Beginning in the mid-1970s, miniseries based on novels captivated television audiences like never before. Networks poured money into the productions and reached huge numbers of viewers around the world. The key to these miniseries’ success are beloved characters that survive twists and turns that unfold over decades, including struggles to be accepted, whether in a loving relationship or within society.
“Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s novel, was shown over eight consecutive nights in 1977 and attracted more viewers than any other television drama before. “Roots” was a cultural landmark that had a profound effect, shifting opinions and revealing the truth about the African-American experience of slavery.
In “Rich Man, Poor Man” (1976), two starkly different brothers seek acceptance from their rough-edged immigrant father as they also build their lives in America, from post-World War II through the 1960s.
Set in Australia between 1915 and 1969, “The Thorn Birds” (1983) saga centers on a handsome priest’s devotion to both God and love of a woman.
“Rich Man, Poor Man”
In 1976, ABC launched the miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man.” Distilled from Irwin Shaw’s novel, the production focused on two brothers, Rudy Jordache (Peter Strauss) and Tom Jordache (Nick Nolte), and their very different paths through life. Strauss and Nolte played characters that were similar to their true personalities. Strauss was precise and disciplined while Nolte liked to improvise and surprise. The female lead Susan Blakely played Rudy’s love interest, Julie Prescott. The role was a composite of two very different characters from the book, which meant Blakely had to cover a wide emotional range in the series. In America and around the world, “Rich Man, Poor Man” single-handedly paved the way for an entirely new genre of the miniseries.
Over eight consecutive nights in January 1977, America was fixated on the most popular miniseries ever, “Roots” (1977). The multi-generational account of author Alex Haley’s family history brought the nation to a standstill as viewers settled down into their homes, restaurants and bars to view the unprecedented event. The “Roots” story began with Haley’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Kunta Kinte, who was captured in Africa and brought to America as a slave. The miniseries follows the family’s saga through one hundred years of slavery, and finally, to freedom.
When “Roots” was given the go-ahead by ABC, African-American actors saw a unique opportunity to play roles of substance. Newcomer LeVar Burton was cast as the young Kunta Kinte, whom John Amos portrayed as a grown man. Louis Gossett Jr. would win an Emmy for best actor for his role as Fiddler. Leslie Uggams played Kizzy and Ben Vereen played Chicken George.
For the first time, America witnessed on film the horrors of slave ships and the mistreatment of slaves. ABC worried that the cruelty was too horrific and might turn away audiences. The network insisted the producers add a sympathetic white character, the slave ship’s captain—played by Ed Asner. To further dampen potential audience outrage, the more ruthless slave owners were played by TV’s most likeable actors –Sandy Duncan, Lorne Greene, Chuck Connors and Robert Reed.
The “Roots” storyline concluded in the late 1860s. Despite the resounding success of the miniseries and the profound effect on audiences, acting roles for African-Americans would remain scarce in the late 1970s.
“The Thorn Birds”
After the success of “Rich Man, Poor Man” (1976) and “Roots” (1977), networks began scooping up popular novels to produce more miniseries. In 1983, Colleen McCullough’s bestselling novel, “The Thorn Birds” (1977), became one of the most widely watched romances in TV history. Producers cast the seasoned actor Richard Chamberlain as Father Ralph and the young Rachel Ward as Meggie Cleary. The authentic chemistry between the actors and the forbidden love between the characters resonated for audiences.
Ward found the script overwritten, melodramatic and with language almost impossible to make naturalistic. Despite her concerns and harsh remarks by critics, the audience loved Ward. McCullough was unhappy with the entire production, from the screenwriter to the casting of characters, yet seven of the eight major actors received Emmy award nominations for their portrayals. “The Thorn Birds,” also starring Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Kiley, Christopher Plummer, Jean Simmons, Piper Laurie, Bryan Brown and Mare Winningham, still ranks as one of the most watched dramas of all times.