Shot in the Heart
Oct. 13, 2001
Lee Tergesen plays Frank Gilmore Jr. in this finely crafted HBO
movie produced by -- no surprise -- the Levinson/Fontana Co.
directed by Agnieszka Holland, the mother of Kasia Adamik, who
directed Lee in "Bark." (Mother
and daughter directors therefore have helped Lee achieve two of his
"Shot in the Heart" is based on a book of the same
title by Mikal Gilmore, the youngest of four brothers in a family
marked by violence, religion, superstition and death. The TV movie
depicts the six days leading up to the execution of Gary Gilmore in
1977. Gilmore was the first person executed after the death penalty
was reinstated after a decade-long moratorium.
Convicted for killing a motel manager in Utah (and also charged
with killing a gas station attendant), Gary Gilmore wanted to
be executed. His brothers traveled to see him in prison to decide
whether to request a stay of his execution. Most of the story
focuses on Mikal's wrestling with this decision. But there are
poignant scenes between Frank Jr. and Mikal in which family secrets
are revealed and Lee delivers a magnificent, subtle interpretation
of this troubled man.
"Shot in the Heart" is a complex story, but here is an
excerpt from a San
Francisco Chronicle review that provides an outline of the key
characters -- especially Lee's portrayal of Frank Gilmore Jr.:
The Gilmore family was about as dysfunctional as they come. Frank
Gilmore Sr. (played with unblinking meanness by Sam Shepard) was a
low-level criminal given to startling cruelty. He beat his kids,
abandoned his wife and left Gary on a park bench at one point.
Mother Bessie (Amy Madigan) was a devout Mormon haunted by visions.
Living through this was Frank Jr. (Lee Tergesen, who captures the
son's shell-shocked, lost life); Gary, who seemed to suffer the
most; brother Gaylen (shown only in flashbacks, who would later die);
and young Mikal. ... Executive producers Barry Levinson and Tom
Fontana have crafted what amounts to a subtle, sad punch in the
nose. No wasted movement. No need to spice up the story.
The "shell-shocked, lost" description is apt. As the
eldest son, Frank Jr. has seen and experienced the full horror of
his family, including beatings by his parents and the crimes of his
preparing for the role, Lee said one of the most important things he
did was read the book and meet Mikal Gilmore. (He was not able to
meet the reclusive Frank Jr. however.)
"The other thing that was really useful to me was the pictures
that were in the book," Lee said.
"I actually, physically, was doing things that I saw. It's almost not noticeable in the movie because everything is so close, but there were things about the way he held himself that I thought told a lot about who he was."
Lee's portrayal shows a man who seems to have a great deal of loyalty and
affection toward his family, despite the brutality of his parents,
the heinous criminal acts of his brother, Gary, or simply the vast
gap in age between him and Mikal.
But he also goes through periods where he must escape the weight
of his family's troubles. He disappears -- as he did after
he went with Mikal to see Gary in prison -- and later, after the death
of their mother.
When he drifts back into the storyline throughout the movie,
it's for intense scenes in which Mikal and Frank reveal
family secrets and relate to one another as survivors in their
During the course of the story, we learn that Frank Jr. served
three years in federal prison for being a conscientious objector
during the Vietnam War. Perhaps he had already seen too many
battles. We also learn that Gary gives him credit for saving his
life several times by stopping his father from beating him.
"Dad would go haywire with that razor strap," Frank Jr.
tells Mikal. Mikal points out, "He did that to you too."
Frank replies, "Yeah, but I took it. Gary would always fight
and scream, and that made it worse."
In a juxtaposition of anger and tenderness, Frank Jr. then takes
off his coat and puts it around Mikal, who is shivering in the cold
as they sit on a park bench. "I hate what Gary did. What he did
was hideous," Frank Jr. says. "But I hate what they did to
Later the brothers are together, at home with their mother, when
news of Gary's execution comes. We see Frank Jr. tense and
distracted, pulling into himself. Moments later he reaches out
tentatively to comfort his mother as she sobs for Gary.
At the end of the movie -- apparently many years later -- Mikal
meets up with Frank Jr. in a seedy Oregon bar. Frank explains that
he drifted after their mother died and apologizes for not keeping in
touch. "I'd be doing some dirt job. Or sleeping under a bridge.
And I'd think to myself, I've got a brother out there who's doing
good. He's a writer. He's talking to famous people who
respect him. I didn't want to embarrass you. One of us turned out
right. Let him have his happiness, let him go."
brothers look at old photos, smile at good memories and even some
painful ones. [The picture at right is a "family photo"
shown during the credits. Click it to enlarge the view.]
There's one more big family secret, and it's prefaced by Frank
Jr. saying, "Oh, this is big. I've been watching that face
since you were a baby, and I know. This is big."
What the new is, of course, explains a lot about some family
dynamics. But in relation to Lee, the scene is the pinnacle of his
performance. The weariness of this man, the affection he has for his
baby brother, the weight of his cursed family, all come to a head.
Emotions flicker across his face, in his eyes, in his voice --
expressing all these things.
One review of this TV movie said that the part of Frank Jr. was
underwritten. That feels true. And Lee's performance makes you want
to know more.
Of Frank Jr., Lee himself said:
"The guy is such a heartbreaking character.
... Gary lashed out at the world, while Frank totally sucked into himself and tried to eat it
all. I think he's a really noble character. I think he's the hero of the book."