The Golden Age of TV Movies: The Last Child (1971)

Welcome to The Golden Age of TV Movies, a monthly column about those glorious TV movies from yesteryear.

When The Last Child was first broadcast on ABC in October 1971, star Michael Cole was enjoying a brief brush with stardom on the hit cop show The Mod Squad. The actor proved his acting chops with this intense drama set in the “not too distant future”.

Many issues come up during the film’s 71 minute running time — The Last Child remains potent and topical even today. 

The film's primary question is a woman's right to autonomy over her body. Women today are once again being forced to fight for the right to decide for themselves whether or not to practice birth control or whether or not to have an abortion. The Last Child underscores many of those battles by reversing the question: what if a woman was forced to have an abortion against her will? At what point does a woman get to choose for herself without interference from others? At what point is the government overstepping its boundaries and interfering in a person's personal life?

Cole and Janet Margolin star as Alan and Karen, a couple still mourning the loss of their baby the year before. Karen is pregnant again, but in the grossly overpopulated futuristic society they live in, only one child per couple is allowed.

The fact that Karen’s baby died is of little consequence to the population control police, headed by a sociopathic Ed Asner. Asner was, at the time, achieving TV immortality for his delightful portrayal of the grumpy-if-kindhearted Mr. Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He offers a deliciously over-the-top, against-type performance as The Last Child’s villain.

Some scenes are cringe-inducing. “If only we’d practiced Planned Parenthood,” says a “kindly” doctor (Ivor Francis) as he casually informs Alan and Karen that their baby will be “disposed of.” But the doc also admits that he has trouble sleeping at night.

The Planned Parenthood mention has an intense resonance today: the embattled organization is currently fighting calls from the GOP that it be defunded over questionable claims that they've been selling fetal tissue from abortions to research labs. Tea Party darling Ted Cruz has threatened to shut down the government if Planned Parenthood isn't defunded, while the organization has filed a lawsuit challenging an order by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal barring patients from using Medicaid in order to access PP services.

In a world where the sheer volume of people makes walking down the street difficult, the desperate young couple finds help from a wealthy former Senator (Van Heflin) who offers to smuggle them to Canada. Their 72-year-old savior is a diabetic. He gets his insulin from the black market because its illegal to treat people over the age of 65 for any illnesses they might have — another misguided attempt at population control.

Peter S. Fischer's script is suspenseful, disturbing and heartbreaking. The Last Child launched Fischer's twenty-five year career as a writer and producer, primarily for episodic television. His credits include popular series of the era such as Marcus Welby, M.D., Columbo, Kojak, McMillan and Wife and Murder, She Wrote. He served as executive producer on the latter, which he also co-created. 

It was nice to see and be reminded about Janet Margolin. The actress (1943-1993) met an early demise after losing her battle with ovarian cancer. Today she’s nearly forgotten, even though she left behind an impressive body of work, including two Woody Allen films (Take the Money and Run, Annie Hall) and David and Lisa (1962), a magnificent drama about two mentally ill teens who find love in an institution.

Margolin was an unsung talent. RIP.                       

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