It's a high fly to deep center. It's going, it's going, it's gone. It's a homer. "Aunt Mary," the CBS drama special at 9 tonight on Channel 9, makes a touching and prodigious heartwarmer, benefiting immeasurably from Jean Stapleton's unerring performance in the title role.
The story is based on the life of Mary Dobkin, who survived 30 years in hospitals and more than 130 operations -- including the partial amputation of a leg -- and spent countless hours coaching the kids of Baltimore in the American art of baseball.
Stapleton, who left the regular cast of "All in the Family" after eight triumphal years as Edith Bunker, makes the neighbor lady known to befriended kids as Aunt Mary a distinctive characterization, totally independent of Archie's wife, in this rudimentary but lovingly performed film. i
The script is by longtime Hollywood pro Burt Prelutsky, who among other accomplishments once wrote a hilarious, curmudgeonly column for The Los Angeles Times. One can see traces of it in the character played by Martin Balsam (who has somewhat replaced Stapleton as the Bunker foil on "Archie's Place"), a kindly, pot-bellied misanthrope who lives next door.
Aunt Mary is determined to put together a Little League team and doesn't let racial prejudice against a young black player or her own physical infirmities stand in the way. As quietly directed by Peter Werner, this becomes a simple but very encouraging story of people trying to behave honorably and for the benefit of others.
The members of the team calling itself "The Dynamites are dynamite indeed, especially Anthony Cafisio as tough tot Nicholas Rocco. Similarities to "The Bad News Bears" are only superficial, and the film has a wonderfully comfortable nostalgic hue. It is set in 1954. The streets were safer then.