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Made-for-TV movie review: A Grandpa for Christmas (Hallmark Channel)

Ernest Borgnine hits it off with co-star Juliette Goglia.

Yeah, I kind of thought he was dead, too.

On the contrary, Ernest Borgnine remains very much in life's batter's box. At age 90, he's the oldest living best actor Oscar winner for his title role in 1955's Marty. And on Saturday night (Nov. 24), Borgnine makes the most of a starring role in the Hallmark Channel's A Grandpa for Christmas (8 p.m. central.

It's a charming, overtly sentimental film that just wouldn't have a place anywhere else. Hallmark is the last network, cable or otherwise, with any interest in showcasing Hollywood's older crowd. President and CEO Henry Schleiff insists there's still a vital market for traditionally themed movies that dare to "skew older" and spread good cheer.

Hallmark will be making 30 such movies next year, leading off on Jan. 5 with another ancient mariner, Tom "Happy Days" Bosley, in When You Listen.

When you think about it, that's not such a bad thing. Madison Avenue mostly sniffs at this stuff, urging networks to make more and more entertainment aimed at young, impulsive buyers of dumb products they don't need. All but disenfranchised are viewers of a "certain age" who'd rather watch an old favorite than Ryan Seacrest. End of sermon, brought to you by Pennzoil.

Grandpa for Christmas also has a very appealing young kid playing opposite Borgnine and fellow old-timers Katherine Helmond and Jamie Farr.

Juliette Goglia is 10-year-old Becca, granddaughter of Borgnine's Bert O'Riley. He knew nothing of her until his estranged daughter, Marie (Tracy Nelson), had a serious car accident. Now the old song and dance man is entrusted with her care as the Christmas season swings into gear.

Becca's introverted and miserable at first, but chuckling Bert and his young-at-heart pals quickly win her over. The kid is soon respecting and enjoying her elders, particularly perky pianist Roxie (Helmond). They sing Christmas songs together, with Becca then mustering the gumption to try out for her school's annual pageant. Meanwhile, old Bert also must find a way to make amends with daughter Marie, who still resents him for "walking out" on her. Of course she doesn't know the real story.

Borgnine is a vigorous presence throughout, initially cherishing both his daily chess matches and a hole-pocked cardigan sweater that meets an untimely end. It's fun watching him having a good time on-screen again in a role that demands a lot of him.

Farr and Helmond, in little demand since their respective co-starring roles in M*A*S*H and Who's the Boss?, also get a chance to rise and shine in decent-sized supporting roles.

They're all beneficiaries of the one network that still makes them feel wanted -- and at home.

Grade: B+

Even Ernest Borgnine's Oscar has aged beyond the preferred advertiser target audience of 18-to-49-year-olds. He's had it for 52 years and counting. At a recent interview session with TV critics in Los Angeles, unclebarky.com asked him where he keeps it and what it means to him. Here's his answer:

"I get the greatest kick in the world when people come to my home. They spot it up there, up over the television set. It's about the only good place there is, along with my mother and dad's picture, and my sister. And I hand it to (visitors). And it weighs a lot. 'Oh, isn't this wonderful.' They get more of a kick out of it than I do, believe me.

"But I can't ever forget the moment that I received that. I was proud. It hit me. Boy, all I could do was thank my mother and father, and I think I forgot most of the people that helped me along. But I couldn't think of anybody but my mother and father at that moment, and that was it. And I've been living happily ever since."