The holidays are usually thought to be about family. But what if some families no longer get along.
The made-for-TV special “The Gathering,” which aired on Dec. 4, 1977, on ABC, takes a look at a man who wants to spend the holiday with his family, fully knowing they may not want to see him.
Ed Asner plays Adam Thornton, a man successful at business but not successful in his personal life. He and his wife are separated, and he hasn’t seen most of his children in several years — and they don’t want to see him either.
He also just found out that he’s dying and running out of time.
Maureen Stapleton plays Kate, his estranged wife, who sets aside her hurt feelings to arrange a homecoming so Adam can have one last Christmas with his family.
Since their parents separated, many of the children don’t want anything to do with their stalwart, business-focused father. They all live across the country and haven’t seen Adam in some time:
- Tom (Lawrence Pressman) and his wife (Veronica Hamel) live a lavish metropolitan life in New York. Tom, who is hardheaded like his father, tries to be the opposite of him. For example, he insists on a white Christmas tree, because Adam always insisted on green.
- Peggy (Gail Strickland) is a successful reporter in Washington, DC, whose work drives her life.
- Julie (Rebecca Balding) is married to George (Bruce Davison), who has been unemployed for several months. Julie loves her parents, but George is bitter towards Adam. He feels that Adam will mock him for his failures and chide him for not joining the family business. Julie has the only two grandchildren, Tiffany and Joey (Maureen and Ronald Readinger).
- Bud (Gregory Harrison) and Adam had a fight years ago, because Bud disapproved of the Vietnam War. Since then, Bud lives in Canada under various assumed names while he dodges the draft.
Many of the children aren’t interested in coming home for the holidays but also hope that their parents have reconciled. They change their plans and head to the Thornton family home to support their mother.
Before renting “The Gathering” from DVD Netflix, I heard my parents talk about the film. They recalled watching it on TV when they were first married, and it was a Christmas tradition to watch it for the first few years of their marriage. Once they had children, they drifted away from the film, so it was special to get to watch this film with them. It was the first time either of my parents had revisited the movie in nearly 40 years.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of “The Gathering.” Since I knew the premise was about a dying man wanting to spend one last Christmas with his family, I was worried it would be overly maudlin, or feature lots of shouting and fights (like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or “All in the Family.”)
However, was pleasantly surprised. The movie is certainly sad, but also rather heartwarming.
There are a few shouting matches, but nothing is overly dramatic. The story focuses more on realizing what’s important. Ed Asner’s character realizes he was a foolish stubborn bull. All of his children, who had also been so bitter and angry about their family for so many years, remembered how much they enjoy being together.
While you know Adam’s time is brief, you also know that everyone found piece and comfort. Only one child understands that he is losing a father, and it’s never spoken to the family.
Thankfully, the end of the story isn’t this abrupt, pie-in-the-sky ending. The cracks in the relationships are still there, but the holiday brought everyone closer and helped them relive old times. It shows that the holidays can be hard, but there is a way to make peace and enjoy your time together, especially when time is running out.
While the film has a somber tone, it also feels cozy and homey. As Adam and Kate set aside their differences and prepare the home for a holiday reunion, it reminded me of Christmases gone-by —maybe had by myself as a child or what my parents experienced growing up.
Adam rewires the electricity of an old dollhouse for a grandchild and repaints an old toy train. He hammers together a Christmas tree stand and puzzles over tree lights that won’t work. Kate goes through old ornaments, and the separated couple decorates the evergreen tree together.
Their cheerful and nostalgic Christmas preparation scenes also serve as a stark contrast to how their children live now. The scenes almost serve as a “now vs. then” way of storytelling: Adam and Kate preparing to relive their homespun holidays of the past, and their four children muddling through their chaotic and complicated adult lives.
To add to the homey setting, “The Gathering” was filmed in Chagrin Falls and Hudson, Ohio in February 1977. The film opens showing the town decorated for the holidays with colored lights, bright store windows and the streets and houses coated with snow.
Composer John Barry, known for his James Bond themes, scored “The Gathering” with both a lilting but somber sound. The score is filled with harpsicords, flutes, strings and piano.
Randal Kleiser, who also directed the made-for-TV film “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” (1976) and “Grease” (1978), directed the film. “The Gathering” was also one of the few live-action films produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions, known for their cartoons like “Yogi Bear.”
Where some made-for-TV shows and films of this era sometimes try to sucker punch you with hard emotion, “The Gathering” is subtle. This is probably largely due to Asner and Stapleton in the lead roles, who are fantastic actors and make the setting and relationships feel believable.
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