'Boys' plot needs the missing Link

April 15, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Terminal illness can make for great television melodrama.

"An Early Frost" and "Brian's Song" are two memorable made-for-TV movies that dealt with the certain death of the leading character.

"The Boys," which airs at 9 tonight on WJZ-TV (Channel 13), is about a terminal illness. But despite outstanding acting performances from James Woods and John Lithgow, it is not an especially memorable movie.

It's about a writing team -- Walter Farmer (Woods) and Artie Margulies (Lithgow). The two men live in Hollywood and write for television. They have been together 20 years and are very successful. They are best friends, but very different personality types. Walter exercises and eats health foods. Artie chain smokes.

During one of his annual physicals, Walter, the non-smoker, is diagnosed as having fatal lung cancer. There is a possibility that he got it from 20 years of breathing his partner's smoke in their six-days-a-week writing sessions. The film is about how Walter and Artie cope with the sorrow, resentment, love, anger and fear of Walter's impending death.

The background of this film is almost more interesting than the film itself. "The Boys" was written by William Link, co-creator of TV mysteries including "Columbo" and such groundbreaking made-for-TV movies as "That Certain Summer." His writing partner, Richard Levinson, died in 1987 of a heart attack at the age of 52. They had been writing together since high school. Link calls "The Boys" a semi-autobiographical "tribute" to


That partnership and its great accomplishments seem like they would make for fascinating non-fiction television in the hands of a skilled documentary-maker. As fiction, though, tonight's movie has an emptiness to it. Link tries to leaven his pain over his partner's death with dark humor, and it just does not work. As intimate as the film is, it seems as if Link could not bring himself to reveal the private, innermost dynamic that made this relationship work.

"The Boys" is long on strong acting. But it falls short in making you care.

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