Lorne Greene's first reaction was something like dismay when it began to appear that "Battlestar Galactica" would become a long-running series. Now, he says, he is beginning to hope that the gadget-rich space epic may develop into "a show that can move people on a spiritual level, an emotional level -- even an intellectual level.
"I hope we can do all three," said Greene, the archetypal big daddy of the small screen, during a visit to Washington "just to see some friends."
He is not nearly as hopeful for the future of the United States -- or the world -- as he is for the television series which is beginning to make people think of him as Commander Adama the way they used to identify him with Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa.
"I have children and grandchildren," Greene mused, looking out at the river from his suite at the Watergate Hotel. "My youngest child, Gillian, is 11, and I wonder what kind of world she will be growing into when she's 25 or 30. I think we will have terrorism in the United States as it has been in the Middle East and in Europe. Will she live under a system of security so tight that everyone will have to be indoors after 7 p.m.? Will she have enough food? People talk about the energy crisis, but the worst future crisis may be in food. Our agricultural technology is 40 or 50 years behind the times. We should be able to grow four or five times as much food per acre as we do. And as the population grows, there will be less and less space to grow food."
A conversation with Greene is a free-wheeling experience, with subjects that range from computers to plate tectonics to international politics ("one world government has to happen") and economics: "Labor costs have gone up in Japan, Taiwan, Korea; the next big pool of cheap labor will be in guess where -- the Soviet Union. They have an authoritarian government, there are no strikes, and people work for low wages. Right now, there are approximately 500 multinational companies setting up offices in Russia."
His resonant voice softens and the deep-set eyes under the heavy, dark brows burn with a special intensity when he talks about his friend, Hubert Humphrey, who died a year ago this week:
"Last night we had dinner with Anne Howard, his niece, and she asked me whether there were any politicians now whom I would campaign for the way I did for Hubert. There are some, I'm sure; you'd have to look for them."
His voice shifts into reminiscence: "The day before he died, he phoned around to all his friends, just to say hello -- really to say goodbye -- and the last thing he asked these people was: 'Is there anything I can do for you?' We need more men who will ask that question and really mean it the way he did. I have seen many changes in my life -- perhaps more bad than good. One of the bad changes is that we have lost some of the voices of the gentle-hearted."
Greene clearly sees it as part of his role to bring that sort of voice into his television work. This emerges when he talks about his father, who was "the model for about 75 percent of Ben Cartwright" and about how, with the aid of others, he managed to change "Bonanza" from a rought-tough Western into a series "that had heart and soul, that dealt with real people in a human way."
In the beginning, Greene recalls, "'Bonanza' was not a very good show -- the pilot was not one of the top 10 -- but I thought it was a very good concept when they first talked to me about it. They asked me what part I wanted, the older son or the father, and I said the father; I would rather play up than down in terms of age. If I had known it was going to run for 14 years, I would have been even more definite about that.
"Around the 16th show, I began to get depressed, and I stayed up all night one night writing out my thoughts about it. I read out to the producer what I had written and could see his face going from a smile to something less than a smile. I talked about the concept, the ranch, the people on it and how they behaved, and after that it began to open up. We began to do shows about real people. Westole plots from Shakespeare, who had already stolen them from someone else.
"Sometimes a scene wouldn't work and we'd talk it out and improvise on the same motifs. By then we knew our characters so well that we could do that; we certainly knew them better than the writers."
Greene believes that the same process is now beginning to happen with "Battlestar Galactica," but there is a complicating factor because "we have no lead time." An episode of "Bonanza" would be produced regularly on a six-day schedule, but (partly because special effects take time) "Battlestar Galactica" sometimes takes almost twice that long -- a difficult problem for a weekly series.
According to Greene, the first four or five episodes were "very strong, then three or four were not very good -- we didn't like them, either. Originally, it was going to be a three-part miniseries, with one three-hour show and two lasting two hours each. Then it became a series of one-hour shows, and I wasn't sure I liked it -- but when you have given your word you stick by it.
"Now, we're at the phase where 'Bonanza' changed; some of us have talked to the producer and found him very open. This is an experiment in many ways, and in an experiment you cannot have a closed mind. People ask why we're having reruns already with such a new show. The answer is that it gave us time to write some more shows with thought."
The idea of "Battlestar Galactica" is a microcosm, Greene believes, and in that microcosm anything can happen: "You can take any story that has ever been written and adapt it for use in this series." He seemed particularly pround that Fred Astaire will have a role in a forthcoming episode in which the possibility arises that he may be the long-lost father of the orphaned Starbuck.
"We are hearing from the agents of a lot of top actors now, saying that they would be happy to take a role in one of our episodes -- and that is a very good sign."
If Greene's mother had had her way, he would not be Commander Adama today, but he might be a concert violinist. "She used to take me to hear people like Elman and Heifetz and I would carry a violin under my arm all the time from the age of 8 to 13," he recalls. "I really tried, for five years -- but my heart wasn't in it, and I knew I didn't have the dexterity, the talent." Shortly before he was to give his debut recital, he made what he now calls a "subconscious decision." Chasing a fly ball in a softball game, he saw a rock out of the corner of his eye, stumbled and smashed his left hand on the rock.
"Eighteen stitches later," he says, "I was out of the violin business."