No education television would be complete without "Requiem for a Heavyweight," but watching it again now after 24 years is not just an academic exercise. Even if Rod Serling's play does creak slightly at certain junctures, the characterizations and performances and the basic good idea behind it remain strong and indelible.
This is a classic of the most vibrant kind, and it doesn't need any kind of special dispensation, despite its age, any more than it needs the sloppy packaging placed on it for its public television airing tonight at 9 o'clock on Channel 26. Producer Sonny Fox threw together interviews with some of the principal contributors to this milestone and used an amateurishly gesticulating and blubbering Jack Klugman as the obigatory public-TV hand-holding host, and none of this is of much assistance to anyone.
Once the play itself begins, one can see why what's called The Golden Age of Television is so fondly remembered in hearts and minds aged 30 or more; the second entry in the landmark weekly CBS "Playhouse 90" series that began in 1956, "Requiem for a Heavyweight" has the leanness, grit and confrontational intimacy associated with the best TV theater. Those who think the '50s were all innocuousness and optimism will get a jolt out of how very moving, how simply and devastatingly sad this play is, despite the last-minute redemptive ending that Serling somewhat awkwardly tagged on.
Since the broadcast of the play has become a legendary event, it is hard to judge the work of the actors in cold objectivity, and it probably isn't necessary to do so anyway. There is a stiffness and drama-schoolishness to the opening scenes with Jack Palance as the burned out prizefighter of the title, Keenan Wynn as his desperate manager, and Ed Wynn, in his dramatic debut, as his soft-hearted trainer.
But then, in act two, Palance shows up at an employment office and there meets a sympathetic social worker played by the never-uninteresting Kim Hunter. The best scenes in "Requiem" involved only two people, and this scene, in which Hunter is at first indifferent and then growingly vulnerable to the plight of the simple hunk that stands before her, could not be any better. It could not be any better. It is sacred.
It is demeaning to a great work to boil it down into moments, and "Requiem" shows tremendous cumulative power. But there are times when the reverberations are extra-theatrical, as when Wynn the elder, having recounted the way life has abused the aging fighter, stands at a doorway and says, "Doesn't it make your want to die?"
Or Palance, astonished when the social worker shows up at his hang-out bar, says to the bartender, "Hey Charlie, hey! How about a glass for the lady," in a way that could break the stoutest heart. The look on Palance's face, in what is probably the performance of his career, brings to mind the haunted, stricken everyman played by James Mason in Carol Reed's "Odd Man Out," but with Palance it is somehow more contemporary, less mythic, more American, no less affecting.
"Requiem for a Heavyweight" was originally telecast live on Oct. 11, 1956; there are a couple of line fluffs, though not by the leads, and a wobbling wall or two, but what you get even from a recording of that performance is the sense of what happened when ideas and artists still had some status in television. It was produced by Martin Manulis and directed by Ralph Nelson, and it belongs not only in the history books but back on the air, for the generation now in adulthood that thinks TV has never been anything but sitcoms and soapsuds.
On Wednesday night, "Requiem" was shown by the Maryland public TV stations and desecrated with two nine-minute interruptions for pledge begging, by the usual sham less and shameful chipsters, thus polluting the highest form of television with the lowest.