The very personal story of transsexual Renee Richards, born Richard Raskind, may be this season's most intriguing television movie. Certainly it offers Vanessa Redgrave an opportunity to tackle an extremely complex role. Called "Second Serve," the film airs Tuesday at 9 on CBS and co-stars Louise Fletcher, Alice Krige and Martin Balsam.
The metamorphosis of Raskind, married and the father of a son, into Richards gained much publicity after his surgery in 1975. Yet the personal, emotional and psychological side of the story remained untold, largely because Richards wanted to get on with her life and careers as a respected ophthalmological surgeon and as a professional tennis player.
But executive producer Linda Yellen was fascinated with Richards' story and with Richards as a person. "I'm very interested in choices . . . and how much is in our control and what is beyond our control, and what we can do to change people's lives . . . If any of us have ever had anything we wanted to do with our lives -- a small thing such as a job, or some major thing connected with our identity -- I think by seeing Renee and what Renee had to give up to be true to herself will give us courage and inspiration to take those changes with our own lives."
Yellen had worked earlier with Vanessa Redgrave in "Playing for Time," the story of Fania Fenelon, who survived Auschwitz by playing in an orchestra of prisoners while others were sent off to their deaths. Emmies went to Redgrave and Jane Alexander, as the orchestra's leader; Arthur Miller for his teleplay, and the film itself for Outstanding Drama Special.
But many Jews were enraged that Redgrave, known for her pro-Arab sympathies, was speaking out against Israel while portraying a Jew. Originally, explained Yellen, "we cast her against no opposition. She had been already cast for five or six months when a lot of opposition started. But we kept her in the role against opposition."
So Yellen tapped Redgrave again when she set out to film "Second Serve."
"When it comes to working, making the movie, she's a perfectionist and so am I, and we both try to take chances, and find that exciting. I find, doing that, it gets the adrenalin flowing. There was a moment there -- it's just so typical of what went on for the whole show . . . We were doing tests for wigs and makeup, and we were looking at the beautiful wigs that were made, crew-cut wigs, and she saw my face -- I'm not an actress, I just couldn't hide it: I was disappointed. She said she would get out of costume and join us for lunch. But she didn't. She appeared after lunch, and she had used a shaver on her head, shaving her temples down to the scalp -- men have receding temples. I practically wanted to cry. It was that chance -- that bold chance. If it had been wrong . . . "
Judging from the photos of Redgrave in both roles, it was the right move to help her get into the role of a person who feels trapped in the wrong body. "Second Serve" works, said Yellen, "principally because of Vanessa's brilliant performance. When you're watching her . . . it points up maleness," but it also points up the underlying commonality of both sexes.
Yellen said Redgrave and Richards met only once, but "Vanessa saw many hours of footage of Renee talking, interviews . . . At the time when this thing exploded in the press, she was interviewed by almost everybody." And, she added, "They look so much alike." Richards is 6-foot-2, Redgrave is 6 feet tall.
"Vanessa has a voice and manner and a way of carrying herself which is really unusual -- it's also a different personality," said Yellen, adding: "And Vanessa's tennis game became extraordinary."
Richards gave up her tennis career in 1982 to return to her medical practice, after having won a lawsuit in 1977 against the U.S. Tennis Association and the Women's Tennis Association. The ruling, from the New York State Supreme Court, enabled her to play in women's tournaments in the United States, including the U.S. Open played in Richards' home town of Forest Hills. She had encountered much opposition from women tennis players who claimed Richards still had male hormones and who feared her experience gleaned from the competitive men's tennis circuit (Raskind was ranked No. 6 nationally in the men's 35-and-over division). Both the International Tennis Federation and the WTA had wanted clinical chromosome tests before they would allow her to play. But when she did play, Richards, at 42, found herself facing much younger women, many of them teen- agers. Later she turned to coaching Martina Navratilova.
The film touches briefly on Raskind's childhood, implying that gender confusion may be blamed on the pairing of a strong- willed mother and a submissive father (and an older sister who liked to dress him up as a girl), but the bulk of the story begins during Raskind's college days at Yale. His fiancee, discovering he is a transvestite, breaks their engagement. After serving in the Navy medical corps and winning the all-Navy tennis title, "Dr. Radley" decides to have the sex-change operation. But before it takes place, he opts once again to try to live as a man, and marries and fathers a son. (Yellen said that Redgrave's character is known as Dr. Richard Radley and other names have been changed to protect the Raskind family, at Richards' request.)
In real life, Raskind began taking female hormones in 1964 and planned to have a sex change operation in Casablanca in 1966, but postponed the idea because of unsanitary hospital conditions there. The operation took place in 1975 in New York.
