starring Michael Landon, Victor French, and Michele Scarabelli as Diana
The sky is dark as Mark Gordon (Victor French) drives his car down a seemingly endless motorway. He’s listening to the news on his car radio but he is sorely disillusioned with what he’s hearing. In the passenger seat sits Jonathan Smith (Michael Landon) who is listening to Mark’s complaints. The discussion continues until both men come to the conclusion that no one ever reads about things any more – people only ever seem to be interested in sensationalism.
Jonathan’s latest assignment is at a school where both men take up work as replacement teachers soon after meeting up with the school principal, Bill McCormick. With sterling references, Jonathan takes on the task of teaching English while Mark is to work as the substitue Sex Education teacher (with many objections from Mark himself). Jonathan’s additional task is to oversee the responsibility of the school newspaper which is run by two of the students – one being the son of the principal. Jonathan is introduced to Colin and Doug, the newspaper’s co-managing editors. During the introductions, the principal is informed of an accident which one of the school buses was involved in.
At the site of the accident, the two cub reporters are questioning the people who were in the bus at the time. They come away with little information but before they can talk to the bus driver, Larry Nichols, he and his recently arrived on the scene wife, are accosted by a film crew for the same information. The reporters overhear the questions and take note that Larry is blaming the accident on a suspect foot pedal. They are soon on the trail of a “big story” by investigating the possible sloppy maintenance by the bus company.
At the bus yard, the two cub reporters are told that the buses are always kept in A1 condition and that there was no way anything was likely to have gone wrong but the bus will be checked out to prove it one way or the other. They are also told that Larry Nichols has worked for the company for seven years without causing any problem and that he is a “nice guy, a family man, a good worker”. It is suggested that they should ask Larry if they want any more questions answering.
As they leave the bus yard, the students run into Larry. However, when Larry says that he’s already answered too many media questions, the cub reporters practically accuse him of hiding something from them. In particular, Colin McCormick is determined to discover what is being kept from them.
In the meantime, Larry’s boss has called up the school and spoken to Jonathan Smith about the students being too pushy. Before Jonathan can get the chance to talk to them, the principal warns him not to put much of a damper on what he calls their “assertiveness”. McCormick is so enthused because Colin and Doug are in line to win “The City Council Youth Achievement Award” due to their sterling reporting history.
Outside, the two friends are fast coming to the conclusion that the bus incident was nothing more than an accident. However, before they have the chance to throw in the towel, one of the passengers who was on the bus approaches them. Ellen, a girl who was once in Doug’s biology class, claims that the bus driver was paying far too much attention to her when the accident happened. However, Ellen forbids the use of her name in the article. She tells them that if they use her name she will deny it all but is then reassured by the reporters that, as reporters, they never divulge their sources. Ellen then goes on to say that this has been going on for some time. The bus driver often spent his time looking at her rather than watching the road and has even said suggestive things to her. The worse thing about it all, Ellen continues, is that he is married – she knows this because she saw his wife at the accident.
With visions of a new Watergate in their eyes, the two reporters begin work on their article.
When Jonathan cans the story due to lack of evidence, Colin and Doug increase their investigations. They soon begin by confronting Larry with the accusations but Larry is quick to deny them all. Larry’s wife overhears the shouting when Larry exclaims that he’s not “in the habit of fooling around with teenagers”. He chases the boys off his property before going back into the house with his wife.
The reporters return to questioning Ellen. Although she’s hesitant at first, Ellen has more to tell them. She tells them that on the days when she was last on the bus, Larry would “touch her”. She says that she can’t tell them anymore except that she hates him.
Speaking with a police friend, Doug and Colin discover that when Larry 21 (long before he met his wife), he was once charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor by the father of the 17 year old he was spending too much time with. When the father calmed down the charges were soon dropped.
Colin goes ahead with the first copy and takes it to Jonathan. Smith is quick to point out that most of the facts are circumstantial and that they can’t possibly print a story based mostly on hearsay and a modicum of foolishness. He forbids them from running the presses on this story.
During a discussion between Colin and Doug, Colin convinces his co-editor that they must go ahead and run the story. He is convinced that his father will back them up. Eventually Doug agrees and the press (the photocopier) begins to run.
