Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Close this search box.

Door to Door (2002)

Welcome! Come on in. Allow me to greet you and tell you a little about myself. As you probably know, I have cerebral palsy. The ‘world’ told me I could never earn an income, my mother told me I could, and my father told me I must! And so I have, and still do.”—from Bill Porter’s Watkins website.

One summer, when I was still in my teens and job prospects were looking dismal, I answered a newspaper ad from an unnamed organization offering people with “initiative” a chance to make some real money. It wasn’t quite one of those “STAY AT HOME AND MAKE THOUSANDS OF DOLLLARS!!” ads you’ll still find in the backs of newspapers and popular magazines, but there was a hint of unlimited possibilities. The address turned out to be a Hoover vacuum cleaner command center in the back of a retail outlet in downtown Castlegar, my hometown. A middle-aged, high-energy guy in a suit beamed at the little group of us gathered in the office, pointing enthusiastically to a chart on the wall showing all the local salespeople and number of units sold. This was followed by a sales pitch that, with a few minor changes in wording, would have worked equally well for the seventh game of the Stanley Cup or graduation day at a Jesuit seminary. A simple message, really: You gotta have faith.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t a believer. The whole scene kind of creeped me out. I’d been whisked out of the real world and into an alternate universe where vacuum cleaners were exalted. Faith? I just wanted a summer job, not a mission in life. But my eyes were opened. For a select group of devotees, door-to-door sales was a call to be answered.

That strange Castlegar moment, and memories of Death of a Salesman and Glengarry Glen Ross, must have flashed through my mind when a close friend recommended a movie called Door to Door. I was a tad hesitant. But this friend has a pretty good track record (he’d also recommended The Scent of Green Papaya and Three Seasons), so it was just a matter of time before I followed up.

Glen, you’re now three for three. Directed by Steven Schacter, co-written by Schachter and William H. Macy, and with Macy in the leading role, Door to Door tells the true-life story of Bill Porter, Watkins salesman extraordinaire. This, too, is a story of faith. First and foremost, the faith of a mother in the infinite potential of her child. Is there anything stronger? Suffering from cerebral palsy from birth (“The doctor squeezed my head too tight when I was born”), William Macy gives a luminous performance as a man whose broken body is trumped by an indomitable spirit.

The year is 1955. A young Bill Porter wants to follow in his father’s footsteps as a traveling salesman. The cerebral palsy slurs Bill’s speech, twists his left arm backwards, hunches his back, makes walking difficult. His mother (played by Helen Mirren) never questions his choice. When Bill presents himself at Watkins headquarters in Portland, Oregon, he’s dismissed out of hand. He refuses to give up. Marching back into the office after the initial rebuff, he tells the head of sales to give him the worst route in the city. What does he have to lose?

It’s the route from heck. Barking dogs, feuding neighbors, a slob in an undershirt (listed in the credits as “the Go Away Guy”), a little boy who runs screaming at the sight of his twisted body and strange voice. With his mother driving him around, parking discretely in the distance, Bill at first is like a little kid trying to collect for UNICEF in Sodom or Gomorrah. Even Bill’s spirits get dampened on that first morning out.

Not for long, though. He opens his lunch to find that his mother has used food coloring to write “persistence” and “patience” on his sandwich. He’s a believer. When he actually, incredulously, makes his first sale he’s hooked for life. For the next forty years he’s on a roll—selling products he actually believes in, becoming a part of his customers’ lives, telling traveling salesman jokes with a preacher’s zest. I love the scene where, hospitalized after a dreadful accident, Bill’s talking laundry soap (scented or unscented?) to the guy in traction in the next bed. Surely one of the reasons he’s so successful is that his own severe handicap makes for a profound empathy with others’ lives. At the time the movie was made, in 2002, Bill Porter was still going strong, the once self-professed computer-phobe now wired and on-line.

