Combining elements of disease-of-the-week and melodramatic mystery with a measure of tear-jerking appeal, and the toplining of Melissa Gilbert and Patty Duke in their first pairing since 1979’s “The Miracle Worker,””A Family of Strangers” is a perfect formulation for a successful TV movie. In fact, the pic’s pretty good.
Gilbert stars as Julie Lawson, a Seattle woman who discovers she has a rare, but treatable, brain condition. If there is a history of strokes in Lawson’s family, though, her doctor (Melody Ryane) will not risk an operation.
Only then does Julie discover the secret hidden by her father, that she’s (gasp!) adopted. Thus begins a search for her birth parents, to discover whether there’s a history of strokes in their families.
Julie, a professional researcher, tracks down mom Beth Thompson (Duke) with remarkable ease, though it takes a while to get Thompson to admit that she is the mother. Tracking down the father, who may be one of several people, is somewhat more difficult and constitutes the mystery portion of the progressively involving story, said to be based on a true incident and nicely scripted by William Gough and Anna Sandor.
Certain aspects are rather pat: Thompson was raped, but she had a pretty good idea of the rapist’s identity; Thompson was very easy to locate, and both Thompson and her pal Sue (Martha Gibson) conveniently hoard memorabilia.
Gilbert and Duke turn in strong, believable perfs, and William Shatner is restrained as Gilbert’s hand-wringing adoptive father.
Among the supporting cast, Gibson is notable as Duke’s lifetime friend, and Gordon Clapp menaces as the most heavily featured of the prospective fathers. Eric McCormack appears briefly as Julie’s estranged husband, evidently around to further demonstrate her resoluteness.
Director Sheldon Larry keeps the action moving swiftly and with little padding; tech credits are OK.
If there’s one lesson to be learned, it’s to let your kids know early that they’re adopted. “Beth Thompson gave me life,” Lawson reassures Shatner’s character. “You gave me love.”