SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue
By John Stark
The golden era of the TV miniseries lasted from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s. They couldn’t go on much longer. They required attention spans (you remember those).
Even "Downton Abbey," which is kind of like a miniseries, moves faster than the winner of the Ascot Derby. You’re constantly being yanked from one plot line to another. Blink and you’ve missed a death, birth, murder, marriage, poisoning, bankruptcy, bombing, jilting at the altar, you name it. A lot goes on in that castle in an hour.
In contrast, a miniseries took its time. Stories unfolded slowly. There was real character development. Most miniseries were adapted from sprawling novels. They were huge in scope. Multigenerational. Thanks to advances in makeup, you saw actors realistically age in their parts, from young to middle age to old.
The miniseries required serious viewer commitment. Many were aired during subsequent nights. "Roots" was shown over the course of eight consecutive evenings. If you missed an episode of any miniseries, you were out of luck. There was no streaming, On Demand or waiting to catch it on DVD. If you had a conflicting event on your calendar, you canceled it. The miniseries took precedence.
The genre, which inspired national dialogs, is revisited on ... "Pioneers of Television" on PBS. The episode focuses on three of the most famous miniseries: "Rich Man," "Poor Man, Roots," and "The Thorn Birds." (Sorry, no "Shogun") Clips are shown and many stars are interviewed, including Ben Vereen, Leslie Uggams, Lou Gossett Jr., Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward.
The Thorn Birds Bring Mixed Memories
Too bad Barbara Stanwyck isn’t around to talk about "The Thorn Birds," for which she won an Emmy. She played Mary Carson, a wealthy Australian sheep rancher. In what may still be TV’s steamiest scene, Carson tries to defrock the handsome, and much younger, Father Ralph, played by Chamberlain. It happened in the Outback, on a veranda, at night, during a thunderstorm. Stanwyck was 70, a cougar before her time.
In the documentary, Chamberlain reveals that during the filming of that intimate scene Stanwyck flubbed her lines -- a first for the consummate pro.
As Chamberlain talks about "The Thorn Birds", he begins to weep. For him, it was one of the most wonderful experiences of his life. Not so for Rachel Ward, who played the lead role of Meggie Cleary. She says she was absolutely devastated by negative reviews she got in the press. But all wasn’t lost. During filming she met Bryan Brown, the only Australian actor in the series. They’ve been married for 30 years.
The Phenomenon of "Roots"
Most of the documentary is devoted to "Roots", which aired in January 1977. Based on Alex Haley’s book that traced his own roots, the miniseries begins in the late 18th century and ends with the Civil War. Its finale is still the third-highest rated TV show of all time. Roots is widely considered the miniseries’ finest moment -- or hours, as it were, more than nine in all.
“That experience can never be replicated,” said "Pioneers of Television" co-producer Mike Trinklein, whom I recently spoke to. “'Roots' was kind of a perfect storm. When it aired the nation was having terrible winter weather. Everyone was staying in. It was a novelty. No one had done anything like it before. And there were only three TV networks, so there weren’t many viewing choices.”
Even so, "Roots" broke new ground.
“This side of slavery had never been shown before in movies, television or any visual medium,” Trinklein says. “It had such emotional depth to it. For the first time you saw families being separated, people being tortured. You saw how slaves were captured, chained and brought here in ships. This meant a lot to a nation that hadn’t yet grasped what went on -- at least not in that super-personal way that a textbook can't convey.”
The "Roots" alumni interviewed remain passionate about their participation. “I didn’t care if I worked again," says John Amos, who played Toby, the older Kunta Kinte. "This is as good as it gets.” Ben Vereen says he’ll be happy if he’s remembered only for playing Chicken George.
“All of them, without an exception,” Trinklein says, “talk about 'Roots' as the most important thing they ever did in their careers -- and most have had illustrious careers.”
Cast members reveal how they embodied their fictional personas. Lou Gossett Jr. recalls that after his character was forced to whip LeVar Burton, he ended the scene by saying, “There’s going to be another day.” That line wasn’t in the script, but it stayed. Amos says he felt that the slaves who came on ships were “speaking to me.” At one point he says he found himself flipping around on the ground and speaking in tongues.
“It’s not mentioned in the episode, but I learned that the white and black actors kept a distance from each other during shooting,” Trinklein says. “It’s not that they didn’t like each other personally, it’s that the white characters were so nasty. In order to continue their roles, the black actors would stay separate. It wasn’t like they could do a scene, laugh and have lunch together. They felt their roles to the bones.”
Rich Man, Poor Man: The Pace Was Different
The third miniseries featured in the documentary is "Rich Man, Poor Man," based on Irwin Shaw’s novel about two Irish-American brothers, one rich, played by Peter Strauss, and one poor, played by then-newcomer Nick Nolte. Although Strauss is interviewed in the documentary, Nolte isn’t. “He declined,” Trinklein says.
