TV or not TV. . . .
ABOUT TIME: TV is finally opening its doors to enlightened portrayals of the mentally retarded and disabled.
The recent drama series "Equal Justice" was a notable example. So is "Life Goes On," which stars Chris Burke, who has Down's syndrome.
Thus, the timing of Thursday's two-hour ABC broadcast, "Victory and Valor: A Special Olympics All-Star Celebration"--built around the joyous competition of mentally retarded athletes from more than 100 nations--couldn't be more appropriate.
"This Olympics has been an important part of my life," Burke says in the show, which is not really a sports program at all, but a celebration of the spirit. Yes, there's a star-studded opening ceremony in a colorful, Olympics-style extravaganza before 60,000 fans at the Minneapolis Metrodome last month. But the special tries to avoid this single dimension by focusing in part on the individual tales of four competitors, including a young Navajo man from Arizona and a boy from Nepal, following them from their homes before the Games right through the weeklong Olympics.
Singer Bob Seger, who, like the other participating stars, worked for free, went to Nepal, as did the show, which also taped sequences in Greece, home of the Olympics.
Burke, clearly moved in his appearances, is a past competitor in the Special Olympics, having won a medal for broad jumping.
In the new age of TV, with Larry Drake playing retarded office worker Benny Stulwicz in "L.A. Law" and Marlee Matlin portraying a hearing-impaired prosecutor in the fall series "Reasonable Doubts," the approach of ABC's Thursday special adds to the healthy trend.
It is decidedly upbeat, feel-good TV, blending the stars, the sports events and the mini-documentaries of the athletes, which include some hilarious passages--especially about a "unified" softball team of retarded and non-retarded players from Connecticut.
The team seems straight out of "The Bad News Bears." After they get slaughtered in their first game, 18-4, the coach observes: "I wouldn't count us out." After they lose again, he notes: "This game was probably the worst we played." One of the retarded players has the solution: "Base hits, base hits."
Viewers who enjoy the spectacle of an Olympics will see the usual rituals--the running of the torch, the opening parade of the athletes and the accompanying entertainment. And there are a few eye-openers, including the 68-year-old man who is the oldest Special Olympian.
"Some people think this is a telethon," says executive producer Bobby Shriver. "Well, it's not. It's a show. No one's going to feel sorry for anybody. You don't have to be delicate. It's like 'Animal House' sometimes. And we treat this like the Super Bowl."
Adds director Steve Binder: "We tried to capture the entire week and see it through the eyes of the Special Olympians, not just the stars."
The lineup of stars is imposing, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Warren Beatty, Jon Bon Jovi, Gerardo, Prince, Kirstie Alley, Fred Savage, Don Johnson, Melanie Griffith, Florence Griffith Joyner, Debbie Gibson, Patti Austin, Frank Gifford, Wayne Gretzky, Richard Dean Anderson, Randy Travis, Bob Saget and Herb Alpert.
But the real stars, of course--an antidote to the age of overpaid professional jocks--are the young athletes from around the world having a great time. And Burke, as a former Special Olympian, bridges the world of the stars and athletes. Says one person connected with the production: "He was such a hero to these kids."
Victory & Valor: Special Olympics World Games (1991) (TV)
Host: Frank Gifford