BOOTLEG FILES 490: “Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson” (1983 TV film starring Laurence Olivier and Jackie Gleason).
LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A VHS video release.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: This unusual film has been out of circulation for many years.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: That would be nice.
During the early 1980s, HBO sought to raise its cred with cable television subscribers by placing an increased focus on original programming. A number of new weekly series, most notably “Fraggle Rock” and “Not Necessarily the News,” and exclusive films including “The Terry Fox Story” were created as part of this push.
In 1983, HBO teamed with the producers Ely and Edie Landau for a one-hour film that would bring together two very different legends of the entertainment world. One of the stars was widely regarded as the greatest actor in the English-speaking world, Laurence Olivier. The other star was simply known to his fans as The Great One, Jackie Gleason.
Surprisingly, these larger than life icons were teamed for an intimate chamber piece that played along the lines of a one-act play. The production, titled “Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson,” did not tap the full range of talent that Olivier and Gleason could bring to the camera. But considering the direction that their respective careers were heading at the time – Gleason was slumming in the “Smoky and the Bandit” franchise while Olivier was grabbing anything that came his way, ranging from “Clash of the Titans” and “Inchon” to a small role in “Brideshead Revisited” – they were fortunate to receive the spotlight in a prestige presentation.
“Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson” opens in a Jewish cemetery – we know it is a Jewish cemetery because nearly every one of the tombstones bears a Star of David. (The fact that the headstones look brand new, despite bearing dates from decades earlier, nearly puts the film off on the wrong foot.) Joe Halpern (Olivier) stays alone for a minute at the grave of his wife. He looks up in confusion at a stranger standing near him – Ernest Johnson (Gleason), dressed in a dapper style and carrying a single carnation.
“You’re not Jewish,” Mr. Halpern says with incredulity to the stranger.
“Is it that obvious?” Mr. Johnson replies. “Have I committed a sartorial indiscretion?”
Actually, Mr. Johnson made a cultural faux pas – flowers are not part of the protocol at a Jewish funeral. Nonetheless, Mr. Halpern acknowledges that his late wife loved flowers, and Mr. Johnson tosses his carnation into the newly dug grave. The men leave the cemetery together.
Six weeks later, Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson meet at a fancy eatery favored by the latter. Mr. Halpern is intrigued by the stranger – he refers to him as the “mystery man” – and he cannot decipher the connection that Mr. Johnson had to his late wife. Mr. Johnson slowly and carefully delivers a bombshell: during his youth, Mr. Johnson was in love with the former Florence Shingowitz, but was unable to marry her because their respective parents did not approve of a union between a Catholic and a Jew. Florence married Mr. Halpern, but maintained a platonic friendship with Mr. Johnson over the years. Three times a year, Florence and Mr. Johnson would meet at a restaurant and catch up on their lives and talk about a wide variety of subjects.
Mr. Halpern is both stunned and angry over this news – and despite Mr. Johnson’s repeated reminders that there was no sex involved in this friendship, Mr. Halpern believes the secret friendship was a betrayal of his trust.
As the men speak about the recently deceased, one gets the impression that they knew two different women rather than the same person. Mr. Johnson refers to Florence as being worldly, with a passion for discussing issues ranging from politics to literature to opera. Mr. Halpern, who repeatedly calls his wife Flo – “She was Flo to everyone!” – doesn’t recognize this woman.
“Politics?” he sputters. “The only politics she was interested in was who sat next to who at the bar mitzvah.”
Mr. Halpern recalls a very different woman – an irascible soul prone to moody and stubborn behavior. “As far as she was concerned, mornings were cancelled,” he says, adding that he served her breakfast in bed because of her early hour laziness. Both men agree on one aspect of the late lady’s life: her disastrous insistence on decision on the installation of a ground-floor bathroom in the Halpern residence, which turned into a costly debacle. Ultimately, the men realize that their radically different memories create a complete picture of a complex woman.
Director Alvin Rakoff had previously directed Olivier in the acclaimed TV production “A Voyage Round My Father,” but in “Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson” it appeared that Rakoff didn’t have much control over his star. Although the story takes place in New York, Olivier avoids a local accent (Mr. Halpern self identifies as an English immigrant). But his line readings are often strident – he registers his indignation with high decibel whines that emphasize every word – and some of his gestures are strangely fussy. When his character begins to broadly hint at being an unfaithful husband, Olivier rolls his eyes, purses his lips and folds his hands in a fey manner that seems at odds with his character’s blue collar career as a cardboard factory owner.
Gleason, on the other hand, never quite shakes his well-established TV persona in favor of plumbing his character’s depths. Indeed, it is not being facetious to expect him to wave his arms and yell, “And away we go!” Rakoff mostly films Gleason in partial shadow – when the camera goes in for a close-up, it becomes obvious that The Great One is wearing a large amount of make-up.
And still, “Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson” clicks. Yes, Lionel Goldstein’s script drips a bit with schmaltz and flippant one-liners, but it lays the foundation of a poignant study of human interaction. Mr. Halpern is stunned at the belated discovery of his late wife’s raconteur skills and interests – until he slowly comes to acknowledge that their marriage had more difficulties and voids than he would rather remember. Mr. Johnson, for his part, barely conceals his longtime obsession with his elusive muse – he comes to realize that he only saw her as he wanted her to be.
“Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson” was filmed at the HTV West Studio in Bristol, England – most likely as a cost-saving consideration. It premiered on HBO on August 28, 1983, to mostly favorable reviews, and Olivier received a Cable ACE Award as Best Actor. (This was at a time when the Emmy Awards barred cable TV shows from eligibility.) There was a U.S. release on VHS video back in the late 1980s, but the film has never been made available on DVD or Blu-ray. There is someone online that is selling a region-free DVD of this film, but this is an unauthorized offering for the collector-to-collector market.
“Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson” may not be a great film, but it is certainly interesting to see such wildly different actors as Olivier and Gleason in this extremely unlikely setting. Hopefully, a proper home entertainment release will bring this elusive work back for a second chance.
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