The Death of Richie (1977)
I loved anti-drug propaganda. It was as close as I could get to drugs while I was stuck in elementary school. The Death of Richie, a made-for-TV movie, was a foundational text. It let me know I didn’t want twigs or seeds, and that orders of protection against children are rare.
Richie’s family was something like mine, always yelling.
If I can’t make you shut up you can’t make me listen.
I got nothing to say to you.
You make everything an argument.
Richie had a secret place, a crawlspace hidden behind a shelf in his closet. He’d turned the space into a teenage dreamhouse: colored lights, day-glow posters, a stereo. Richie would crawl inside, get high, and hide from his family.
Richie’s drug use escalated quickly. He’s nearly catatonic when a friend finds him.
Richie, what’d you take?
Richie holds up one hand, then the other. His friend counts slowly on his own fingers.
Nine? Richie, you took nine? No one can take nine reds.
Later, at school, Richie’s a crazed zombie. His dad yells at his mom.
He’s a family problem. He’s the only problem we’ve got.
Until something changes, we’ll never have peace.
Richie’s problem, as I saw it, is being too soft. He has good intentions, couldn’t handle his reds, hugged his dad when he’s happy. He’s the boy every mother dreams of, then he’s not. Carrying him from school, Richie’s parents bear him between them like Jesus bore the cross.
The film knew its audience, the anxious suburban parent. The parents aren’t perfect but they mean well. Police officers are friends. There’s not a single non-white actor. The writers give parents what they want, good kid gone bad, not born bad, not made bad, nothing that could be traced back to them.
You know time’s up for Richie when his dad finds his secret hiding place. In a fit of fury, Richie’s dad destroys all of it, lights, posters, stereo. In a few years my mom would do the same to my bedroom bedroom.
In the middle of his violent outburst, Richie’s dad pauses. The camera closes in on him and we see he’s breathless, frightened.
I remember Richie killing his father in the end. I can see Richie standing above his father on the stairs, gun in hand, but that’s not what happens. In the movie, as in real life, Richie Diener’s father shot and killed him in what authorities determined to be self-defense.
The final scene feels sparse: Richie and his parents, Richie and his dad. Richie taunts his dad. Go ahead, kill me, go ahead. Richie looks possessed, then exhausted, then undead.
We see the gun blast up close.
I watched it again online. I hadn’t seen it since childhood. Robbie Benson is prettier than I remembered. He’s punk in one scene, glam the next. His hair’s as rich as mink.