Failure isn't an option for him

`Door to Door' fine story of taking control of your life

TV Preview

July 13, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It is hard to imagine a much better cast for a television movie than the one in TNT cable's Door to Door: William H. Macy (Fargo), Helen Mirren (Prime Suspect), Kathy Baker (Picket Fences) and Kyra Sedgwick (Something to Talk About). And each of them is performing near the top of their acting games - especially Macy.

And, yet, the most impressive thing about this lovely and moving film about a man who transcended the physical limitations of cerebral palsy to become a successful door-to-door salesman is not the acting, but rather the writing. This is a script written with nuance, care and maybe even love by Macy and Steven Schachter, who also directed. Stories told this wisely and well on television are not to be missed.

"Now listen, it takes people a wee bit longer to warm up to you," Porter's mother (Mirren) says to him at the very start of the movie set in 1955 as she knots his tie and helps him with his suit jacket. "Just be patient. Patient and persistent. You're going to be great."

With the opening credits still rolling, the camera patiently holds on the image of Porter studying himself in the mirror after mom fixes a fedora on his head and walks away. Porter tests his best salesman's smile, but it's all awkwardness, effort and uncertainty looking back at him. No problem, mom's got enough grit and persistence for both of them.

She drives her 22-year-old son into downtown Portland, Ore., for a job interview selling soap for the Watkins Co., but the sales manager can't get past the withered arm, unsteady gait, slurred speech and sideways slant of Porter's posture. It looks like this is one guy who is never going to warm up to Mrs. Porter's son, who leaves with his head down.

But when Porter gets to the street and meets the determined gaze of his mother, who is standing on the other side of the avenue waiting outside the car for him, he turns on his heel and heads back upstairs with a proposition.

"Give me your worst route," he says walking back in unannounced on the sales manager. "Give me the area nobody wants. What have you got to lose? If I can sell it, you're a hero."

Porter walks out with a job, which he signals across the avenue to mom by proudly waving a briefcase of sample wares over his head and laughing a goofy guffaw that makes you smile. The opening credits of Door to Door have barely finished, and already you are starting to love this young man with the big ears and determined ways.

The film follows 40 years of Porter's life using a series of go-to-black breaks with dates and a quotation from Porter and other characters introducing each new segment - much the way chapters in a book biography might work. At first, I thought of the structure as an economical and straightforward way to keep the story moving. But I soon came to understand that there was something deeper happening as a result of this narrative strategy.

Macy and Schachter use the panorama of four decades to help us see Porter not just from the inside out, but also through the eyes of the people on his sales route. By showing the effect he had on some of his customers at various crucial times in their lives, we come to see the neighborhood in which he sold not just as a commercial route, but as a community in which Porter played an important social role because of the kind of person he was.

One of those people is a gentle, lonely alcoholic played so sadly and winningly by Kathy Baker that you'll remember in a flash why she won those Emmys (three) on Picket Fences. You'll also want to wring the necks of all those network executives who seem to turn their backs on actresses like her when they reach a certain age.

Mirren and Baker are wonderful, but it is Sedgwick who absolutely jolts the screen with her energy when her character shows up on Porter's doorstep in answer to a want ad seeking a salesman's assistant. The relationship between her and Porter becomes as profound in its own way as the one he had with his mother.

Door to Door is a film about a man with a disability. But what makes it great is that it focuses on the man instead of the disability. There is no self-pity in this stoical man, and, in staying true to him, the screenwriters go for none of the easy and sappy emotions that made-for-TV movies about disabled people often exploit. Like Porter, this is a hard-nosed script.

There is a real Bill Porter. He is 69 years old and still selling soap for Watkins - only now he's doing it over the phone and the Internet. As the film shows, it took time for this man who walked 10 miles a day on his sales route to warm up to and then figure out how to sell in cyberspace. But he learned the lesson well from mom of patience and persistence. And, just as she promised, he did great.

Door to Door

When: Tomorrow night at 8

Where: TNT

In brief: Bill Macy lights up the screen with this exemplary life of a door-to-door salesman.

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