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You Heard It Here Last: I Review A 35-Year-Old TV Special
May 3, 2017  | By David Bianculli  | 14 comments

The recent death of filmmaker Jonathan Demme reminded me of one of my favorite early works of his – a comedy-drama special made for TV in 1982, and a show which most obituary writers and columnists had overlooked completely. But I thought, partly because of that, it warranted a second look…

The work in question was an adaptation of a 1961 Kurt Vonnegut short story called Who Am I This Time?, reprinted in his memorable short-story collection Welcome to the Monkey House. Demme, a very young director with few credits at the time, directed it, as one of the Season 1 offerings of a new, brilliant PBS anthology series called American Playhouse.

Who Am I This Time? is about two timid young people who become lovers, and soulmates, thanks to a passion for plays, and for community theater. It’s a love story, and a fable, and it’s quietly beautiful.

Harry Nash is a meek, totally unassuming small-town hardware clerk – think Clark Kent, without the superhero alter ego or the glamorous media job. His only spark in life is when he tries out for the local theater troupe’s next play, because once rehearsals begin and Harry is given a role to play and lines to read, he inhabits that character so completely that, each time, a star is born. Until the play ends, and Harry slinks quietly back to the hardware store.

Helene Shaw is a temporary visitor to town, sent along with the phone company’s new computer (in Vonnegut’s one concession to technological issues in this story) to explain its working methods to the local employees. She’s asked to try out for the play while she’s in town, and she does. She’s utterly untalented, but only until she gets paired, during an audition, with Harry, who is reading the role of Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire to her Stella. Suddenly, there are sparks, and fireworks. Two stars are born – but not a romance. Not offstage. Not at first.

In the American Playhouse version of Who Am I This Time?, Demme captures perfectly the fireworks described in print by Vonnegut. A lot of this is due to the casting, and his way with actors: Helene is played by Susan Sarandon, and Harry by Christopher Walken. You can hear them come to life, as Harry-as-Stanley and Helene-as-Stella, in my report on Wednesday’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR.

And afterwards, if you want (and you should), you can order a copy of Who Am I This Time? on DVD – and ponder, as I do, the future, as well as the past, of TV history. Though streaming sites and DVD releases give us the potential of seeing and enjoying almost anything that’s ever been made for TV, if so much of that inventory is unavailable, forgotten, or unknown, what’s the point?    

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Apr 28, 2022   |  Reply
I've loved WAITI since i saw on a videocassette i borrowed from the library in the 90's. I think i'd read it much earlier but these performances made it great for me.
Jul 9, 2017   |  Reply
Barbara T
Reading these comments, I feel like I've found my tribe! Like Lizzy, I nearly drove off the road when I heard you were going to talk about "Who Am I This Time," Mr. Bianculli. I loved it when it was first broadcast and have wondered in the years since why no one else seemed to know about it. I own an old videorecording of it. My VCR broke many years ago, so I haven't watched it in years, but I feel happy every time I see it on the shelf. I remember watching it in the '90s and being pleasantly stunned that the director was Jonathan Demme, adding even more mystique to this disappeared gem. Knowing about it felt like being in on some kind of secret. Anyway, thank you, David! I've discovered so many good programs through your reviews, and this commentary (and the already-posted comments) made my day!
May 16, 2017   |  Reply
John Dodds
Mr. Bianculli!
I can't someone else knows this show! I've raved about it since the day I saw it on American Playhouse. Walken and Sarandon as almost children at the time. My DVD is well worn from repeat viewings and the fact that its Vonnegut too is the icing on the cake. Thanks for reminding me. I've got to go be obnoxious to all my friends and insist they find this again!
May 10, 2017   |  Reply
It's so gratifying to learn how many other people remember and love this production. I had an off the air vhs copy for years and when it came out on dvd I snatched it up immediately. Did anyone else find themselves wishing they could have seen Walken and Sarandon in an actual production of "Streetcar"? I would love to see a Stella that was as feisty and sexy as Sarandon's. A true match for both Stanley and Blanche.
May 6, 2017   |  Reply
Bernie MacKinnon
David—I was happy to hear your commentary on "Who Am I This Time?" since my memory of it is so fond and vivid. I had no idea that it was Jonathan Demme's work. PBS aired another affecting Vonnegut adaptation in 1985 and I wondered if you had seen it. It was "Displaced Person," centering on an orphanage in post-war Austria, the black American GI's stationed nearby and one particular war orphan. I leave the YouTube link here, on the chance you have time for it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNBArlLOmFk
I always enjoy hearing you—it's like checking in with a better-informed friend.
May 5, 2017   |  Reply
Dan Harris
Mr. Bianculi: I was delighted to hear you speak of one of my favorite American Playhouse shows, Who Am I This Time. As a sixty something year old with no discernible talents, crafts, or personal wit or affability, I ,until recently, have always apologized for my love of television. and thought of it as one of my great vices. In the last few years I have come to terms with the idea that I am a TV nerd and like Chauncey the gardener, I like to watch. I have to say that I enjoy being honest when people ask me my hobbies I can include watching TV without being ashamed of myself. ......so tonight, I sat my wife down to our Amazon Prime and cast Chis Walken and Susan Sarandon from my laptop to our 50 inch for some delightful laughs, silliness, and at the end even a tear (the first TV tear in several weeks not having to do with Nazis, the Holocaust or the death of an actor.) TV provides us with a true art form accessible to everyone and if we let it is not only entertaining but thoughtful.
May 4, 2017   |  Reply
David - like many others here - this was such a favorite of mine too. I managed to see it somehow several times over the years, but not for a long time. I'm so excited. I'll go listen to your interview and watch it again and share it with others. Thank you!!
May 4, 2017   |  Reply
Paul Schatz
Thank you for this post. I did not watch this play when it first aired and will view it on Amazon shortly. A nice project would be to publish a list of outstanding TV dramas from the 50s to the 80s that can be found online or on dvd. Thanks again!
May 4, 2017   |  Reply
This is available to stream on Amazon. It is included in the Prime membership. I remember when it first came on. I loved hearing your radio segment today. The Library of Congress might have to start including TV shows.
May 3, 2017   |  Reply
Lizzy Kerwin
Just heard your fresh air piece. Almost drove off the road when you mentioned "who am i this time" and the "awakening" of Harry and Helene. Awakening and how! Phew I remember watching this special as a tween and falling head over heels for Christopher Walken. Rowr! I believe Walkens artful career over the years justifies my early love (lust) for Harry. Thanks for reminding me of this WONDERFUL show (I have it on video cassette I loved it so much)
May 3, 2017   |  Reply
Anthony Vogel
Mr Bianculli - Thanks so much for reminding me of this great film of the Vonnegut with its hauntingly good title. I just saw that the film is available to watch now on my Amazon Prime membership! So it's on my watchlist - I hope it becomes even more widely available now that you have brought it out of obscurity.

I agree it belongs up in the higher ranks of Demme's work, much in the way the made for television film Duel should be considered one of Spielberg's greatest works.

I always enjoy your essays for radio - Thank You!
May 3, 2017   |  Reply
Tom Keating
I heard your review of this on Fresh Air today. I remember that particular show as if it were yesterday. And I remember Vonnegut's short story that it was based upon. I enjoyed your review and was delighted to find it was available on dvd.
May 3, 2017   |  Reply
Christina S
I remember "Who Am I This Time?" well. I know I saw it at least twice. Whenever I see Christopher Walken, I think of this program since I thought it was among his best work.
May 3, 2017   |  Reply
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