A prolific television director, Donald Wrye primarily worked on TV movies from the sixties until well after the turn of the new millennium. His best work was produced in the seventies, including one theatrical feature which became a sentimental favorite, while he also contributed to shows, miniseries, and numerous teleflicks. Never a gifted director, he was still a reliable craftsman responsible for his share of popular features.
After working his way up in the early television industry as a young man, Wrye was given the opportunity to co-direct a TV documentary titled Destination Safety (1966). He followed with “Men from Boys: the First Eight Weeks,” which was narrated by Gary Merrill, and “California” before generating attention for his short “An Impression of John Steinbeck: Writer” in 1969. He finally moved up to features with a TV movie, The Man Who Could Talk to Kids (1973), the story of a counselor who tries to bring an emotionally stunted boy out of his shell. After helming episodes of “Love Story” he stirred controversy with Born Innocent (1974), starring Linda Blair as a girl from a dysfunctional family who is sent to a reform school. Very graphic for a television movie, with a still-infamous rape scene involving a plunger, it comes off as melodramatic today but, at the time, broke new ground when it came to presenting controversial material on the small screen. The director also won acclaim for Death Be Not Proud (1975), another superior teleflick based on John Gunther’s novel about the death of his son from a brain tumor; the ill-fated Johnny was played by a young Robbie Benson, who subsequently became a teen idol.
Wrye tackled a popular John Osborne play, The Entertainer (1976), with Jack Lemmon as the vaudeville performer who contends with middle-age and lack of success on the stage and Ray Bolger in one of his last roles as his father. It Happened One Christmas (1977) offered a gender reversal of Frank Capra’s Yuletide favorite, with Marlo Thomas as a good woman who considers suicide on Christmas Eve and Cloris Leachman as the angel who shows her what life would be like if she was never born. Though a holiday favorite at first, that cheeky drama slipped into obscurity once the original’s reputation began to grow. Ice Castles (1978), Wrye’s first and most famous theatrical feature, had actual figure skater Lynn Holly Johnson as a small-town girl who gets a chance to compete on a national level, alienating her family and former boyfriend Benson in the process. When an accident causes her to go blind, old friends return and help to make Johnson competitive again in a sentimental audience favorite which made the youthful leads into stars and Marvin Hamlisch’s emotional score a hit.
Wrye never again recouped the popularity of that teen girl favorite, though his film Fire on the Mountain (1981) was a well-acted melodrama featuring Buddy Ebsen as a New Mexico farmer who resists the attempts of federal agents to claim his land and Ron Howard as the developer who agrees to help him. Less interesting was a return to traditional TV movie territory, Divorce Wars: A Love Story (1982), which cast Tom Selleck as a divorce lawyer who realizes that his own marriage, to Jane Curtain, is falling apart. Similarly lackluster dramas followed, with The Face of Rage (1983) starring Dianne Wiest as a wife and mother who is raped, with her children in the next room, and sets out to find justice in a decent vehicle for the actress’ talents. Heart of Steel was more socially conscious, with a depiction of steel workers facing exploitation, though the left-leaning Wrye’s values were clearly tampered by the conservatism of the Reagan years. The House of God (1984) was made for a theatrical release but actually put out on cable, with Tim Matheson among the medical interns who encounter stress and corruption in yet another MASH imitation which pales when compared to the original.
Wrye’s most ambitious project, Amerika (1987), was a fourteen-hour mini-series which depicts American society several years after a bloodless takeover by the Soviet Union. Starring Kris Kristofferson as the patriotic hero, Sam Neill as a sympathetic Russian, and Robert Urich as a man trying to keep his community afloat, that controversial ABC program was dismissed by some as right wing propaganda and, in spite of strong initial ratings, ultimately failed to generate the same appeal as other dystopia extensions of Cold War paranoia. He primarily stuck to smaller scale entertainment afterwards; 83 Hours Til Dawn (1990) tells the story of a rich girl who is kidnapped and trapped in a box with limited air supply, and it at least benefitted from some suspenseful sequences. Lucky Day (1991) cast Amy Madigan as a young woman whose mentally handicapped sister wins the lottery, which causes mom Olympia Dukakis to suddenly emerge from the woodworks. Stranger in the Family featured Neil Patrick Harris as a handsome teenager whose life is turned upside down by a car accident and featured many of the usual TV movie-of-the-week tropes. Broken Promises: Taking Emily Back (1993) had Cheryl Ladd as a woman who adopts a baby, then faces problems when the birth parents want their child back in a conventional take on real-world issues.
Ultimate Betrayal (1994) also tackled controversial subject matter with its story of two sisters, played by Thomas and Mel Harris, who accuse their father of sexual abuse. The noirish Separated by Murder cast Sharon Glass in a duel role as a southern belle who is suspected of killing her wealthy husband and the mysterious twin sister who may actually be responsible. With A Family Divided (1995), Wrye again peered into dysfunctional families with Faye Dunaway and Stephen Collins as the parents of a seemingly perfect boy who is accused of statutory rape. Trail of Tears followed shortly, with Katey Segal in the lead role, though by that point Wrye was recognized as a middling director who could only make economical TV movies. Not in this Town (1997) featured Ed Begley Jr. as a white supremacist who helps fund the takeover of a small town by the Aryan Brotherhood, who terrorize black residents of the community. High Stakes had Cynthia Gibb as a reporter who gives up her job to become a wife and mother, only to turn to gambling in order to reclaim some of the excitement from her old life.
With Range of Motion (2000) Wrye cast Rebecca De Mornay as a woman whose husband is in a coma; she waits for him to awake in another sentimental drama based on an inspirational true story. A Vision of Murder was similarly based on the true story of Donielle, played by Melissa Gilbert, who sees a murder in childhood and finally confronts the killer as an adult. Reckless Behavior: Caught on Tape (2007), made after the filmmaker settled into semi-retirement, was about some girls who are secretly filmed; the video is doctored into porn and wrecks their lives. Ice Castles (2010), a direct-to-video remake of Wrye’s most famous feature, cast Taylor Firth as the figure skater who is blinded by an accident and helped by boyfriend Rob Mayes to become a champion once again. Popular enough with younger female viewers, that cheesy remake still did little to enhance the largely forgotten director’s reputation. Not necessarily a television maverick, Don Wrye was at least responsible for a few popular films.