Helen Mirren doesn’t get a lot of screen time as Bill’s mother, but she and Macy make the best of it. (I want to thank critic Carla Meyer for pointing out the acting magic it takes for the 56-year-old Mirren to utterly convincingly play mom to 52-year-old Macy!) Door to Door isn’t without its tragedies. Just as Bill begins to be successful, Mrs. Porter shows the first signs of an early onset of Alzheimer’s. Their relationship only deepens because of it. Their roles reverse. Mother becomes child. Bill does his best to repay her for all the years she’s fought for him. In the end, Alzheimer’s proves a far more unforgiving shadow than cerebral palsy.

Through his mother’s decline, Bill continues to work. Patience…Persistence……..Pride. Definitely with a capital “P.” His fierce independence is the armor which both makes him unstoppable and, at critical moments, perhaps unreachable. Bill dismisses out of hand a friend’s observation that his disability would allow him to stay home without worrying about a job. He lashes out at anything that resembles pity or charity.

Deprived of his mother’s help, Bill puts an ad in the papers for an assistant. A young woman struggling her way towards high school graduation answers the call. Shelly Brady (Kyra Sedgwick) turns out to be the perfect companion. Too perfect, perhaps, because she comes to embody one dream around which Bill Porter’s faith in himself wavers: sex, marriage and children of his own. To reach out for such intimacy is risk-taking far beyond anything else he’s ever done. There’s one devastating moment when he comes to realize how close that dream has come; another, how impossible it may be.

Nineteen eighty-nine is a year of high-points and crashes. After 43 years with Watkins, Bill Porter is Salesman of the Year—to the utter astonishment of young executives who can barely believe he’s on the company payroll. As for the crash, the film’s far more eloquent here than I can be.

By 1996, telemarketing has reduced the Watkins door-to-door sales office to a storage closet in the bowels of headquarters. No one even remembers it’s there. Individual telephone operators are selling $300 to $500 worth of products per hour. With typically self-deprecating humor, Bill’s wry comment to his boss is: “I’ve never done well on the phone. Women find my voice sexy and it distracts them.” Eventually, it’s not funny anymore. Bill gets tired of being treated like a dinosaur and hands in his briefcase.

Retired? Think again. A legend is just being born.

We should always celebrate new entries into that pantheon of cinema devoted to unlikely heroes such as Bill Porter. They remind us that being truly passionate about anything can be the ticket to some pretty amazing destinations.

And as for ending Door to Door with an meta traveling salesman joke, how perfect is that?

Looking Back & Second Thoughts

I’m a working man now!” – Bill Porter

[Full disclosure: My wife was for many years the lone Watkins representative in our small rural village. She still buys Watkins products online at Amazon and at a small store in a nearby town.]

As Bill Porter would say at the start of his sales pitches, “May I be candid….” I think there’s some synchronicity in the fact that Door to Door–a film that stresses hard work, pride, independence, personal courage, perseverance, patience, humor, and support–came back into my life at the same time as the news media have been focused on the ugly circus coalescing around the arraignment of Donald Trump on criminal charges. While the film movingly reaffirms one’s faith in humanity, the Trump spectacle is a sucking swamp of cynicism, venality, and contempt for anything even hinting of an ethical standard. I’ll try to keep Bill Porter’s story in mind in the months to come, as I’m relentlessly bombarded by lies and hypocritical posturing.

Having said all that, I’m a bit ashamed to admit that Door to Door is one of those films I had absolutely no memory of reviewing for Seldom Scene. I’m not sure what that says about me. Perhaps I spend too much of my time focused on the horrors and injustices of the past and present, and a story of a simple, decent man gets pushed into the wings of my brain. But I think I’m back on track now. Thanks, Bill.

There are four things that I’ve taken away from this second look at several decades in Bill Porter’s life. The first is awe that a man severely affected by cerebral palsy could step out of his house almost every morning for 40 years, walk 7 miles to cover his sales territory, and then spend 13 hours at home typing out orders with the finger of one hand on an old typewriter. The second was his ability to build long-standing relationships with everyone in his life–his assistant Shelly Brady, his customers, and even the doormen and shoeshine attendants who could do for him what he was physically incapable of doing for himself. Third is the quality of the actresses in the three key supporting roles: Helen Mirren, Kathy Baker, and Kyra Sedgwick. Lastly, the sad acknowledgement that even this most heroic of lives must have its bittersweet moments and its regrets–the impossibility of arresting his mother’s dementia, the moments of anger when he felt he was being pitied or patronized, and the missed chance at a romantic relationship with a woman whose loneliness, pain, and need for his companionship he couldn’t see until it was far too late.