I asked Trinklein what he thinks killed the miniseries genre. “I was amazed when I went back and watched the first scene of 'Rich Man, Poor Man,'” he told me. “It starts with a celebration. It goes on for four minutes before there’s any story development. Viewers nowadays would be switching channels. Today that celebration would be nine seconds long. We want things faster. When it comes to attention spans, the world has changed for the worse.”
That may be true, but ... "Pioneers of TV" will be sure to hold yours.
Actor, director, producer and writer Tom Hanks has two Oscars under his belt thanks to his brilliant performances playing a gay lawyer in "Philadelphia" and the loveable, mentally challenged young man in the comedy-drama "<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forrest_Gump" target="_hplink">Forrest Gump</a>." He has many other mega hits including "Apollo 13," "A League of Their Own," and "Sleepless in Seattle." Before he became an academy-award winner, he got his start doing small-change parts like this cute performance on "Happy Days" in 1982 where he challenged "The Fonz" to a fight.
Betty White, who is a slam-dunk superstar at the age of 90, has entertained the masses for many moons -- best known for her roles as Sue Ann Nivens in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and Rose Nyland In "The Golden Girls" -- and of course she's still going strong today in "Hot In Cleveland." She actually made her television debut way back in 1954 on "The Betty White Show" when, most likely, only one in five families actually owned a TV set. This clip from her show is a must-see! Who knew Miss Betty White could sing? This could be the clip that goes viral.
Jack!! This 75-year-old superstar thespian, who has been "cool" his whole life it seems, has a body of work that would knock your socks off if we mentioned all of his films in this space. Along the way he picked up Best Actor Oscars for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and "As Good as It Gets," plus Best Supporting Actor for "Terms of Endearment." Before he became a household name, he had to start somewhere. One of his first acting gigs came courtesy of Andy Griffith. Check out this cameo on "The Andy Griffith Show," in 1967.
Jerry Seinfeld burst onto the scene -- big time -- when he starred in his own television show from 1989 to 1998 after spending many years as a stand-up comic making his rounds on the comedy club circuit. He called his show "Seinfeld" interestingly enough, and it went on to become one of the best sitcoms of all time. Before that big break, Jerry put in some time on the sitcom "Benson" (1980-1981) and here's a great example of his early work.
Marlo Thomas will forever be "That Girl" (1966-1971), and that's just fine with us. Being the daughter of the legendary comedian Danny Thomas, it would seem that she just waltzed into the role of aspiring actress Ann Marie on the popular sitcom, but, believe it or not, daddy didn't pull the strings. Marlo worked her way up the ladder with hard work and determination building up countless credits in both film and television roles. This clip from "Bonanza" called "A Pink Cloud Comes from Old Cathay" in 1964 -- where she plays Chinese mail order bride Tai Lee -- was one of her more challenging early roles. (She appears about two minutes into the clip -- but watch the entire thing to see a very young Jodie Foster.)
When Henry Winkler signed on the do a one-shot role, playing Fonzie "The Fonz" Fonzarelli on an early episode of "Happy Days," his character proved to be so popular, he became a regular cast member. The Fonz is one of the best characters on any sitcom in any generation. We all had a Fonzie type in our school (the "<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Winkler" target="_hplink">leather clad greaser</a>") growing up. Just prior to getting the biggest role of his career at that time, he made a guest appearance on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" -- "The Dinner Party" -- in 1973. (He appears about three minutes into the clip.) Check out the hair.
Harrison Ford has given us so many memorable performances including: Han Solo in the "Star Wars" trilogy," the title character in the "Indiana Jones" film series, and Jack Ryan in "Patriot Games." He managed to grab the role of Cullen Tindall in a 1967 episode of "The Virginian," in "The Modoc Kid" episode. The man in the black hat is almost unrecognizable as the Harrison Ford we know today.
Tom Cruise is almost beyond superstar at this point. He's titanic! Where do we begin with his film credits? "Risky Business," "Born on the Fourth of July," "Top Gun," "Mission: Impossible," "The Color of Money," "Rain Man," "Days of Thunder," "A Few Good Men." Stop! We can't go on. We're out of breath. What you'll love about this clip from his first movie role in "Endless Love" is: he's raw, but still adorable!
Diane Keaton is one of our favorite "seasoned" actresses. From her first major film role as Kay Adams-Corleone in "The Godfather," to Woody Allen's "Play It Again, Sam," and her Academy Award winning role of "Annie Hall," Keaton has proven that she's a keeper. At the age of 66 (when most actresses are looking in their rear-view mirror at their acting careers), the "Something's Gotta Give" actress is still working. Her first taste of "acting," came in 1969 in this Hour After Hour deodorant commercial.
Caryn Elaine Johnson, who went on to become Whoopi Goldberg, is a household name because of her incredible talent as a stand-up comedienne, her unforgettable film roles ("The Color Purple," "Ghost," and "Sister Act,") and her gift for gab (she's currently a co-host of "The View"). This triple threat talented Academy Award winning actress gave us a glimpse of what was to be in this classic "Whoopi Goldberg: One Woman Show" on Broadway back in 1985.