If it weren’t marred by such a cloying, sitcom score and cinematography, A Family for Joe would be bleak social commentary indeed.
Robert Mitchum: film-noir heavy, sitcom hobo? That was the terribly misguided idea behind A Family for Joe, a feature-length television pilot from 1990 that reportedly earned the highest test scores in NBC history. This highly manipulative product expertly tugged at Nielsen heartstrings, but a strange subtext makes it watchable despite its horrific, cringeworthy levels of cheese. And thanks to YouTube, this late-career blip on the rugged CV of one of the great Hollywood actors is yours to gape at in sad disbelief through the barely-parted fingers you’ll hold over your face, still raw from Hereditary.
The plot unfolds around the fate of four young orphans (hooked you already?) whose parents were killed in a plane crash. The Bankston children have since been under the care of family friends the Brewsters, but the seemingly successful professional couple has sadly decided that they can’t handle “all nine of us in our little house.” There’s a hint of both economic struggle and an unwillingness to take responsibility: “It’s not just the space—it’s the time. The hours we both work…” A court agrees to let the Brewsters take the two youngest children, Chris (Jarrad Paul) and Mary (Jessica Player), and put the oldest, Nick (Chris Furrh) and Holly (Maia Brewton, who co-starred in Adventures in Babysitting) in foster care.
It’s an arrangement that the kids dread. “This is getting worse and worse,” Holly complains, but the movie hasn’t even hit the nine-minute mark, and she hasn’t seen the half of it. She suggests that they move to Australia and live with aborigines in the outback (an unexpected reference to Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout); but Nick remembers they may have another living relative.
On paper, the script by Arnold Margolin (whose résumé consists mostly of sitcoms like “Love, American Style” and “Growing Pains”) seems positively morbid. This mysterious living relative is Grandpa Joe, who ran away when the kids’ father was just a few days old. “Grandma burned all his pictures—so he’ll be real easy to find.”
One would be hard pressed to imagine an historical era in which the logical solution would be to find a homeless person to pass for Grandpa Joe. Yet that’s exactly what these crafty orphans have in mind, and they approach park bench residents to lure into their adorable web. But first, they have to run a gauntlet of street punks who try to steal their bus fare. A gruffly familiar voice comes to their rescue, calling from a cardboard box whose opening is protected by a cast-iron gate. Joe (Mitchum) climbs out of his shelter as if emerging from the Earth’s very core, undeterred by a balding punk’s switchblade, and saves the day. Since the disheveled savior has the same name as the kids’ long-lost gramps, they recruit him for their cuddly, fraudulent plans.
Nick and Holly offer to bring Joe home for a hot meal. “Forget the whole thing,” he protests, Mitchum giving the line the weary authority of his performance in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, with a tragic edge informed by sinking so low for a paycheck. “I know your parents wouldn’t want to see me at the dinner table.”
“They wouldn’t mind,” Nick assures the reluctant guest.
“Because they’re dead,” blurts younger brother Chris.
With shades of Boudu Saved from Drowning, Joe at first feels uncomfortable in his transition from a cardboard box to bourgeois creature comforts, but he soon takes them in stride, and even begins to take seriously his role as a guardian, eventually laying down the law with the kids. The veteran actor, who in 1948 notoriously served a two-month jail term for marijuana possession, even tells the kids to just say no.
But wait, that’s not all this movie has to offer. If you haven‘t yet heard from the youngest orphan, Mary, that’s because she’s mute. Traumatized by the loss of her parents, she can’t speak, and much of the pilot’s tension comes in anticipation of the heartwarming moment when she inevitably regains her voice. It comes during a court hearing late in the second act; Joe starts to walk away from the judge’s bench (much as he walked away from a park bench), certain that the kids, whom this hobo-with-a-heart-of-gold has learned to love, will be sent to foster homes. Don’t you worry; big-eyed Mary, with precise comic timing, cries, “Grandpa!”—with a pause to give the audience enough time to savor their gasp before she completes her opening statement, “Grandpa! Don’t go! Grandpa, I love you!”
It‘s absolutely masterful, and that’s not even Mary’s best line. Back at the Bankston home, Joe and Mary are taking a walk, and she asks Grandpa, “What if when I die I don’t go to heaven? What if I go to hell?” In the very next scenes, Nick lies to get a job at a burger joint, and Joe, trying to get the hang of grandparenting, agrees to let one of the other kids get a boa constrictor… a serpent!
It’s a fascinating morality play, and incredibly, the pilot was greenlighted for a sitcom, with a change of child cast that included Juliette Lewis as the oldest daughter. The show lasted for nine episodes before it was canned.
TV director Alan Rafkin had no illusions about the material. As he told Mitchum biographer Lee Server, “the show was terrible. It got sappier and sappier, and Mitchum knew it; but he came to work like it was for an Academy Award winner, never complained or disparaged it, and took direction better than any actor I ever worked with, and I’ve worked with about four million actors by now.” If it weren’t marred by such a cloying, sitcom score and cinematography, A Family for Joe would be bleak social commentary indeed. Yet despite such a precipitous fall from hardboiled grace, Mitchum treats it like the reliable professional he was; stronger-stomached fans may find such poise under aesthetic duress more inspirational than depressing.