In producing Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movies, said Marian Rees, finding the right material is the first -- and trickiest -- thing.
She should know. She's produced eight of them. She was finishing work on one, "Home Fires Burning," when a music supervisor told Rees she had to read this little novella. It was "Decoration Day" by Williams Corrington.
"I just instantly responded to its literature," said Rees. "And I had the feeling that this would appeal. Because in the experience with Hallmark, they're driven by the material ... It's just a beautifully-written piece. And Hallmark responded."
The writing, done for television by Robert W. Lenski, translates well. We're taken back to to 1975 and introduced to James Garner as Judge Albert Sidney Finch, passing the time in a fishing boat on a Georgia lake. He's found the perfect retirement -- "Don't take on anything you can't handle from the seat of a rowboat" -- and the perfect companion, his dog Chris -- "He understands English perfectly and doesn't speak a word of it."
But soon there are complications, and Finch finds his emotionally tranquil world hit by a whirlwind. There's a budding romance with a legal secretary played by Judith Ivey. Or is it a love triangle? Quadrangle?
Then there are the marital problems of his nephew and niece (Norm Skaggs and Jo Anderson) to sort out. And there's his housekeeper of a half-century, played by Ruby Dee, to make sure he does the right thing.
But the riddle whose answer lures the viewer through the story centers on Finch's alienated boyhood friend, Gee Penniwell, played by Bill Cobbs. Why would a man who was belatedly offered the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in World War II turn it down cold?
The ending of the story may not satisfy all viewers. The riddle dissolves more than it's resolved. But along the way there are some words and phrases to delight in and maybe muse over.
"Time passes. People change," observes Garner. "I don't think so," counters Ivey. "They just become more like themselves."
It all would make a lovely radio drama, but then you wouldn't get a look at all that soft Georgia countryside.
For Garner it's the latest in a string of solid dramatic roles that he seems to land with great regularity. And again he finds himself falling for a woman 20 years his junior, a la "Murphy's Romance."
"Each one has its merits," said Garner. "'Promise' had its merits. It dealt with a subject that was never dealt with before, schizophrenia. It might have been dealt with, but not the way we did. ...
"And 'Bill W' was the Alcoholics Anonymous story, which nobody had ever done before. And here's another story that deals with people. Everything I've done has to do with the human condition."
Garner produced and starred in the "My Name is Bill W" and won an Emmy as co-producer of "Promise," in which he also starred. Both were Hallmark presentations. Add his portrayal of a dying doctor in "Heartsounds" and you have a rich, recent body of dramatic work.
Such work is also a shift from the early roles that put him on the TV map playing heroes with more wit than muscle in "Maverick" and "The Rockford Files."
"When 'Heartsounds' came along, and Norman Lear thought I could do it, I was very pleased with that. Most of the things I've done since 'Rockford' have been that sort of thing."
Cobbs' film credits include "The Color of Money"; on television he was a regular as the bartender in "The 'Slap Maxwell' Story." His own military service came after World War II, a stint in the mid-'50s shortly after the Army was integrated. But his father's service during World War II made an early impression.
"I had very strange feelings as a boy, seeing my father in the service," said Cobbs, "and then seeing him as a second-class citizen. So obviously there were some problems with that."
Cobbs recalled venturing from his home in Cleveland to visit his father at an air base near Orlando, Fla. He went to a drug store with a friend he'd made there, hopped on the soda counter seat and started spinning in it.
"He panicked," said Cobbs. "I didn't understand what was wrong. I found out I had no right to sit in that chair, that we had to go to the back of the drugstore and wait until everyone else had been taken care of and then we could be served. I could go into a whole lot of detail, but I think it would be really redundant. We all know what life was like in the '40s."
It hasn't been easy either for Rees, making it in a tough, male-dominated business.
"I think the success we've had sometimes astonishes me," said Rees. "When it's called to my attention, I don't really think of it that way. Each project seems to be the one that dictates whether you're going to be in business the next month or not."
Marian Rees Associates, Inc. was formed after Rees had already been in the business for some time.
"In the other corporate relationships I'd had, I had no participation in the equities at all," she said. So she decided to take what she'd learned in 15 years working with Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear and put it to work in her own behalf.
"I literally mortgaged my house, and determined that if I was going to do it, I would have to take the financial risk and become an entrepreneur," she said. "And my dad was an enormous influence on me, and said, 'Marian, there isn't any reason that you can't do it. Why don't you try?'"
Her working philosophy has been to choose projects carefully, pay full attention to them and bring them in on budget. "Decoration Day" cost about $3.8 million to make, she said.
"I firmly believe in doing what you believe in, and doing it as well as you can, but mindful that it costs," said Rees. "If you're going to be responsible, be very careful how you manage your money."