Cbs Drama Tackles The Sticky Abortion Issue

April 14, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The networks hate dealing with abortion.

Incest, rape, serial killers: No problem. Television has made lots of movies and docudramas about those.

But not abortion.

The only serious treatment of the topic was NBC's widely acclaimed "Roe vs. Wade" two years ago. Think of that: It took almost 40 years of mainstream entertainment television before a network made a major commitment to a movie or docudrama on abortion.

The reason was evident in the protests and advertiser boycotts surrounding "Roe," which lost an estimated $1.5 million in ad pullouts. The TV industry has seen abortion as a no-win situation. Not only is a serious dramatization likely to anger or alienate one or both of the large groups opposed to each other on the issue, it is also virtually guaranteed to lose money, since advertising time can be difficult to sell.

But CBS takes on the subject tonight at 9 (Channel 11) with "Absolute Strangers." Based on a true story, it stars Henry Winkler as Marty Klein, a certified public accountant from Long Island whose pregnant wife was critically injured in an auto accident. As his wife lingers in a coma, Klein comes to believe that the best hope for her recovery involves aborting the 15-week fetus she's carrying.

As drama, the film is not in the same league as the "Roe vs. Wade." But, then, few movies are.

It is, however, an affecting docudrama with a strong lead performance by Winkler and support from Karl Malden, Richard Kiley and Patty Duke.

This is Winkler's first acting role since 1984. Best known as Fonzie Fonzarelli of "Happy Days," he has been working primarily as a producer of such shows as "MacGyver." Here, he plays Klein as a bright and decent but otherwise unremarkable, upper-middle-class guy suddenly thrust into the ferocious national debate over abortion. Klein is someone who just wants what is best for his wife and Winkler's rendering is what makes the film work.

The struggle that produces the drama is between Klein and anti-abortion activists who ask a court to name them guardians of the comatose woman and her fetus. The two persons named in the petitions as would-be guardians are the "absolute strangers."

Does the film take sides, as alleged by the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss.? Those opposed to abortion will probably see it that way, just as they did with "Roe vs. Wade."

But there is a simple, non-ideological reason for that, which has nothing to do with Winkler's announced pro-choice beliefs. This story is told from the Kleins' point of view; the rights to make the film were bought from them. In docudrama, such business almost always skews the film in a particular direction. That's one of many problems with docudrama in general.

Wildmon has no fondness for the genre either. But despite his opposition to the approach in general and this film in particular, he denies reports of having called for an advertiser boycott of the program. Having led the charge against "The Last Temptation of Christ" three years ago, he told The Sun in an interviewlast week that he refrained this time.

"My guess," said Wildmon, who had not seen the film, "is that the film is so pro-abortion that advertisers -- on their own initiative will stay off the program."

He added that even though CBS "might have a full schedule of ads Sunday night, [one should ask whether] they sold at $275,000 for 30 seconds or only $50,000" because there was little demand. Channel 11, which sells a certain number of ad spots for network programs, declined to comment on sales for "Absolute Strangers." A CBS spokesman did likewise, citing network policy not to discuss advertising sales.

In fact, however, CBS has talked openly in recent months about loss of ad revenue during the Persian Gulf war.

Still, though advertiser pullouts and critical judgments about performances are significant aspects of this film, they are ultimately not as important as the sociology. About 15 million people will watch this emotional rendering of one of the most divisive topics in American life. Some will love it. Some will surely hate it. The question is: How many real-life, life-and-death decisions will be affected by the dramatized events on the screen tonight?

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