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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. 

It was 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 finest performances.)

"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 brothers.

In 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 family.

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 him."

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."

The 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."

Movie Gallery

Dozens of 
screen captures:

Gallery 1: First visit

Gallery 2: In the park

Gallery 3: Back Home

Gallery 4: Bar scene

Promo image
Click to enlarge

Click to see
TV Guide cover

Related Links


The Book

Tom Fontana's page
for the movie

Film Forum

San Francisco
Chronicle review:
Brother's Sad Tale

Los Angeles Times
article: Finding Peace,
If Not Closure

TV Guide Review
and Trailer

Wikipedia: A brief summary about 
Gary Gilmore