By JOHN CORRY
Published: March 23, 1987
"FIGHT FOR LIFE" ponders a moral question: What does God want us to do? It doesn't answer, of course -how could it? - although Jerry Lewis soliliquizes just like Tevye. Mostly, though, the two-hour movie, on ABC at 9 o'clock tonight, wants to be heart-warming. Intermittently, it is.
The movie, based on a real-life story, stars Mr. Lewis and Patty Duke as the parents of an adopted 6-year-old daughter (Jaclyn Bernstein) who is stricken by a grave form of epilepsy. As Bernie Abrams, a Columbus, Ohio, optometrist, Mr. Lewis must wrestle with medical and governmental bureaucracy. The drug that can help his daughter is not legally available; it is still being tested.
In fact, "Fight for Life" is examining a solemn modern dilemma. Witness the decision last Friday by the Food and Drug Administration to approve distribution of the drug AZT for AIDS patients. The approval process, beginning with test-tube experimentation, took more than two years. This was relatively speedy; approval usually takes far longer. Meanwhile, patients suffer and die.
On the other hand, in the absence of careful testing, a drug like thalidomide may be sold. It causes severe birth defects. The drug in the ABC movie is sodium valproate, which is used to treat myoclonic epilepsy. In 1977, when the movie begins, sodium valproate was being prescribed in Britain, but was still being tested here.
Hence the agonizing situation: Mr. Lewis and Miss Duke are supposedly watching their daughter, stricken by 15 seizures a day, risk permanent retardation. American doctors cannot help, but a British specialist can. "Fight for Life" is dealing with a serious human problem.
It's hard for a movie like this to go entirely wrong, especially when its cast is so competent. Grant that Mr. Lewis labors under the burden of old comic performances; a comedian's image is present in his walk, speech and pendulous lower lip. Still, Mr. Lewis gives an effective performance, even when he's alone in a snowy field - "I do my best thinking here; I feel close to God" - and so does Miss Duke.
Nonetheless, "Fight for Life" - directed by Elliot Silverstein and written by Charles Rosin and Tom Nesi -doesn't move us the way it should. Maybe it's too self-conscious. Mr. Lewis and Miss Duke play Orthodox Jews; their best friend (Gerard Parkes) is a Roman Catholic priest; their daughter's doctor (Morgan Freeman) is a black paraplegic. All that ecumenicism does seem just a shade artificial.
Meanwhile, the British specialist (Barry Morse) says, "Eh, what, what?" and fears that "someone pinched my brolly." He's endearing, but we don't believe him. "Fight for Life" is straining.
Credit the movie, however - a production of Fries Entertainment, produced by Ian McDougall - with a responsible view of medicine. It takes pains to say that sodium valproate doesn't cure epilepsy, only that it may be helpful in some cases. At the same time, the movie gives the F.D.A. its say; drug approval is a difficult process.
The movie ends with Mr. Lewis quoting the Talmud. Then we get a printed coda: The F.D.A. approved the distribution of sodium valproate in 1978; Congress acted to make certain medicines more easily available in 1983. "Fight for Life" does not always work as drama, but there's no questioning its earnest intention.
Fight for Life (1987) TV Movie
Cast: Barry Morse, Jerry Lewis, Morgan Freeman, Patty Duke