“The Loneliest Runner” (1976)

“Based on a true story” made for TV movies can often be neatly fit into just two categories: the descent into tragedy (as seen in last week’s The Jayne Mansfield Story), and the triumph over adversity (a third category is, of course, the other two categories combined). Though the former is always more entertaining for sheer camp value, the latter has its own pleasures too, particularly when the adversity triumphed over doesn’t seem all that terrible in the grand scheme of things.

The Loneliest Runner narrowly meets the criteria of “based on a true story.” The names and general circumstances are changed, but the core plot of the movie is inspired by an actual event, that of Michael Landon overcoming chronic bed wetting and growing up to play Pa Ingalls, bearer of the best hair on the prairie. Landon briefly appears as himself, or rather, a fictionalized version of himself, playing runner John Curtis, winner of the 26 mile marathon at the Olympics. While waiting to be interviewed about his victory (in a race in which there don’t appear to be any other competitors), he reflects on what brought him to that momentous occasion.

John as a young teen is played by 70s television mainstay Lance Kerwin, and he has a delicate problem–he wets the bed at night. Other than that, John is a model son, but while his father (Brian Keith) is loving and supportive, his mother (DeAnn Mears) carries on as if he’s a compulsive masturbator. Overbearing and impossible to please from the get go, she eventually becomes a villain straight out of a V.C. Andrews novel, all but twirling an invisible mustache in anticipation of punishing him.

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Not surprisingly, John is so frightened of disappointing his father and incurring the wrath of his mother that he goes to extreme measures to hide his problem, skipping breakfast and running to the nearest laundromat to wash his soiled sheets and pajamas, even going so far as to try to break in when it’s closed one weekend morning. His mother is soon on to him, though, and lets him know loud and clear–by hanging his sheet outside his bedroom window, where his friends can see it.

Typical of awful parents, John’s mother insists that he’s deliberately wetting his bed just to make her life difficult, and that the only way to remedy it is with abuse and humiliation. Considering that she has not one single kind word to offer either to him or about him, often referring to him as “the boy” rather than his actual name, you get the impression that this is the only part of being a parent John’s mother enjoys. Believing that no punishment is too strong for John, she sneers at his father’s reluctance to shame him in front of his peers, insisting that he’s merely embarrassed that he’s raising a “weak son” (and we know what “weak” is supposed to be a code word for here).

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With John unable to stop himself from wetting the bed (or refusing to, as his mother believes), his mother continues to hang his stained sheets high, like the flag of Peevania. John is forced to run home from school every day in a panic to retrieve the sheets before anyone he knows sees them. Because of this, he eventually has to quit the football team, and must blow off his friends and the cute girl he likes (Melissa Sue Anderson). The only upside is that it turns him into a fast runner, fast enough that he breaks the high school record for running a mile, barely breaking a sweat in the process. He’s invited by the school track coach to join the team, but, unable to make time for both that and the demands of his psychotic, urine obsessed mother, John declines. As far as John’s mother is concerned, he should be focusing all his time and energy on exactly two things: chores, and how to stop wetting his bed. For something that can be addressed with a waterproof pad and some extra laundry detergent, the entire family talks about little else but John’s problem, to the point where it has driven an irreparable wedge between his parents, though their body language suggests that they were forced to marry at gunpoint in the first place.

Even when a doctor (correctly) explains that the problem is likely due to John’s sleep patterns, his mother insists that it’s laziness, “or spite for that matter,” because why wouldn’t you willingly wake up in your own filth every morning, just to make your mom mad? She’s shocked and angered when the doctor does not, in fact, suggest that perhaps John should be forced to march through the town square ringing a bell and wearing a sandwich board reading PISS BABY. Not getting the answers she wants, she ups the ante, forcing John to attend a sleepover party as a “test” of whether or not his problem really is voluntary. It’s a breathtakingly cruel setup–either he doesn’t wet the bed at the party, and she’ll punish him for his deliberate carelessness at home, or he does and he’s mortified in front of his friends.

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John opts to stay up all night at the sleepover and thus doesn’t have an accident, much to his mother’s smug satisfaction. After the girl he likes sees one of his sheets flapping in the breeze, John runs away from home, hiding in a department store. He ends up falling asleep in a showroom bed, and just when you expect the worst (and his parents to receive a “you stain it, you buy it” bill from the store), he wakes up dry the next morning. As it turns out, all he needed in order to stop his accidents was to move out of the tiny, safety railed kiddie bed he had been sleeping in, and into something more appropriately sized for a teenage boy. Problem immediately solved, John’s father admits he wet the bed at John’s age too, and all is forgiven. John grows up to be a world class runner, and even credits his mother with his success, even though what she really deserves is for him to pee in her favorite shoes.

Because my goal is to educate as well as entertain, let me take a moment to point out that the medical term for bed wetting is nocturnal enuresis, and though it’s rare in adolescents, it’s not unheard of. Often caused by the body’s failure to recognize a full bladder during sleep, virtually everyone who experiences it eventually grows out of it. If you had to pick a problem for your child to have, it would be far on the side of not serious. From a modern perspective, bed wetting just doesn’t seem like that big a deal, and John’s mother’s fury over it is both perplexing and unintentionally funny, particularly when the movie implies that it ultimately made him a better, stronger person. John didn’t overcome bed wetting before becoming an Olympic champion, he overcame a shitty, abusive parent.

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That being said, for a movie that treats an inconvenient mess with the seriousness of heroin addiction, The Loneliest Runner is surprisingly not bad. Lance Kerwin is heartbreaking as a kid any woman would be proud to call her son, but is instead stuck with an ogre who could give the mother in Sybil a run for her money. The movie takes the unusual approach of sparing John of any serious confrontations with his friends, or the girl he likes. Either they don’t know, or they don’t care, but, whether intentional or not, it emphasizes which character really has the most pressing problem–and it isn’t the one wetting himself.

Original airdate: December 20, 1976

Watch it (in five parts) here

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