Promise begins with Bob Beuhler (James Garner) returning to his mother's house to attend her funeral and square away the estate. One of the things to be sorted out is who will take care of his brother, D.J.(James Woods), a schizophrenic who has been living with his mother his whole life. When Bob was only 21, after his father died, his mother made him promise that he would look after D.J. if the time ever came. Now in his fifties, and living alone, the last thing Bob wants to do is take on the care of a grown man, one he hasn't even seen in years.
After the funeral, Bob reconnects with his former love, Annie (Piper Laurie), and the two cautiously begin a new romance while Bob attempts to come to terms with his new responsibility. Dealing with the unpredictable behavior of D.J. is not something that comes easy but in time, the two brothers form a bond. Even so, Bob feels the best thing for D.J, and himself, is to move D.J. out of his house and into an institution where he can receive professional help.
Years later, in his autobiography, James Garner spoke highly of the film and wondered if he would have been able to play the role when he was younger. The role of Bob is of a man whose carefree existence has also made him rather selfish when it comes to looking after his younger brother and it was this aspect that Garner found appealing in his fifties but wasn't sure he could have played before. As for James Woods, he has said that it remains the best work he has done and his favorite film to make. He and Garner worked again two years later in another television movie, My Name is Bill W, about the real life story of the two men who founded Alcoholics Anonymous.
Promise became a surprise hit and as of 2016, still holds the record for the most Emmys won by a movie with five, though it was tied in 2010 by Temple Grandin. It was also awarded the coveted Peabody Award for Excellence, which called it "a sensitive, exceptional production."
Glenn Jordan would go on to direct James Garner two more times, in Legalese and Barbarians at the Gate but neither would match the success of Promise. A part of the success of Promise comes from the story by Ken Blackwell and Tennyson Flowers and teleplay by Richard Friedenberg. Rather than become a television "Disease of the Week" movie, where we would spend two hours learning about the history of schizophrenia, seeing the difficulties of treatment, and hearing psychobabble from a hackneyed psychiatrist character, the movie instead focuses on family and adult obligations. It's about responsibilities that come to bear on a middle-aged man when the promise he made as a youth comes up for payment. And it's about how two brothers struggle to connect with a gulf between them that makes every step a long and difficult one. It's rare for a tv movie to move outside the confines of its subject matter so easily, and surely James Garner, James Woods, and Piper Laurie, are in large part responsible for that as well as the writers, but Promise does and, as a result, remains one of the truest portrayals of schizophrenia on film we have.
By Greg Ferrara