William Douglas Porter died in 2013, at Gresham, Oregon, age 81.

I don’t imagine there are too many door-to-door salesmen who have their own Wikipedia entry.

That entry has several links to articles about Bill Porter. ABC’s record-setting 20/20 program on Porter can by found on YouTube at

Door to Door’s Writer-Director, Steven Schachter, is a bit of an unknown quantity. His career ran from his first film in 1983 to a writing credit for Shameless in 2012. He picked up his only two Emmy Awards for Door to Door.

Movie Information

Genre: Biography | Inspirational
Director: Steven Schachter
Actors: William H. Macy, Helen Mirren, Kathy Baker, Kyra Sedgwick
Year: 2002
Original Review: November 2003


Canadian Film Collection: Discover a World of Canadian Film

Put together by the people at Reel Canada, this site introduces you to over 700 memorable Canadian films. From the introduction: “This collection brings together all the films we’ve curated for both educational and public audiences since REEL CANADA was founded in 2005. This isn’t a list of every great Canadian film that exists, but we think it’s a good start.” It sure is. In addition to listing films alphabetically, you can also search by language, genre, and interest (indigenous filmmaker, strong female leads, cult & offbeat cinema, etc.)

Second Run DVD

The catalogue of eclectic films offered on this British website makes for an interesting introduction to world cinema. Many of the titles are unknown to me, but included in the collection is Dawson City: Frozen Time, which was one of the first films I chose for our local community centre’s weekly Marquee Mondays movie nights. From the introduction to the website:

“Second Run are a new UK-based DVD company specialising in the release of important and award-winning films from all around the world.

Second Run films encompass many genres and languages; what distinguishes them is their quality and their ethos. They are niche-market films which we hope anyone who seriously cares about cinema would want in their collection – but which, crucially, have never before been available anywhere in the world on DVD; and now are, additionally, being presented with newly-translated English subtitles.

Each Second Run film is our personal selection reflecting significant films which we have seen and love and care about, and which we believe should be seen by others for their quality and importance. Our purpose is to encourage that by making these films now available to you and at a reasonable price.”

28 Days, 28 Films for Black History Month

From Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott at The New York Times: “Our chief film critics have chosen essential movies from the 20th century that convey the larger history of black Americans in cinema.” From Dargis and Scott’s introduction:

The critical and box-office success of “Get Out” and the very existence of big-studio productions like “Black Panther” are good reasons to revisit the remarkable, complex story of black filmmaking in America. For Black History Month, we have selected 28 essential films from the 20th century pertaining to African-American experiences. These aren’t the 28 essential black-themed films, but a calendar of suggested viewing. We imposed a chronological cutoff in an effort to look back at where we were and how we got to here.

Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman 1917

One of the very earliest cinematic successes, after Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery in 190, was Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, directed by Gilbert M. ‘Bronco Billy’ Anderson in 1905. This smash hit clocked in at 15 minutes, or 1000 feet of film. Raffles was redone in style in 1917, with John Barrymore in an early starring role. Barrymore plays Raffles, a daring, rakish aristocrat who follows in the long line of thieves who steal from the rich and give to the poor. Directed by George Irving, this silent holds up surprisingly well. Barrymore lives up to intertitles like “I am worse than a thief–I have stolen your love.” And in these pre-Production Code days a thief could even make good his escape without outraging morals police.


