Friday, July 23, 2010

"My Father's Shadow: The Sam Sheppard Story"

The 1998 TV movie was one of a number of efforts dealing with the trials of Bay Village's Dr. Sam Sheppard, this one with Peter Strauss as Sheppard. (George Peppard also played Sheppard, in the 1975 TV-movie "Guilty or Innocent: The Sam Sheppard Murder Case.") After the jump, my talk with Strauss about his movie.
Peter Strauss knows that his new TV movie will be watched more closely in Ohio than in other parts of the country.
"I have no doubt that it will be the nature of people in Ohio, and especially in Cleveland, to take the film apart on whether it is factual or nonfactual," Strauss said in a recent telephone interview.
Strauss is stepping into a 44-year-old, still unresolved controversy when he plays Dr. Sam Sheppard in the movie My Father's Shadow: The Sam Sheppard Story, which premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday on CBS.
Based on the book Mockery of Justice by Cynthia L. Cooper and Dr. Sam's son, Sam Reese Sheppard (who is also a creative consultant on the film), the movie follows the relationship between father and son after the brutal 1954 murder of Marilyn Sheppard, Dr. Sam's wife and Sam Reese's mother.
Dr. Sam was accused of the murder in the press and court. Convicted of the crime, the Bay Village osteopath spent a decade in jail before the conviction was thrown out on appeal.
Dr. Sam was retried and acquitted, but many people continued to believe him guilty. Drinking hard and living badly, he died in 1970 at the age of 46.
But Sam Reese has spent recent years trying to prove his father's innocence, with increasing amounts of evidence pointing to Richard Eberling, a convicted killer who died in July, as the real murderer of Marilyn Sheppard. That same evidence also indicates that authorities ignored or suppressed information that could have exonerated Dr. Sam.
Not that everyone is convinced. And the movie will make easy prey for anyone expecting a precise recitation of the facts.
Sheppard case followers will note the differences in appearance between Sam Reese and the actor who plays him, Henry Czerny; the elimination of major events, such as Dr. Sam's second trial; the absence of key players like attorney F. Lee Bailey, who helped free Dr. Sam; and the strange device of having Sam Reese talking to the ghost of his dead father.
Strauss, a veteran actor and Emmy winner for his performance in the classic movie The Jericho Mile, acknowledged the differences.
He wished the movie had been longer than two hours (with commercials) so more of the story could be told. He speculated that Bailey in particular was omitted because there may have been difficulties getting the rights to portray him. He noted that the story is told from Sam Reese's point of view, which differs from that of others close to the case. Strauss thought some changes were defensible in dramatic terms. And he argued that the network's legal department "went through the script with tooth and comb."
But he ultimately claimed, as moviemakers often do, that "this is not being presented as a documentary."
Besides, for Strauss it was a good part and an intriguing story that still goes on. Indeed, Eberling died while the movie was in production in Toronto, and "there was a lot of rushing around by the producers and writers ... trying to decide how to handle that." (It's mentioned in a note at the movie's end.)
"I didn't know the story really well, except for faint whiffs of The Fugitive," said Strauss, referring to the TV series and movie inspired by the Sheppard case. But as he looked at the script and began, as is his habit, to research the role, Strauss found "a lot of levels. ....
"First of all, there's a fascinating story about the American judicial system. What the hell happened here? And then there's the intriguing story of a father and son."
Intriguing, and disheartening.
Losing a mother to a violent crime is bad enough. The writer James Ellroy, another son of a murdered mother, became so obsessed with crime as a teen-ager that, he later wrote, "dead women owned me."
For Sam Reese, the loss of his mother was compounded by the accusations against his father -- and having to renew his acquaintance with a father who'd spent Sam Reese's adolescence in prison. And just as Sam Reese saw his charismatic, arrogant father turned into a pathetic, abusive wreck, so Dr. Sam came out of prison expecting to deal with a 7-year-old son who was now near the end of his teens.
Czerny as Sam Reese gets more screen time, but Strauss as Dr. Sam had what he calls "eight little vignettes" to show the shadow cast over the family. He imagined what it was like for a successful, powerful man like Dr. Sam to be stripped of everything he valued in life. "There had to be an extraordinary sense of rage," he said. "An impotent rage. And that's a powerful kind of emotion."
It also satisfied Strauss' desire not to play Dr. Sam as just a victim. Still, just as the debate over the Sheppard case drags on, so do the attempts to understand Dr. Sam himself. And Strauss' research offered no final answer.
"I find him to be one of the most enigmatic people I've ever portrayed," Strauss said.

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