"When I first read the script for 'Do You Remember Love,' I thought it was beautiful, but it's really heavy stuff," said Richard Kiley. "At this point in my life, I didn't know if I wanted to do something this heavy . . . something that would be dredging the guts out of me."
The heavy stuff of "Do You Remember Love," a CBS Tuesday night movie at 9, is Alzheimer's disease.
At a time when the problem-drama is becoming one of television's most popular formats, a cynic might dismiss "Remember" as just another disease- of-the-week show. But the movie's plaintive title and a check of the credits -- both of the leads have rich acting backgrounds and a familiarity with the disease -- make this a hard one to avoid.
Joanne Woodward plays a 50-year- old poet and college professor who is stricken with Alzheimer's disease and who begins to deteriorate in front of her class and colleagues, to the dismay of her husband, played by Kiley, and her mother, Geraldine Fitzgerald.
Woodward has won both an Oscar ("The Three Faces of Eve") and an Emmy ("See How She Runs"). In real life, Woodward's mother suffers from the disease.
"She lives down South, where Joanne's roots are," said Kiley. "I think the family is down there a lot. Joanne said you reach a point where there's nothing to be said (to the disease's victim) because it doesn't register or it's distorted. You hold the person, rock her, hum to her . . . I think she wanted to exorcise herself in doing this part," added Kiley.
One sequence, he recalled, involved Woodward's going to a nursing home sheltering Alzheimer's sufferers. "That was a heavy day for Joanne," he said.
Kiley's mother is in a nursing home, and though she does not suffer from Alzheimer's, she's surrounded by a number of people who do.
"It's such a terrifying scourge," said Kiley. "But like so many things that scare the crap out of you, it's better to face it . . . to shine a light on it. That makes it lose some if its terror."
"Do You Remember Love" traces the development of the disease, from Woodward's character's first loss of memory and periods of confusion and personality change. And it shows the pain of those around her -- accepting and coping don't come easy.
"In the beginning, victims feel it slipping away," said Kiley, "but later they don't realize how they are. It's then a beholder's disease. And it's untreatable and uncontrollable."
Kiley praised the show's producers for doing their homework on the disease. But is it a good drama?
"I suppose there's always a certain amount of exploitation of something of current interest," he said. "There is along with the exploitation a certain amount of public service . . .
"In dramatic terms . . . I saw a rough-cut version and thought there were some exciting things in it. They're trying to say that facing the unknown is better than shoving someone into a facility and forgetting them. We have to face these truths one way or another . . . " In all, Kiley said, "I don't know how good it is, but the heart was definitely in the right place."
Kiley's acting talent has been in the right place -- which is to say everywhere -- for decades. Born in Chicago 63 years ago, he got his start in radio, distinguished himself on the stage, has been doing television since its golden age and has found time to do a movie or two.
Kiley was introduced to radio by a high school pal, Charlie Flynn, an actor who played Jack Armstrong. Kiley did brief stints on programs like "Ma Perkins," "The Guiding Light" and "The Whistler."
After a tour of duty with the Navy in World War II, he went back to Chicago. "I earned $600, put that in my kick and took the overnight sit-up train to New York to try stage work."
He won a Tony for "Redhead" in 1958 and won another Tony and the Drama Critics and Drama Guild awards -- and stage immortality -- for his portrayal of Don Quixote in "Man of La Mancha."
In film, he's been in "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" and in "The Blackboard Jungle," the movie that introduced rock 'n' roll and juvenile delinquency to much of America. He played the nice- guy teacher whose prized record collection was smashed by his not-so- nice students.
And there's been television, from its golden days of live drama (he played an ambitious young executive in Rod Serling's "Patterns") to the modern miniseries (he won an Emmy for his supporting part in "The Thorn Birds").
"Of them all," he said, "I think live TV was probably the most exciting. You have continuity, you had the excitement of knowing there are 50 million people watching right now, and if you fall on your ass or are brilliant there's no 'cut' -- it's there. Plus, it has the intimacy of the camera. On stage, you play to the last seat in the balcony. With the camera it's like playing a scene in your own livng room."
Kiley makes his home not far from the New York stage, about an hour and a half upstate. He lives in an old farmhouse that he and his wife recently remodeled. Married for the second time, he has six grown children by his first wife and nine grandchildren.
In some ways his career has come full circle, with two of his most recent projects being reminiscent of his radio days. He narrated both "Land of the Tiger" and "Ballad of the Irish Horse" for PBS.
Now it's a drama about a dread disease. " 'Do You Remember Love' doesn't say there's a cure for Alzheimer's disease," he said, "but it affirms the one thing that binds us -- love. It says that you should surround the victim with as much love as possible."