Analysis: 'The Thorn Birds' fly again

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Feb. 9, 2004 at 7:52 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- The new DVD release of the landmark TV series "The Thorn Birds" serves as a reminder of how far TV has come -- or how far it is fallen, depending on your point of view -- in the 21 years since the program first aired on ABC.

Based on the best-selling novel by Colleen McCullough, "The Thorn Birds" attracted 130 million viewers over four nights in 1983 -- making it the second-highest rated miniseries in TV history, behind "Roots." It earned 16 Emmy nominations and won eight statuettes -- including Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Special (Barbara Stanwyck) and supporting actor and actress prizes for Richard Kiley and Jean Simmons.

Considered daring for its time, the story of forbidden love and sex involving a Roman Catholic priest might even have provoked controversy if it had been aired in the current media environment -- despite the predominance of broadcast standards that are radically different from those of the early '80s.

Richard Chamberlain played Father Ralph de Bricassart, who was morally conflicted over his love of the church and his love for Meggie Cleary, the farm girl played by Rachel Ward in a star-making role. After years of struggling against their feelings for one another, they consummate their love -- with tragic consequences for all concerned.

Like "Roots," "The Thorn Birds" was produced by David L. Wolper -- whose celebrated career earned him a place in the Television Hall of Fame as well as a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Wolper's TV productions have won more than four dozen Emmys and five Peabody Awards, and his movies have collected 20 Oscar nominations and three Academy Awards.

His résumé includes TV shows such as "The Race for Space" (1959), "North and South" (1985) and "The Mists of Avalon" (2001), as well as the feature films "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971) and "L.A. Confidential" (1997).

In an interview with United Press International, Wolper said "The Thorn Birds" could be produced now -- but not by one of the major commercial networks.

"Very possibly with TNT or Showtime or HBO or one of those," he said. "The networks don't do miniseries -- one a year maybe. They stopped for a while because they weren't successful with a couple and they thought the miniseries form was going away."

Wolper called that "typical" of network logic.

"When a few series fail they don't say series are going away," he said. "But when a miniseries or a Western fails they say, 'Miniseries are out, and Westerns are definitely out.' Then along comes 'Lonesome Dove.'"

The 1989 miniseries "Lonesome Dove" was a huge ratings success, breathing new life -- for the time being anyway -- into both the miniseries and the Western on TV.

Wolper also said that if "The Thorn Birds" were made today, it would have to be sexier than it was in 1983.

"Today you have to see everybody's tushy in a love scene," said the 76-year-old Wolper. "If you don't see somebody's rear-end in a love scene, it's not a love scene."

That approach does not appeal to Wolper, who prefers the notion that some things are best left unseen.

"'Casablanca' was a pretty good picture," he said. "Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman didn't have to jump in a bed for the audience to know that two people made love."

Wolper said graphic sex scenes in contemporary movies are there for the express purpose of attracting young male audiences.

"They show it because they want to pander," he said. "There's no question about it."

Economic considerations might also militate against making a series like "The Thorn Birds" in 2004. Part of the expense of mounting "The Thorn Birds" was an acknowledgment that viewers wanted stars. Wolper said that's why he brought in such high-profile talent as Stanwyck, Simmons and Kiley -- and the legendary Henry Mancini, who composed the Emmy-nominated score.

"We would be, if judged by today's standards, one of the most expensive miniseries," said Wolper.

He said programming executives were braver in the days before the networks were absorbed into conglomerates such as Disney, General Electric, News Corp. and Viacom.

"ABC ordered a 24-hour miniseries, 'North and South' -- it was $40 million commitment," he said. "Now, there's too much uncertainty in the jobs at the top."

If anyone at ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC should ask, Wolper would advise that that sometimes it's good to take big risks.

"ABC was considered third-rate, actually, when we put on 'Roots,'" he said, "and that shot them to the top all of a sudden."

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