"My Old Man," the CBS movie at 9 tonight on Channel 9, may not win any medals for fidelity to the Ernest Hemingway piece on which it is loosely based, but the film is far more than just another girl-meets-horse story. Far, and away -- and far, far better.
The girl is played by Kristy McNichol, the horse goes by the name of Gilford and Warren Oates plays the old man of the title, a grizzled drifter who reclaims his daughter after 14 years of estrangement and, with her, embarks on what becomes, in a masterfully understated way, a grand adventure.
McNichol becomes more appealing and assured with each passing TV season; she has yet to show any signs of turning into another of Hollywood's plastic brats. Oates, as her father, Frank Butler, shows just a trace -- but an unmistakable one -- of the haunting, crusty world-weariness we associate with the latter-day Bogart of "African Queen." Together these two are a convincing, refreshing team, partly because writer Jerome Kass courageously resisted the temptation to over-sentimentalize them.
Eileen Breenan is instrumental in the film's success too, playing a plucky, big-hearted waitress who refuses to let life flip her one more bad penny. Still crazy about Frank after all these years, she convinces him and his daughter -- over the girl's considerable and plausible resentments -- to move in with her as they prepare for the climactic Big Race.
The relationships between these characters are refreshingly complex and full-blooded. When the old man and the teen-ager do move in and McNichol asks where her father will sleep, Brennan answers, "He'll sleep with me; where do you think he'll sleep?"
When Pops is badly injured by the very horse on whom high hopes are riding, Brennan at his hospital bed tells McNichol, with unimpeachable gut-level sincerity, "I hope he doesn't die.I ain't nearly had enough of him yet." The writer, the actors, and director John Erman have managed to show, and very gracefully, why it is that people not wildly lovable at first glance may be nevertheless loved devotedly by others.
Erman also did an exceptional job of capturing the atmosphere of The Track, with its gallery of hangers-on, foolish dreamers, and all-but-dead-beats. These subsidiary characters never deteriorate into Runyoniana, and nowhere has the film been overtly cuted up. As a girl-and-horse story, it makes fairly recent theatrical features such as "International Velvet" look ready for the glue factory.
McNichol's line readings may sound a trifle flat at times, but those dreamy and purposeful eyes speak volumes, and always to the point. Kristy is fine, very very fine. And so's her old man.