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Oprah Winfrey Presents: Tuesdays With Morrie

It speaks volumes about the state of network television that ABC would devote 17 consecutive nights of November sweeps to "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" but couldn't squeeze in two hours for a show that plays like "Who Wants to Be a Human Being?" While the network's decision unquestionably grabbed the ratings, the program shuffling is a little ironic given the priorities-in-place tone of the exquisitely adapted "Tuesdays With Morrie."

With:
Morrie Schwartz - Jack Lemmon Mitch Albom - Hank Azaria Janine - Wendy Moniz Connie - Caroline Aaron Charlotte - Bonnie Bartlett Rabbi Al Axelrod - Aaron Lustig Mr. Schwartz - Bruce Nozick Armand - Ivo Cutzarida Walter Moran - John Carroll Lynch Shawn Daley - Dan Thiel Young Morrie - Kyle Sullivan Aldo - Christian J. Meoli

It speaks volumes about the state of network television that ABC would devote 17 consecutive nights of November sweeps to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” but couldn’t squeeze in two hours for a show that plays like “Who Wants to Be a Human Being?” While the network’s decision unquestionably grabbed the ratings, the program shuffling is a little ironic given the priorities-in-place tone of the exquisitely adapted “Tuesdays With Morrie.”

As the fourth project presented under the “Oprah Winfrey Presents” banner (the others being “Before Women Had Wings,” “David and Lisa” and “The Wedding”), “Tuesdays” originally was skedded for November, but was pulled and slapped into December. The theory evidently is that stories about the human condition are more of a holiday season thing than a sweeps event. It’ll be interesting to see if the ratings bear this out.

Still, this is a case of better late than never. The film, inspired by sportswriter Mitch Albom’s hugely popular book of the same name — which continues, after two years, to hover near the top of the bestseller list — is given a boost by Jack Lemmon, who plays Morrie Schwartz, an irrepressible 78-year-old college professor struck with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and confined to a wheelchair.

One night in the summer of 1994, an old student of Morrie’s, Detroit Free Press sports columnist Mitch Albom (played with winning energy by Hank Azaria), spots his old college prof sharing his thoughts on the journey toward death with Ted Koppel on “Nightline.”

It’s been 16 years since Albom last spoke with Morrie. His sadness at his mentor’s degenerative condition is complicated by his guilt at not having stayed in touch. Albom continues to bury himself in his hyperkinetic worklife, distancing himself from girlfriend Janine (nice work from Wendy Moniz), but the image of Morrie haunts him. Dripping with trepidation, he finally pays his dying mentor a visit in Boston.

What Albom discovers is not an embittered old man, but an ebullient, mentally sharp teacher who finds that facing death allows him to “see things with incredible clarity” and inspires him to teach his “final course … in living.”

Within a few weeks, the relationship between Morrie and Albom has been fully rekindled, and the student is absorbing the prof’s wisdom once again. They begin meeting every Tuesday, and their sessions spur Albom to step off the fast track and begin questioning the shallow, ego-banging absurdity of the sports world.

If there’s a weakness in scribe Tom Rickman’s otherwise tight adaptation of the Albom book, it’s in the oversimplification of Albom’s budding insight and sensitivity, which seems a mite too pat. So, too, is Lemmon’s spouting of such lines as “Dying is just one thing to be sad about. Living unhappily … that’s another matter.”

Those few sins of the script are more than mitigated, however, by Mick Jackson’s focused direction, and fine handling of Lemmon and Azaria. Lemmon plays up to his best work here in his ability simultaneously to inspire both empathy and awe. Azaria displays the most layered and sensitive work of his career.

All in all, “Tuesdays With Morrie” does the book justice — a pretty impressive feat. Tech credits are consistently superb.

Oprah Winfrey Presents: Tuesdays With Morrie

ABC; Sun. Dec. 5, 9 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Los Angeles and Santa Clarita by Harpo Films. Executive producers, Oprah Winfrey, Kate Forte; supervising producer, Jennifer Ogden; director, Mick Jackson; writer, Tom Rickman; based on the book by Mitch Albom.

Crew: Camera, Theo Van De Sabde; production designer, J. Michael Riva; editor, Carol Littleton; music, Marco Beltrami; sound, Jim Tanenbaum; casting, Mindy Marin. 120 MIN.

Cast: Morrie Schwartz - Jack Lemmon Mitch Albom - Hank Azaria Janine - Wendy Moniz Connie - Caroline Aaron Charlotte - Bonnie Bartlett Rabbi Al Axelrod - Aaron Lustig Mr. Schwartz - Bruce Nozick Armand - Ivo Cutzarida Walter Moran - John Carroll Lynch Shawn Daley - Dan Thiel Young Morrie - Kyle Sullivan Aldo - Christian J. Meoli

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