Films Worth Talking About:

The Pianist, The City of God, 25th Hour, Mondays in the Sun, In America, The Twilight Samurai, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Road to Perdition, Infernal Affairs, Panic Room, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, The Man Without a Past, Amen., Edi, Treasure Planet, Bus 174, Insomnia, Bloody Sunday, Ice Age, Catch Me If You Can, Adaptation, Punch-Drunk Love, Talk to Her, Irreversible, Hero, Gangs of New York, The Hours, Russian Ark, Bowling for Columbine, Minority Report, Lilya 4-Ever, The Bourne Identity, Far From Heaven, Secretary, 24 Hour Party People, Dolls, Frida, To Be and To Have, Ten, Distant, Morvern Callar, The Son, All or Nothing, Sweet Sixteen, The Man Without a Past, Spirited Away, Chicago, About Schmidt, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, About a Boy, Time Out, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Monsoon Wedding, I’m Going Home, Domestic Violence, Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, The Quiet American, The Pinochet Case, Spider, Signs, Red Dragon, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Spider-Man, Star Wars Ep. II: Attack of the Clones; My Big Fat Greek Wedding; Austin Powers in Goldmember, Men in Black 2, Die Another Day, Scooby-Doo, Lilo & Stitch, xXx, The Santa Clause 2, A Beautiful Mind, the Ring, Mr. Deeds, Sweet Home Alabama, The Sum of All Fears, 8 Mile, Black Hawk Down, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, Day of the Wacko, A Building in Copacabana, At the First Breath of Wind, Oasis, Blissfully Yours, Samurai Jack: The Premiere Movie, Reflections of Evil, On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate

The Bigger Picture



Books: Shelly Brady, Ten Things I Learned from Bill Porter; Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures

The Word on the Street

Based on the true story of Bill Porter, this movie showcases a rarity: An admirable man. Movies today are so full of meanness, of violence, of generally nasty people, that this small movie about a man who insisted on earning his own way in life just shines like a beacon. [morrisonhimself]

In these days of 800 numbers, the Internet and megaplex shopping centers, it is hard to imagine a day when the door to door salesman met the needs of the neighborhood personally. To a certain extent, this story is as much about that phenomenon as the life of Bill Porter. We see him finding a place in the lives of his customers, fulfilling a role not unlike that of a minister or psychologist, a person who quietly and tactfully linked people together, listened to their concerns, and helped to heal their wounds. At the same time, we see Bill as an all too real human being, himself, disabled not only physically, but emotionally. The deep sense of pride that drives him on also blocks him from experiencing a relationship of his own. It is a very moving and personal story, respectful and ennobling. It needs no other message. [Cipher-1]

Viewers hint: Keep your eyes on the tree! [lauriesdell]

If this doesn’t make you see how much you take for granted then nothing will. Bill Porter is a story that’s worth telling and done so in a manner that was entirely compelling. Not only was the flick a tear jerker but a real valuable lesson on why people need to be given respect no matter how hard they may have it in life. Respect is most definitely the most important part of a person’s life….In forcing yourself to see the world through Bill’s eyes you grow to respect him as a individual person that in his mind is not disabled in anyway not just because he thinks so but because he does so by lifting everyone he encounters in his life up to his altitude. Attitude is 95% of the battle and Bill proves himself a winner in life by winning that battle despite a course that is fraught with obstacles that you or me may never encounter. Thank you Bill Porter. [chewybach]

The soundtrack was used incredibly effectively to highlight the various moods and temperaments of the action in the film – it was outstanding. [TuckMN]

J.R. Watkin’s top Salesman had the tenacity of a General Patton and the stealth of a komodo dragon when it came to getting orders for stuff like spices and laundry detergent, goods that could easily be obtained more cheaply at retail outlets. How tenacious was Bill? He was already crippled and had been run over by a bus, but he was pitching Double-Strength Almond Extract to his hospital roommate, who was in a body cast. There is no question in my mind that the next shipping day there would be cases of extract sitting next to the dying man’s bed because Porter was just that driven to make the sale. Until his death, this guy was ALWAYS CLOSING. [RuthlessGoat]

William H Macy is good. Really Good. So good it’s almost scary. This guy can play any role without breaking a sweat. This movie and Focus are easily his best roles. When you can watch a film and see the character and not think about the actor behind it, then it’s believable. [retrodaze]

I was sorry that Bill Macy did not take the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV movie for his role as Bill Porter. His transformation as a man “only” afflicted with cerebral palsy was as complete as Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” [merrywriter]