My Old Man is the second feature adapted from the early Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name. (The tale previously reached the big screen in 1950, bearing the title Under My Skin and starring John Garfield.) For this version, which was made for television, ubiquitous late-’70s child actor Kristy McNichol was cast as Jo Butler, a teenaged tomboy whose beloved mother dies, compelling her to spend a summer with the father she’s never known, low-rent horse trainer/gambler Frank Butler. Playing the dad is big-screen veteran Warren Oates, best known for his tough-guy roles in Sam Peckinpah pictures. These two make an interesting combination. McNichol, never a great actor but certainly better here than one might expect, is just rough enough around the edges to seem quasi-credible as Oates’ offspring. Oates, meanwhile, showcases his usual ragged screen persona, making the challenge McNichol faces in trying to pierce his shell seem believable. Alas, acting alone does not a good movie make, and My Old Man is weak in every other regard.
The teleplay by Jerome Kass is trite, contriving a wheezy narrative around the idea of Frank and Jo bonding while they train a long-shot horse. Kass puts Frank into a believable but one-dimensional romance with Marie (Eileen Brennan), a plain-Jane waitress, which (predictably) makes Jo lash out with teen angst. Worse, the movie slips into tearjerker territory when Frank suffers an injury, making the last act of the movie uncomfortably similar to that of an underwhelming 1979 big-screen release, The Champ. Pushing the movie even further into mediocrity is pedestrian direction by John Erman: Although he handles actors well, his images are amateurish and clumsy. Nonetheless, in addition to good work by the leads, the movie has some minor virtues: My Old Man was shot on location at the Saratoga race course in upstate New York, lending some authenticity, and offbeat actors Michael Jeter and Howard Rollins Jr. make early appearances.
My Old Man: FUNKY