Take an informal poll of men between the ages of 40 and 60, asking them to describe their father with one word–“warm” or “loving” is probably not going to come up a lot. Admitting that you needed to know if your father loved you was perceived as weakness–of course he loved you, he fed you and put a roof over your head, didn’t he?

Of course, now we know what happens when a parent, whether intentionally or not, withholds affection, or makes it contingent on getting good grades or scoring the right summer job. One wonders how things would have turned out if someone had just given this kid a damn hug, rather than constantly reminding him of what a disappointment he was.

Original airdate: January 10, 1977
Watch it here (read the Life magazine account of the true story here)
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