Still another CBS Sunday night comedy laced with antic humor bounces up, this one under the shelter of Hallmark Hall of Fame, and it’s a pleasure. Primed with a quirky premise and by charmingly offbeat characters, penned by Robert W. Lenski, “What the Deaf Man Heard” is a joy.
Filmed in Wilmington, N.C., by Hallmark Hall of Fame Prods. Executive producer, Richard Welsh; co-executive producer, Brent Shields; supervising producer, Tom Luse; director, John Kent Harrison; writer, Robert W. Lenski; based on the novel “What the Deaf-Mute Heard” by G.D. Gearino; A 1940s single mother, Helen (Bernadette Peters), hops on a bus for Barrington, Ga., with 10-year-old son Sammy. Warning him not to say a word, she gets off at a stop to stretch her legs. She’s carried away, never to reappear, and sleeping boy Sammy goes on to Barrington alone.
Bus station manager Norm (Tom Skerritt in a splendid, eye-opening interp), thinking the boy’s deaf and mute because he won’t talk, takes pity on him and gives him a cot in back of the station. The cafe next door owned by Lucille (Judith Ivey), a pal of widower Norm, feeds and helps Sammy, who keeps his mouth shut, as his mother had ordered him.
Sammy (played assuredly as a boy by Frankie Muniz, and as a man effectively, even touchingly, by Matthew Modine), growing into manhood, is accepted by everyone. He quietly goes about his daily jobs; he’s silently agreeable, and he doesn’t miss a thing.
Wealthy widow Tynan (underused Claire Bloom, agreeably disagreeable) treats him with near-contempt, ordering him to clean porch furniture. Her dreadfully snooty son Tolliver (Jake Weber), all but spitting on him, goes about stealing church’s funds.
Tolliver’s dear sister Tallasse (fresh-as-a-daisy Anne Bobby), though, taking a fancy to Sammy, talks to him just as though he can hear. Amusingly, they learn soon enough that her father and his mother were both fond of the Weill-Gershwin tune “My Ship.”
Certain Sammy can’t hear her, Tallasse confides personal things to the young man, even though Sammy’s being unabashedly dishonest. Others, too, trust him, including happy junkman Thacker (James Earl Jones, rolling grandly with the role), who finds out in his own way that Sammy’s been putting on a deaf act for years.
Thacker appreciates Sammy’s act. He confesses to Sammy that he himself is a fraud. He’s really loaded, and uses a white lawyer as a front man. Two of his sons (Teagle F. Bougere, Lance Reddick), quoting the Bard, hustle junk or transport hush-hush hooch for a lot of dough.
The new preacher, daffy young Rev. Pruitt (Jerry O’Connell in a gem of a study), invites the whole congregation to be baptized and chases the evening paper barefoot as it’s tossed on the lawn.
The actions are a delight, the acting’s generally superior. Director John Kent Harrison, who helmed the TV version of Faulkner’s totally different “Old Man,” shifts gears for this number to draw chuckles, snorts and a couple of out-loud laughs. Eric Van Haren Noman’s sleek camerawork and Jim Oliver’s pro editing help the cause, as do designer Veronica Hadfield’s North Carolina location sites and interiors, and composer J.A.C. Redford’s pleasant score.
Peters returns audibly at the conclusion sweetly singing “My Ship” over the credits as a cap to the vidpic, which has a rare “The End” attached to it. The movie may not be altogether satisfactory, but it’s cheering.