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.

  • Audrey Bam Jackson

    we need not to forget the horror of slavery in america . this country is talking about immigration , and immigrate but forgot to realize that the black in this country open the path to america . america black build this country , they fought there self out of slave, we fought for all the right that the new immigrate enjoying . and die for this country .
    stand up tall black america and remind the president we made the pathfor him

    • Angela Denise Williams

      I agree, because textbooks in Texas are already being revised by the Conservative Movement in an attempt to water down slavery & make it seem as though it really wasn’t as bad as it really was. Not to mention, there’s a whole generation of kids of all races that don’t even know about the atrocities of slavery, because it’s not being taught in schools. I saw “Roots” last month on BET, but the major networks need to air it again just like ABC did in the 70’s.

      • nickc66

        No way in the world we as conservatives ever downplay slavery. What befuddles us is how the Democratic party goes from a proponent of slavery to the Jim Crow segregationalists to the anti civil rights party to the party which is perceived to love the African American community. I am a history teacher and never glossed over the evil of slavery but i am not willing to let the guilty party involved become the great hero in all this. There is a reason why Dr. King and Jackie Robinson were Republicans.

        • Robbie Moraes

          Spoken like someone who refuses to acknowledge slavery, and has someone whose movement wants to defund PBS. Long live the Democrats, who support PBS.

        • Angela Denise Williams

          I NEVER said that the Democratic Party wasn’t responsible for the atrocities of slavery all the way through to the Civil Rights Era(Jim Crow), so, I have absolutely NO idea where you got that from. You personally may not gloss over slavery, but the same can’t be said of the extremist Conservative branch of Republican Party when you consider their failed attempt to rewrite our childrens text books(Thank goodness). Yes, the Democratic Party has it’s faults, but it has tried to redeem itself over the years, where the Republican party seems to be heading in the opposite direction(Also, I NEVER said that I loved the Democrats either; both parties are opportunists that will use minorities for their purposes…I just choose to side with a party that shares most of my common beliefs). What you failed to mention is Dr.King & Jackie Robinson were members of the Republican Party when the party had more compassion for the plight of minorities during the Civil Right Era & for the poor in general, which is NO longer true.

          • nickc66

            How has the Democratic party help African Americans by enslaving them to the government dole? What did LBJ say when the Civil Rights Act was passed? Now those n— will vote Democrat for the next 200 years. Giving someone someone else’s money isn’t buying redemption, it is buying votes and control.

          • Angela Denise Williams

            You lack credibility, because you’re attributing statements to me that I NEVER said at all, therefore, your comments aren’t even based on FACTS(…but I’m NOT surprised!). It’s also obvious an intelligent conversation CAN”T be had with you, because your use of vulgar language, shows who you REALLY are anyway. So, LATER for you forever!

      • Robbie Moraes

        Commercial networks do Reality TV now. They are cheap.

        • Angela Denise Williams

          I know, and that’s unfortunate. That’s the reason I hardly ever watch network TV anymore.

  • Robert Sanchez

    Nice to see focus on miniseries. However, like the installment on primetime soaps, it’s presented in such a way as if these existed in a vacuum with not even cursory mention of other important miniseries. Why not a minute or two devoted to Scruples, The Moneychangers, East of Eden, North and South, Beulah Land, Holywood Wives, The Dream Merchants, I’ll Take Manhattan, Rage of Angels, The Long Hot Summer, Little Women, Sins, or Lace? At least providing context gives a clearer idea to the viewer as to how important the miniseries format was in ’70s/’80s TV.

    • Carol

      And “The Last Convertible”

  • Janit Jones

    Did the makers of the documentary miss the trial that found Alex Haley plagiarized much of his “family history” from another novel, The African? It would be nice to see the true author finally get credit for his contribution.

  • Paul Adams

    What about the superb Winds of War/War and Remembrance? Why has this excellent miniseries been airbrushed out of history?

    Also what about the excellent late 70s (I think 1978) series ‘Centennial’?

    Having said that I suppose we all have our personal favourites and could be here all day listing them – the three they have chosen to focus on are a pretty good selection.