It is a safe bet that we won't see another made-for-television movie this season with the star power of Showtime's remake of "12 Angry Men," which airs tonight.
At least not on the broadcast networks, where a blockbuster cast these days often means the likes of Brian Austin Green, Tori Spelling and a co-star from "Saved by the Bell."
Tonight's starting lineup includes Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, Courtney B. Vance, George C. Scott, Ossie Davis, Dorian Harewood, Edward James Olmos and Armin Mueller-Stahl, among others, under the direction of William Friedkin of "The Exorcist" and "The French Connection" fame.
Nor will we probably have as many splendid performances to celebrate. In addition to the actors already named from whom fine acting is expected, Mykelti Williamson ("Forrest Gump") and William Petersen ("Long Gone") stand tall.
It's almost enough to make you say the remake is as good as the original. Almost, but not quite, if you are talking about the 1957 feature film starring Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, Ed Begley, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden and E. G. Marshall with Sidney Lumet directing.
But Showtime's production is better than the original-original that aired as a one-hour drama on CBS' "Studio One" in 1954 with Franchot Tone, Robert Cummings and Norman Fell under the direction of Franklin Schaffner. Much better.
A simple story
All three use the script of Reginald Rose, who served as co-producer with Fonda of the 1957 version. The story line is deceptively simple: Twelve men sit in a jury room trying to decide whether an inner-city Hispanic teen is guilty of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of his father.
It's the hottest day of the summer in Queens, New York, and, as the drama starts, 11 jurors vote guilty without hesitation. The lone holdout, Juror No. 8, stands against the majority who want a quick end to their conscripted duty. His integrity is the catalyst that ignites this searing look into the community's civic soul.
Fonda plays Juror No. 8 in the film. Lemmon plays him for Showtime. Give the edge to Fonda, but, in his absence, you couldn't do better than Lemmon.
"The fundamental decency of the average American guy -- that's the essence of Jack Lemmon on screen," Lemmon's close friend Walter Matthau told me on a schmoozy summer's afternoon almost 20 years ago in a bungalow on the back lot of Universal Studios. That Lemmon persona is what Friedkin uses to make this version resonate so powerfully.
Yes, Fonda's persona was also connected to notions of decency, fair play and the average American. But Fonda was America, pre-World War II. He was a more rural or agrarian version -- blue-jean lean and sinewy. Think Tom Joad.
Lemmon is the post-World-War-II version: urban, neurotic, rumpled suit. Think "The Apartment."
In the end, they are both wonderful to watch as Juror No. 8, even though Lemmon is tackling the demanding role at a much later stage of his career than Fonda.
The most noticeable difference in Showtime's remake is in the ethnic composition of the cast. In the original, all 12 men are white. In tonight's telling, four are black. The only nod to gender is in making the judge a woman.
The most provocative change is in having Williamson play the overtly racist character originally portrayed by Begley. The white parking garage owner is now a black Muslim who owns a string of carwashes.
While I think it's valid to challenge an African-American character to confront his or her own possibly racist feelings, I think there's a danger in changing the one clearly defined racist character from white to black. It can be read as absolving the white members of the jury of racist attitudes, which significantly cuts into the ethnic edge of Showtime's production.
The one moment where the remake pales beside the original film is when most of the jury members turn their backs and walk away from a racist tirade delivered by the Begley-Williamson character. Begley's speech echoes back across the American centuries to the original sin of slavery in America. But coming from Williamson's mouth, the speech goes nowhere. It's not about acting. It's about the color of the speaker.
It is important to remember that Rose wrote this script at the height of what has come to be known as McCarthyism. Civil liberties were trampled, while people's careers and lives were ruined because they were denied the chance to defend themselves against what were often recklessly leveled charges of being "un-American."
Like the original, Showtime's "12 Angry Men" is a stirring reminder of how much the promise of America depends on each of us.
'12 Angry Men'
Showtime's remake of "12 Angry Men" airs at 9 tonight with replays Aug. 25 and 30.
Pub Date: 8/17/97