The Epic Years

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The first American miniseries? It’s one of those debate-until-sunrise questions. NBC’s The Blue Knight? Maybe. Or ABC’s QB VII? Arguably, the Davy Crockett phenomenon of the mid-1950s, also on ABC, was a miniseries tucked into Disneyland.
But less debatable is the fact that from 1976 to 1989, ABC enjoyed a run of maxi-minis that will never be equaled. And not accidentally, that run coincided with ABC’s corporate campaign to upgrade its affiliate roster and finally claim parity with CBS and NBC.
The big minis started at ABC with Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), which made stars of Nick Nolte and Peter Strauss, and ended with 30 bank-busting hours of War and Remembrance (1988). In between were Roots (1977), Roots: The Next Generations (1979), Masada (1981), East of Eden (1981), The Thorn Birds (1983), The Winds of War (1983), two pulpy portions of North and South (1985 and 1986) and 141/2 controversial hours of Amerika (1987).
NBC had Holocaust and Shogun. CBS had Lonesome Dove. PBS, thanks to its British friends, was Upstairs, Downstairs and all over India.
But ABC sank the most capital into its broad-shouldered miniseries and got the most pop from them. For eight consecutive nights in January 1977, Roots stopped traffic and shuttered restaurants.
Even earlier, ABC had begun to lift its fortunes with popular movies of the week. In the 1970-71 season, the ABC Movie of the Week, sandwiched between The Mod Squad and Marcus Welby, M.D. on Tuesday nights, leapt to sixth place on the Nielsen chart-the lone network movie franchise in the top 20.
ABC’s contributions during the ’70s through ’80s heyday of TV movies included That Certain Summer, starring Hal Holbrook as a gay man and Martin Sheen as his son; The Missiles of October, a taut docudrama about the Cuban Missile crisis; Brian’s Song, starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams; the rollicking Elvis, starring Kurt Russell and directed by John Carpenter; The Women’s Room; Attica; Friendly Fire; Who Will Love My Children, with Ann-Margret as a dying woman seeking homes for her 10 children; Something About Amelia, delving into the taboo subject of incest; The Dollmaker, starring a gritty Jane Fonda, and in November 1983, The Day After. That film, stunning viewers with its graphic simulation of a nuclear nightmare, mushroomed to a 46 rating.
The man who had his fingers on most of it was ABC executive Brandon Stoddard, first as president of ABC Motion Pictures and then, from 1985 to 1989, president of ABC Entertainment.
“What the miniseries did for ABC in prime time was to give us visibility we never had before with people who had never found ABC,” Mr. Stoddard said. “They gave us a different kind of patina.”
Mr. Stoddard now teaches at the University of Southern California and is a partner in Ancient Mariner Productions, an independent film company. He remembers ABC’s string of major miniseries in bits and pieces.
There was the deliberate choice of virtual unknowns for the Rich Man, Poor Man lead roles, contrary to “everything I believed in in casting.” And the opposite strategy with The Winds of War; casting Robert Mitchum and other big-screen stars lent the miniseries a theatrical-movie sheen.
Mr. Stoddard recalls a pre-Roots Polo Lounge lunch, during which Alex Haley spoke for three spellbinding hours about the novel he hadn’t yet written about his search for his ancestors. And how Mr. Stoddard’s boss, Fred Silverman, saw a rough cut of Roots and ordered it broadcast over those consecutive nights outside sweeps. That prompted Mr. Stoddard to think, “Oh, God, he hates it. That means he’s dumping it. … The only one who really had a clue how well this would do was Alex Haley.”
Mr. Stoddard has a special fondness for Masada, about the heroic Jewish stand against the conquering Romans. Masada is often overlooked in the roster of great miniseries. But its script, by Joel Oliansky, was a gem. Mr. Stoddard remembers reading the script with growing excitement after NBC jettisoned the project.
The fate of War and Remembrance, with its record-setting budget of more than $100 million, seemingly hung in the balance when the cost-conscious Cap Cities acquired ABC in 1986. Whether to proceed with the World War II saga was the first decision the new ABC overlords had to make. Mr. Stoddard says about $12 million had already been sunk into pre-production and there were questions about Mr. Stoddard’s willingness to stay at ABC if Cap Cities pulled the plug. War and Remembrance was greenlighted, and aired in two massive chunks in 1988 and 1989.
By then, Mr. Stoddard said, the world had changed. The era of massive miniseries had virtually ended. The big-budget blockbusters were victims of expanded programming choices on cable and lethal counterprogramming from rival networks.
But the public can still catch those big boys on TV once in a while. Ironically, on cable.