There must have been a lot of quiet dinner hours around the Rintels-Riskin household.
David Rintels is a producer of good TV movies. Tell him a juicy story and he tries to spill it to everyone with a TV set.
Victoria Riskin is a clinical psychologist who has been in practice 16 years. When she hears an intriguing story, she keeps it to herself.
"I have such a strong feeling about the privacy of my patients," said Riskin. "I would not share what was going on with them. That became not a barrier between us, but I had my own world. Little by little I found ways to share it without identifying who people were so I could share things with David. It became a bonding experience for us. It became a way David could come into my world and live in it with me, and that was deeply gratifying to me."
And it will be gratifying for anyone tuning in, tissue at the ready, to "The Last Best Year" (Sunday at 9 on ABC). Mary Tyler Moore and Bernadette Peters share top billing in a film whose premise is starkly simple: Peters' character, a rather solitary figure, is told she has a terminal illness. Moore, playing a psychologist, is asked to counsel her in her final days.
The story draws heavily on Riskin's experience in her practice and personal friendships, but she is quick to point out that the Peters character is such a composite that none of her patients will feel their confidence violated.
A bit of her own experience will be revealed, though, as the therapist in the movie comes to terms with her own feelings.
Peters plays Jane Murray, an unassuming career woman with few friends, who is suddenly diagnosed as having terminal cancer. That same day, her boyfriend, who's married to someone else, decides their relationship has run its course. Her physician, sensing she is facing her crisis alone, suggests that Moore's character, psychologist Wendy Allen, take her on as a patient. Both women are reluctant. Murray is not one to tell her problems to others; Allen fears the stirring of troubling memories of her own.
"The therapist part runs very close to my experience," said Riskin, "in that I lost my father when I was a child. He became ill and it was very confusing to me, as the character in the movie says, and I felt helpless. So when it was put to me whether I'd like to work with someone with a terminal illness, my first thought was, No, I don't want to do that sort of thing. My second thought was that it had to do with my own fears."
The movie's therapist relents, the patient comes around, and the film is launched on a voyage of self-discovery, analysis and resolution, with one of the partners working under an unyielding deadline. For Murray, there are questions to be answered, among them: Whatever happened to the son she put out for adoption nearly 20 years ago?
It is a moving story, simply told. And, from Rintels' point of view, it almost got away. That was the day Riskin was outlining the story to a mutual friend, a screenwriter. "I chased her out the door," said Rintels, "and pleaded with Vicki that I wanted to do it."
Rintels wrote and produced the Emmy-winning "Day One" and holds writer or producer credits for such work as "Sakharov" for HBO, "The Execution of Raymond Graham," "Gideon's Trumpet," "Washington: Behind Closed Doors" and "Fear on Trial." He is the writer/producer for "Last Year." His wife, the therapist, served as the film's executive producer. It's not the naked nepotism it might seem -- Riskin has film connections of her own. Her father, Robert Riskin, was a screenwriter whose credits included "It Happened One Night," "Meet John Doe," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "Lost Horizon." Her mother: actress Fay Wray.
In a very good move, they engaged John Erman to direct. He owns an Emmy for "Who Will Love My Children," in which Ann-Margret played a dying mother trying to find homes for her children. Like "Last Year," it is a film with a simple, moving story, told in a relatively matter-of-fact style.
"That's the reason he was chosen," said Rintels. "He handles such material very well. I think he's generally considered to be good with women." Erman, in turn, persuaded Rintels and Riskin that Peters was perfect for her part. "He was right about that," said Rintels.
Moore's husband in the film, more or less Rintels' counterpart, is only vaguely drawn in the film. "He's undefined," said Rintels. "That was left on the cutting room floor. He's a teacher, which I am rarely." (He's been an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California.) "I felt that my part in the movie, as in real life, was to be supportive, but it's really Vicki's story."
And it is hugely Peters' character's story, as she goes about crossing the T's and dotting the I's of her troubled past while there is time.
"I think we live our lives as if we are immortal and as though death is something that happens to other people, unless you've had some close touches with it," said Riskin. "I think there are things that happen to us that do accumulate and remain unresolved. When time is limited, for some people, they get very focused.
"It can be a stimulant to focus on what's important. This woman doesn't have an elaborate life, but there can be things that are important. She simply begins to take care of things. in a way it's a metaphor, that many of us do carry around unresolved relationships, parts of ourselves that are untouched, that we think, when we retire, next week, we'll take care of them."