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Remembering Favorite Miniseries of 1970s and '80s

From defiant LeVar Burton to lusty Barbara Stanwyck, the best multinight sagas are celebrated on PBS' 'Pioneers of Television'

posted by John Stark, February 6, 2013 More by this author

Fiddler offers sage advice to Kunta Kinte in the 1977 miniseries

John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle.  Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.


Fiddler offers sage advice to Kunta Kinte in the 1977 miniseries
The 1977 miniseries “Roots” is among others featured in PBS' "Pioneers of Television: Miniseries" on Feb. 5.
Courtesy of PBS "Pioneers of Television"
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 Tuesday night’s 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.”

(More: Boston's Forest Hills Cemetery: Where the Abolitionists Still Live)

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 tomorrow night's "Pioneers of TV" will be sure to hold yours..

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