“Ripped from the headlines” TV movies have gotten a bad rap over the years—and deservedly so. After all, most such projects combine sensationalism and superficiality to create stupidity. Yet the law of averages ensures that some timely telefilms are bound to be worthwhile. One example is The Death of Richie, the respectable dramatization of a grim real-life incident during which a suburban father shot his own teenaged son to death. Like so many hand-wringing TV dramas of the ’70s, The Death of Richie illustrates the plight of parents whose teenagers become drug addicts. Doe-eyed ’70s dreamboat Robby Benson stars as Richie Werner, the oldest of two sons in a middle-class American family. Much to the chagrin of his repressed parents, George (Ben Gazzara) and Carol (Eileen Brennan), Richie runs with a gang of dropouts who abuse booze, grass, and pills. Tortured by shyness and upset by his inability to score with girls, Richie even builds a hidden room inside the Werner home, converting a crawlspace into a drug lair complete with blacklight posters and a strobe lamp.
Once Richie starts getting into trouble with the law, George intervenes by helping Richie get a job, and Carol joins a support group for parents in similar situations. Yet none of the family’s efforts impede Richie’s downward spiral. Eventually, violent clashes occur, with Richie threatening his father at one point by brandishing a pair of scissors. The parents seek an order of protection, deepening the schism with their son, and the tension culminates during a deadly showdown in the family basement.
In addition to smooth direction by small-screen workhorse Paul Wendkos, The Death of Richie benefits from methodical storytelling. Cause-and-effect relationships between events are clear, so the dissipation of Richie’s mental state is tethered to the frustration his parents feel as they exhaust options for fixing their problem. Benson employs his signature sensitivity to convey the angst of a young man who can’t connect with other people, and Gazzara gives uncharacteristically nuanced work as a man struggling to expand his emotional vocabulary. (Like costars Charles Fleischer and Clint Howard, Brennan gets stuck with one of the film’s underwritten supporting roles.) The Death of Richie gets a bit long-winded at times, and someone should have stopped Benson from doing cutesy movie-star impressions during a lighthearted scene. Generally speaking, however, this is tough stuff made with sincerity and thoughtfulness, sort of a nihilistic alternative to the wholesome Afterschool Special approach.
The Death of Richie: GROOVY