'The Children of An Lac' -- a touching story of Vietnam

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Ina balin almost didn't get the role of Ina Balin in a TV movie about herself , because, according to some TV producers, she wasn't "right for the part." However, she persevered and eventually got not only one of the lead parts, but a screen credit for the story, and served as associate producer as well. And her delightful performance as herself proves, among other things, that Ina Balin is a fine actress as well as a fine human being.

"The Children of An Lac" (CBS, Thursday, 8-10 p.m., check local listings) is a poignantly charming re-enactment of actress Ina Balin's actual experiences in adopting three Vietnamese children and assisting in the evacuation of most of a Saigon orphanage during the final days of the Vietnam war. It is two hours of near-perfect family entertainment -- a show the whole family can cry and laugh over together . . . as it munches popcorn.

Although it is still another of what I consider a dangerous genre of electronic near-truth called "docu-drama" (dangerous because of the form's potential for distortion as a sometimes nonrecognizable "pseudo"-documentary), this program is an earnest and moving, basically harmless, romanticization of Miss Balin's seemingly selfless search for family.

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It is also the climatic fantasy-reality result of her adventurous spirit, her patriotic USO servicE, her determination to see to it that innocent children should suffer less.

If, upon occasion, the whole philanthropical adventure smacks just a bit too much of Lady Bountiful-ism, with well-groomed Western ladies searching for pretty children to adopt, much as one goes to the ASPCA looking for a pet . . . well, the warmth and compassion of Miss Balin and Betty Tisdale (played with tough gentility by Shirley Jones) overcome all objections. And the fact is, most of the youngsters at An Lac were almost miraculousy rescued and brought to America, where they allegedly found "proper" homes. Meantime, back in Saigon, those left behind were, perhaps, helping to rebuild. . . .

But it is unfair to quibble about "An Lac" -- certainly its heart is in the right place, especially if you consider the sleeve a proper location. The "good guys." in this case the two american women, win out over the "bad guys," in this case the Viet Cong and the Saigon bureaucracy. Several hundred children are safely evacuated and, according to Miss Balin, are living happily ever after.

"An Lac" is a lovely, heart (wherever you find it) warming story. And Miss Balin recently came to New York from her California home, where she lives in single- parenthooded happiness with her three children -- Nguyet, Kim Thuy, and Ba-Nhi Mai -- to tell about it -- and to tell about the TV show that marks her return to visible stardom after a seemingly (but not actual) hiatus since her appearance in "From the Terrace." She has, it seems, been starring in a few minor movies, guest-starring in just about every major TV series (including "Battlestar Galactica") in recent years, as well as running an art gallery.

"I didn't drop out," she protests. "I just haven't done many feaure films. After all, I've had three children to support for 5 1/2 years."

The An Lac story began for Miss Balin way back in 1967, when she first volunteered to entertain the troops in Southeast Asia and spent seven weeks touring hospitals and meeting the soldiers.

"It changed my whole life, and I decided that I was going to go again because I realized how much it did for their morale. The next time I went I sang and put on a show. But I didn't give up the handshake part, because it's very important to meet the guys. So many shows like Bob Hope's would come in and the guys couldn't even get near them because of the cameras.

"Prior to my second trip I called Senator [Jacob] Javits's office, since I knew him and his wife, and I spoke to his personal secretary, who told me she was involved with an orphanage over there, and when I got off the phone I had a list of people to call, things to bring, buy, and carry back. That's how I first got to visit An LAc. When I returned, she asked me to join the board of directors.

"The orphanage was in Saigon, but it had been started in the North by a wealthy woman named Mme. Ngai, whose husband and son were lost when the bombings started. She went out to search for them and found many abandoned children crying for their parents. So she wound up starting an orphanage. When Dr. Tom Dooley helped her find a location in Saigon, she moved there with about 250 children. Most were orphans, but many also were simply abandoned by mothers who wanted their offspring to survive.

"The senator's secretary, Betty, had volunteered to work with Tom Dooley, and , after he died, she went to all the places in Southeast Asia where he had been working. After visiting An Lac, she decided to dedicate all of her free time to raising funds for the orphanagE.

"I went there in '69, '71, and then we went to evacuate in 1975 just before the fall of the city. My children all came from An Lac. They were three of the children we evacuated. I've had them since one was 3 weeks old, another 10 weeks old, and the big girl, 16 years old."

As a matter of fact, all three of the girls are also in the film. The eldest daughter, who helped out in the orphanage, plays herself -- she is part black, chinese, and Vietnamese. The two little ones just play little kids around the orphanage, because they are now too old to play themselves. But they were with Mamma Balin for the two months they filmed in the Philippines.

What has been for single-mother Balin the greatest satisfaction in her varied and exciting life?

"Knowing my children. They are the best thing that has ever happened to my life. They give me such joy and pleasure. I feel so lucky to have them.

"I just wish that somehow I could give to any dissatisfied single parent my same outlook on being single and raising children. For me it has been so wonderful."

Why did Miss Balin choose to adopt children rather than bear her own? It is a bold question but, then, Miss Balin is a bold woman.

She takes a deep breath, smiles, and then obviously decides to proceed to tell the whole story straightforwardly. "Well, I had been going with somebody for a very long time and I always had thought that when we got married we would have children. Suddenly I was in my 30s and we broke up. My ego told me that I didn't have to have a small me.m A child is a child. In this country, it is almost impossible for a single woman to adopt a child. And I felt such an affinity to the Vietnamese people. . . ."

Miss Balin believes that single parents need not be women. "I know a man who has adopted three vietnamese boys. It's not impossible. You just have to want them enough.

"I had to go and physically get mine. It was just a sort of miraculous coincidence that my trip was planned in April 1975, when the Viet Cong marched into Saigon. And so instead of adopting a baby, I wound up evacuating half of the orphanage."

Are there more children in Ina Balin's future?

"If I have the money, absolutely. . . ."

Have the children changed her?

She nods her head excitedly. "Oh, yes, yes. I have never been a very patient person, and I'm still not, but whatever patience I have learned, I've learned from them. I believe I've always been very open and giving, and I hope my children are as well. I feel I am even more so now. Also, it has helped me to understand women better. Being a mother, I now understand the pressures women have to live under."

What has happened to An Lac under the North Vietnamese?

"It was taken over by the communists, and the older children who were left behind took to the streets. The younger ones were sent to work camps. I plan to go back there as soon as I can."

Is it one of Miss Balin's ambitions to reopen An Lac in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City)?

Her eyes sparkle for a moment with the prospect of helping still more children, but then she says: "No, I hope there is no need. In fact, I would hope that someday soon there will be no need for orphanages anywhere in the world."

Perhaps. But it is a wish that would only be possible if there were more Ina Balins in the world.

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