The changes from man to woman were challenging for Redgrave, who also had to portray "Radley" when he donned female attire during a stage of cross-dressing. In addition, said Yellen, "There are about eight stages of going from a man to being a woman. Because a film is shot out of sequence, sometimes she'd have to be a man in the morning, and be a woman, and then be a man again. As a challenge, I can't think of anything greater." Unlike Dustin Hoffman's role in "Tootsie" and Julie Andrews' in "Victor/Victoria," where the viewer realized that the star was masquerading, Redgrave's performance is the lynchpin of "Second Serve."
Richard/Renee's various looks, requiring changes in hair, makeup, wardrobe and modifying padding, were done by Peter Owens, with makeup designer Del Acevedo and costumer Noel Taylor. Each "look" took about three hours to complete.
The script is by Stephanie Liss and Gavin Lambert. "Gavin, Vanessa and myself attended meetings of a transsexual group called Androgyny," said Yellen. "At first it was odd being around them, but after a while you see them as their own personality . . . Even today, months after the shooting has been completed, I walk down the street and I'm aware that this man, this woman have something about them, that there are all these blendings . . . boundaries spill over."
Yellen says she hopes the film will have the effect of tearing down stereotypes. "I think this film will affect people without its having a personal message for them."
Yellen and Richard Raskind grew up in Forest Hills, N.Y., where Yellen's father ran a drug store and her mother was a biochemist. Raskind was born into a well- to-do family, the son of two physicians. At Yale University (Class of 1955), he captained the tennis team. Although the two had not met in Forest Hills, Yellen describes Raskind as "a remarkable person, serious, strong-willed, very brilliant . . . one of the foremost eye surgeons in the world . . . The reason I chose his story was because here was a person who had it all, very mainstream, successful. Now (Richards' life) is very successful, very private -- very much the way she would like it. She goes to great lengths to keep it secret."
After the surgery and the initial publicity about her sex change operation, Richards, who had given up family and friends and a lucrative ophthalmological practice in Manhattan, moved to Newport Beach, Calif., to begin again. She entered a few tennis tournaments in Southern California, but her identity was uncovered when a reporter approached her before a singles tournament at LaJolla, which she won. At first she denied that she had ever been Richard Raskind, but in the face of facts finally admitted it. That evening's television newscast announced that the tournament had been won by a man masquerading as a woman, and the circus sideshow began again.
"She had built a very nice lifestyle with a boyfriend when the truth broke out" for a second time and dashed her hopes for normalcy, said Yellen. "But she lives very well with it. She's made great strides in medicine, found links between eye problems and dyslexia . . . and she has a good and close relationship with the son. She sees him every weekend."
Yellen calls making "Second Serve," based on Richards' 1983 autobiography, "an enormous trust . . . Someone gives you their life to be done." Yellen herself tried acting in college although "I come from a very conservative family and it was something that we would never have done." But even though she enjoyed acting, "I thought the director was wrong. Little did I know that all actors feel that way. So I took up directing."
An early piece she did in college caught the eye of Richard Rodgers, who gave her a grant to make her first movie, "Prosper," which was entered in the 1971 New York Film Festival. Yellen said the plot was "about a girl who lived in a tree in Central Park, but in her own mind she was as good and as special as all the rich people with exciting lives she met on Fifth Avenue. So it dealt with illusion."
Mainly to please her parents, Yellen went to medical school, but ended with a graduate degree in film at Columbia University. "I found that the long hours required for medical school were so draining, but if I could spend those same hours editing a film, I didn't even know it." Movies had become such a part of Yellen's life that "I remember there was a question on one of my college (medical) exams: 'What do you do if you're bit by a leech?' I knew, apply salt, because of 'The African Queen.'
"Beyond that, it's such a wonderful way to communicate with people. I'm drawn to dealing with stories that change and effect people's lives."
Though Richards reportedly had turned down others who wanted to film her life story, Yellen said Richards told her that "she thought it would be worth it if just a few people could be changed, to be more tolerant . . . After all, Renee lived with this every day of her life. What's very provocative is the way we live our lives, even those of us who consider ourselves liberated from boundaries. The last six months, I've been actively sharing the concept with other people."
Yellen's next project is the life story of Jan Novak, now living in Washington, "the innocent man who during World War II got involved running between Poland and England saving lives and acting as a spy. He saw the fall of Poland but was unable to do anything about it. He was a very young man at the time, but it changed his life. He became the Voice of Europe for the BBC, and his broadcasts then changed the life of another young man, Lech Walesa."