The next day, the newspaper is being read by students, parents, teachers – everyone. Jonathan is furious and sacks the co-editors from their jobs. However, as expected, the principal backs his son all the way – quoting First Amendment Rights. Jonathan counters this by saying that “…the First Amendment Rights don’t give them license to destroy the life of a perfectly innocent human being”. During the argument with Jonathan, McCormick tells him that the co-editors will be reinstated immediately.
Elsewhere, the story is travelling fast because the national paper – the Register – has reprinted the students’ story. At Larry’s home, his wife is battling incessant and abusive phone calls. When Larry arrives home he finds that his wife is beginning to suspect that he isn’t telling the truth. The situation becomes even more heated when the police knock at the door with questions.
After intensive questioning at police headquarters, Larry is released but not before a TV camera crew arrive to film the events. The next day when Larry arrives at work, his boss fires him – not due directly to the accusations but because she’s had many phone calls from parents refusing to allow their children to ride on Larry’s bus. Believing that they’ve “won”, the two reporters have their headline ready for a special edition.
Walking across the school-yard, Jonathan accidentally bumps into Ellen. Quickly, he picks up their books and returns Ellen’s to her. When Ellen reaches her locker, she realises that she has Jonathan’s binder by mistake and that her own one is missing.
At the photocopier, the boys are preparing to go to press with their special edition when they find Ellen’s binder apparently mislaid at the machine. Inside they find many disturbing and obsessive messages which indicate that Ellen’s thoughts towards Larry were less than platonic. They talk with the girl and she explains that she was in “love” with Larry but that he never even noticed her. And then when she saw Larry’s wife at the accident site, she hated her so vehemently that her love for Larry turned into hatred for him and so she made up the whole story.
Realising their huge mistake, the two reporters quickly print a retraction. However, despite being reinstated at work, Larry’s life is irreparably changed. This is indicated by two parents discussing the retraction. They have no intention of letting their children ride on the same bus as Larry – for “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”.
As Jonathan concludes…
“Abuse the First Amendment – and you destroy it.”
THE MICHELE SCARABELLI FACTOR
The background to Highway To Heaven is certainly nothing new. The person returning to Earth as an “angel” goes back a long way. Highway To Heaven was the first series to adopt the format successfully and this was probably due to the good working relationship between Michael Landon and Victor French (both having previously starred together in The Little House On The Prairie). Many episodes of Highway To Heaven dispense with the main characters in favour of just telling a story and The Source is no different. In fact, with the exception of the final morale message from Michael Landon, the two main stars might just as well have taken the week off. Victor French is typically underused (are any of us surprised by now that he got the token “joke” role of the Sex Education teacher?) and Michael Landon walks through his scenes as though he’s half-asleep. The fact that Michael Landon also directed this episode is really no excuse for the poor underuse of the two lead characters.
This is all a great shame because, on the whole, The Source is a great episode with a good solid story to tell. It plays on the predictability of the viewer’s assumptions that the bus driver must have been doing the things he was accused of (although, once his wife turns up, it’s quite clear that he wouldn’t have eyes for anyone else).
Starring as the bus driver is Dack Rambo who plays Larry Nichols straight enough that the viewer can’t tell whether he’s telling the truth or lying until some time into the story.
The episode tells a good story with a nice twist and a poignant moral but if there’s one missed opportunity it is the Ellen character. A whole story could be written around this kind of obsession and it’s a shame that this is overlooked.
As Diana, the bus driver’s wife, Michele takes part in three scenes. Initially, shortly after the accident, she races to the scene of the event and comforts Larry while he conducts various interviews to explain what caused the bus to run off the road. Apparently the two characters have a baby which was left with Diana’s mother but this was never seen or spoken of again (rather a shame because this would have added further complications to Larry’s background). Michele’s second scene is one in which she’s hidden mostly in the background while Larry is grilled for a second time by the cub reporters. The third occasion is the one worth watching the episode for. It begins with Diana fielding telephone calls of people accusing her husband of misdemeanours and it continues with a discussion/argument between the two characters as Larry accuses Diana of believing the newspaper stories.
If the acting was of a high standard before this scene then you haven’t seen anything until Michele’s given the chance to shine. Even Dack Rambo (one of the strongest actors up to this scene) is put severely in the shade. Michele is clearly in a class of her own. When she acts she is just so subtle that you can’t help but to believe in the character.
Michele has had more challenging roles than this but here is an occasion to see her on fine form.
*this episode of Highway To Heaven was supplied for review by Cowboy