Joanna Kerns recalls the day last February when Jerry Vale was a guest star and her 12-year-old daughter was simply a guest on the set of her ABC sitcom "Growing Pains."
Suddenly the soundstage -- along with the rest of Los Angeles -- was rocking to the tremor of an earthquake. "I looked around and didn't see my daughter on stage," said Kerns. "I ran right over Jerry Vale -- laid hm out flat -- running back on stage to look for my daughter. Every time I see Jerry, I apologize and tell him that we don't treat our guests that way."
In Los Angeles, while they may be cordial, they do react to earthquakes. And for Kerns, the mere idea of a devastating earthquake was brought home by her work in the upcoming NBC two-night miniseries, "The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake." Kerns plays a seismologist for the U.S. Geological Survey who believes she has found a reliable way to predict quakes.
One of the show's technical advisers, and a model for Kerns' character, is Lucy Jones of the Geological Survey. Kerns invited her to her home, a Spanish-style house built in 1926, with four bedrooms and a courtyard. She's lived there for about a year.
"Lucy and I sat outside and looked things over," Kerns recalled. "The next day I called a contractor."
What followed were a series of changes in the house and some other arrangements that are right out of the textbook on how to prepare for the big one.
First, she had the house nailed down. "They came out the next day and bolted the house to the foundation," said Kerns. "It was sitting on pylons, which are deep enough, but the house is not attached to them."
That was just a start. "I have not only bolted the house, I've bolted main furniture to walls, the water heater to the floor." And she's stocked flashlights, she said, that plug into wall sockets and go on if the house power goes off.
There are other arrangements, made in case a quake hits while you're away from home, out of touch with loved ones, or both.
First, Kerns put together a car kit -- bottled water, sneakers, blankets, candy bars. The water, snacks and blankets are in case a victim is cut off from the basic needs and comforts. The sneakers are an accessory for women who might get stranded in a remote area in high heels and need comfortable shoes for a long walk.
And there's the personal connection. "My daughter and ex-husband have a number we'll call out of state to make sure each other's all right," said Kerns. "They say you'll be able to call out of state much quicker than across town."
The TV miniseries is set in Los Angeles, but it might well have been situated in any number of other major cities. "There are other cities with as much or more risk," asserted Kerns. "Seattle, Vancouver, New York, St. Louis."
"The Big One" unfolds in two parts, the first one playing like an Arthur Hailey novel, introducing in soap opera fashion a flock of characters for you to understand and care about and setting out the technical aspects of quakes. (Don't be fooled by the slick, quick-paced previews NBC's been airing to promote the show; part one really pokes along.) The pace picks up in part two, a chapter from the Irwin Allen disaster film textbook, as an 8-magnitude quake rips the city.
Kerns, fine in the role of a strong-willed professional confronting personal and political obstacles, is surrounded in the series by a number of actors familiar from shows of their own: Dan Lauria, the father in "The Wonder Years," plays Kerns' husband; Ed Begley Jr., who stars in the struggling series "Parenthood," plays Kerns' chief assistant; Alan Autry, from "In the Heat of the Night," plays a policeman; Bonnie Bartlett, most recently of "St. Elsewhere," plays Kerns' mother. Also of interest: Richard Anthony Crenna, son of the quietly accomplished actor Richard Crenna, plays another Kerns colleague.
"I learned so much doing this piece," said Kerns. "If all these anomalies came together as they do in the movie, they could actually predict a quake." And if authorities had the ability to predict quakes, what would they do with it, considering the possibility for panic?
"The movie keeps throwing up the people's right to know against what the government wants them to know."