Network television is compiling an impressive body of literature on the horrors and consequences of addiction. Tonight's CBS movie "Vital Signs," at 9 on Channel 9, is a painful, gripping addition to the genre, and the first dramatic treatment in a TV movie of addiction in the medical profession.
It may also boast, if that is the word, the first father-son addict team. In Les Hutson's script, a veteran doctor played by Edward Asner is an alcoholic and his son, played by Gary Cole, is addicted to morphine and amphetamines. According to a book on the medical profession quoted by CBS publicity, one in 10 American doctors is, "at some time during a medical career, impaired by drugs or alcohol." A doctor depicted in the film says that physicians are "30 to 100 times" more likely to succumb to substance addiction than is the general population.
The point is not to scare the general population with the notion that their doctors and surgeons might be stoned at a critical moment, but to show how the disease of addiction can strike even those whom one would assume to be most knowledgeable and sophisticated about it. Old Doc Drunk excuses his abuses by saying, "I'm a drinking man, always have been." The son claims his reliance on morphine has to do with a long-healed leg injury and claims, "I know what my body needs and how it reacts . . . I know what I'm doing; I'm a doctor."
A stage is set for confrontation when the son and his wife return home to live in a house on the father's property; the son will work as a doctor in his father's hospital. They discover their mutual illness but are unable to help one another. Not only the love but the fiery tenacity of a good woman becomes their major hope: Kate McNeil in a solid, flinty performance as the young doctor's wife, who is the strongest character on the premises, and the one with the most resolve.
As directed by Stuart Millar and very effectively scored by Glen Paxton, "Vital Signs" is good drama and good therapy, extremely tense and unsparing, yet not without hope. It ranks with a previous champ in this catgeory of TV movie, ABC's "Shattered Spirits," which was written by Gregory Goodell and directed by Robert Greenwald and failed to get the attention and appreciation it deserved when it aired in early January. Like "Vital Signs," it portrayed the sorrows, the deceptions, the furtive lies of addiction with harrowing and heartbreaking authenticity.
Others in the cast of "Vital Signs" include Barbara Barrie as Asner's wife, who has been foolishly looking the other way for years; reliable John Randolph as a fellow old pro at the hospital; and James Sloyan as Roger Gaines, who holds out the promise of cure, but only if the patients will admit they are sick.
Asner is sturdy and frightening; he grabs the role with both strong hands and doesn't let go. Cole, who so memorably played Capt. Jeff MacDonald in the NBC mini-series "Fatal Vision," shows again that he is a puppy with bite; he seems particulary adept at playing duplicitous and devious sorts. But it is McNeil who gives the film a brisk, powerful snap.
Hutson's script has exemplary economy and depth. Millar is in control every step of the way (the supervising producer was Stanley Kallis, for CBS Entertainment Productions). Still, one demurring word might be uttered. We have now seen TV movies about an addicted real estate agent, an addicted businessman, addicted doctors and seemingly scores of addicted teens. But widespread substance abuse in the entertainment industry, heavily documented elsewhere, continues to be one aspect of this problem that TV movies by and large have slighted. The time for such a film is long overdue.