Tony Danza in Doing Life (1986)

The Jailhouse Lawyer

Jerry Rosenberg (Tony Danza) was a career criminal, always getting hassle from the cops over one thing or another. When two cops are killed during a call out to a robbery it is Rosenberg who gets identified as being there despite admitting to being elsewhere pulling off another robbery. With little in the way of evidence to prove he wasn't at the scene of the killing Jerry not only gets found guilty but also sentenced to death by electric chair for killing the cops. Whilst in prison Jerry decides he needs to do something about his situation and sets about earning himself a law degree which at the same time a change in the law sees him granted a stay of execution. Having become a lawyer Jerry finds himself offering legal advice to other inmates including those who took part in the Attica Prison riot of 1971.

Jerry Rosenberg sounds like he was an interesting guy, I say was because he passed away in prison in 2009 having served 46 years inside. I say interesting because here was a guy who was smart, a smart guy before his imprisonment as he was involved in one crime and hustle after another but then using the same sort of smart afterwards to change tracks and become a qualified lawyer. Now in fairness it is said that a lot of people who end up doing time end up reading law books but to use the same self confidence to take on the legal system and not just for yourself but others is pretty special.

Dan Lauria in Doing Life (1986)

Unfortunately "Doing Life" doesn't really bring to life the story of Rosenberg and instead ends up a shallow, episodic drama built around moments of success against the system and those who looked to keep him from qualifying. We see elements such as Jerry discovering that there is no law which prevents his baby daughter from visiting and we also see how before he went to the police he had friends photograph him undressed so that if he did end up being beaten up by cops he had photographic evidence. It is a shame as Rosenberg's story sounds like it could be made in to a really entertaining biopic rather than the bitty one this ends up.

As for the acting, well whilst there are some familiar names and faces in the cast such as Dan Lauria "Doing Life" rests firmly on the shoulders of Tony Danza. Now Danza brings his likeability to the role which makes us champion the character of Jerry but he doesn't manage to shed the Danza persona and convince us that he is Jerry Rosenberg.

What this all boils down to is that "Doing Life" is an interesting movie based on an interesting story which is watchable. But for me it doesn't really come across as a true story movie partly because of Tony Danza not shedding his own persona to play the role but also because it ends up too episodic.