Pure, disarming charm and sportsmanlike conduct by Louis Gossett Jr. make ABC's Sunday Night Movie, "Don't Look Back," a winner. The severly underdramatized story of pitching great Leroy (Satchel) Paige is kept alive by Gossett's resolve and reserve; he has canny actor's instincts and a bracing, affirmative masculine presence.
The film opens with the real Paige introducing his story; the voiceover cross-fades into Gossett's narration, and the film flashes back to Paige's days as a baseball-playing teenager in Mobile, Ala. Unfortunately, it then awkwardly flashes back again, to Paige's childhood, which is perfunctorily distilled into one court appearnace with his parents, at which time he's sent off to a juvenile home because of some mischief and petty thefts.
"Baseball was all I ever learned," Gossett narrates as the story finally takes chronological hold. The white coach at the institution advises him, upon his departure, "Play baseball, Satch; you've got a real gift," but after a moving homecoming scene, a confrontation between son and mother is glumly predictable.
"Mama, I'm gonna be a baseball player," Paige says at the kitchen table. "A what????" says Mama. The script by Ron Rubin, from Paige's book "Maybe I'll Pitch Forever, " is sometimes unbelievably drab, and director Richard A. Colla clearly couldn't have cared less about livening it up.
Colla has no way with exposition or embellishment. A montage of plays from Paige's days with the black baseball leagues of the '20s and '30s goes on far too long and is accompanied by what may well be the worst and most inappropriate music to be heard in a TV movie this year. Rubin and Colla also pay far too much attention to a racist baseball announcer who manages to show up at virtually every game in which Paige pitches.
The story follows Paige through standard, but believable, ups and downs. A smash success in the black leagues, Paige accepts an invitation to take his team to the Dominican Republic for a few weeks and is then banned from participation by the league owners when he returns home. Money starts running out and an injury to his pitching arm raises the possibility that he will never throw another "trouble ball," or any other pitch, again.
Among those who populate his life are Cleavon Little as a friend, Beverly Todd as the woman he eventually marries, the late Jim Davis as a team owner and Ossie Davis in a cameo as Chuffy Russell, a dethroned baseball king reduced to washing dishes in a dive for a living. When the news breaks that Jackie Robinson has been signed by the Dodgers and the color barrier in the major leagues has been demolished at last, Paige's life changes for the better. He is signed by the Cleveland Indians and later elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
You can tell there's a good story in there somewhere, mainly because Gossett -- lanky, sunny, eager -- is as encouraging an actor as Paige apparently was an optimist. Told there is not a chance in the world he'll ever play ball with the white guys, the young Paige says, "I figure I'll get so good, they got to take me." The buoyant conviction Gossett brings to this part is major league stuff in itself.