''Rich Man, Poor Man'''s affect on TV -- Fifteen years ago, the miniseries became popular with the successful Peter Strauss epic

By Meredith Berkman
February 01, 1991 at 05:00 AM EST

When I die,” Peter Strauss says, ”my tombstone will say, ‘Here lies Peter Strauss (Rich Man, Poor Man),’ so I’m not mistaken by the ghosts.”

There’s little chance of that. Strauss has been identified with the ABC miniseries since he starred in it 15 years ago with Nick Nolte and Susan Blakely. RM, PM boosted the careers of all three previously unknown actors and made the miniseries TV’s most successful genre for the next decade.

Based on the 1970 Irwin Shaw novel, RM, PM followed the complicated lives and loves of the Jordache brothers, Rudy (Strauss) and Tom (Nolte), from World – War II to the ’60s. The dueling sons of German immigrants took different paths in life: Rudy married his childhood love (Blakely) and became a corrupt U.S. senator, while Tom remained a wild spirit. Viewers responded immediately, and the series placed second in the ratings that year. ”We became household entities in hours,” says Strauss, 44. ”I was walking in New York after the third or fourth episode aired. I suddenly became aware that everybody was looking at me, pointing at me, trying to touch me. I don’t think I left my hotel the rest of the week.”

While RM, PM was not the first ABC miniseries — that honor belongs to 1975’s QB VII — it legitimized the limited series. ”Everybody was very doubtful and skeptical about the form,” says Brandon Stoddard, then ABC’s vice president of motion pictures for television. ”But it was at a point in television’s growth where it was risky, but it didn’t have the nightmarish economic downside it does today.” Producer Harve Bennett (Mod Squad) believed that an immigrant family’s struggle for success would captivate Americans. ”We ran the first two hours for the cast and crew,” he recalls. ”At the end, everybody stood up and began chanting, ‘More, more, more.’ We knew we had a great piece of work.”

The next season, ABC tried RM, PM-II as a weekly series, starring Strauss but without Nolte or (except for the first episode) Blakely. It fizzled.

Strauss won an Emmy in 1979 for The Jericho Mile, but he hasn’t been able to leave RM, PM behind. ”A year and a half ago,” says Strauss, ”someone came up to me and said, ‘Rudy Jordache, I was so in love with you!’ I’ve heard that for 15 years.”

TIME CAPSULE: Feb. 1, 1976
All in the Family edges out Rich Man, Poor Man as the top TV show. The Ohio Players hit No. 1 on the record charts with ”Love Rollercoaster,” and Jack Nicholson scores at the box office in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.