"Some of us knew that from Beirut to Baghdad was a very short and predictable step," said Sis Levin.

And others didn't.

In fact, many Americans were largely unaware of the 1984 kidnapping that propelled Sis Levin, the only daughter of a wealthy Birmingham, Ala., family into the shady world of Middle Eastern terrorism.

The tale of Sis Levin and her husband Jerry, then CNN bureau chief in Beirut, is part love story, part action-adventure, part mystery. ABC calls it "Held Hostage" and airs it Sunday at 9.

But Sis Levin thinks it should have been titled "Deadly Silence."

"'Deadly Silence' is much more appropriate," she said. "I was told constantly, 'You'll get them killed. It's un-American.'" Her family and Jerry's, the State Department, CNN and even the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., all opposed her speaking out, she said. But her method worked.

When her husband was kidnaped on March 7, 1984, he became the first of several Americans to be abducted in that city. Some -- William Buckley, Peter Kilburn, and Lt. Col. William Higgins -- would die. Some -- among them clergymen Benjamin Weir and Lawrence Martin Jenco and ABC newsman Charles Glass -- were released. Some are still held, including Terry Anderson, former Associated Press Mid-East Bureau Chief.

Back home, Sis Levin recalled, the United States government discouraged her public statements and individual action, hoping to save the hostages' lives by refraining from agitating the kidnappers. After initial attempts to find Levin failed, she said, his employer, CNN, took the State Department's advice and sat tight.

But as half a year passed, Sis Levin concluded that official diplomacy wasn't working and took matters into her own hands. In November, without her government's backing, she flew to Damascus to plead her case to representatives of Nabih Berri, leader of the still-dominant Lebanese Shiite faction, Amal, and Syrian President Hafez Assad and his foreign minister, Farouk al Sharaa.

A devout Christian who had considered studying for the Episcopalian priesthood, she was an American appealing to Moslem leaders to release her Jewish husband from his Arab captors. Her pleas were successful: On Feb. 14, 1985, Jerry Levin was allowed to escape by slipping from his chains, tying together his blankets, and lowering himself from a second-story window.

"I was highly motivated, which produces courage," she said. "I was the first to speak out. Everybody without exception said, 'Don't do that.' Jerry was a TV newsman and CNN's motto was 'You have a right to know the score,' and when I spoke out they changed their motto. I thought you told the truth and spoke out."

What Sis Levin did for her husband took her a long way from her beginnings as Lucille Hare, brought up as the only daughter of a well-to-do Birmingham, Ala., family and educated at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia.

Nicknamed "Sis," she was married to a man of whom her authoritarian father approved and bore five children (four daughters, including identical twins, and one son). Her husband became president of the local Rotary Club; she participated in Colonial Dames and Junior League, among other activities suitable for a well-born young Southern matron.

But after 22 years, her husband left her for another woman, she said.

She was chairman of Birmingham's arts council when Jerry Levin arrived to become news director at WBRC, Channel 6. The two met when Levin, an opera buff since childhood, became interested in televising the arts.

"I could not believe that he would be interested in me," she said. "Here I was, a middle-age woman with five children. I was supposed to grow old taking care of Mother and Daddy."

When they were married, her mother was upset that she was marrying "a Yankee Jew in show business," she said.

Sis and Jerry Levin had moved to Houston, where he worked for KHOU-TV, Channel 11, then for CNN in Washington, D.C. He was at the Chicago bureau when CNN asked him to become bureau chief in Beirut. He arrived in Lebanon two days before Christmas 1983. She got there a month later, set about learning Arabic and trying to understand the politics of the Middle East, began to participate in a church group and took classes at the Near East School of Theology.

But she also recalled her shock at discovering the USS New Jersey was firing its guns on the Shouf mountains overlooking Beirut, killing civilians. That, as it turned out, would have political repercussions.

On March 7, 1984, on his way to work, Jerry Levin was kidnaped. He was kept alone in a room, shackled by chains to his ankles, given a small amount of cold food daily and allowed no exercise, no newspapers, magazines, radio or television. Guards, who sometimes held a gun to his temple and pulled the trigger, insisted that he wear a blindfold. He was frequently accused of being a spy, but was given no other reason for the kidnapping. Eventually, when he heard coded knocks on doors, he realized that other Americans had been taken hostage as well.

On July 5, a disheveled, thin Levin was taken before a camera to read a statement: "My life and freedom depends on the life and freedom of the prisoners in Kuwait."

The statement referred to Lebanese prisoners held by Kuwaitis, condemned to die for the bombing of the French and American embassies in Kuwait. It was then, he said, that he learned why he was being held.

By August, Levin was so sick from dysentery that his captors called for medical help, and he learned from the physician who arrived that "we hate the New Jersey; we hate America for bombing us and killing our people."

In September, one of Levin's guards mentioned that the American Embassy in East Beirut had been bombed. Sis, in Washington, had heard from a Lebanese-American that the bombing was to occur during a particular two-day span and had taken the man to the State Department. Her informant, she said, "was discredited"; the embassy was bombed on schedule.

By November, Sis Levin had flown to Damascus to appeal for her husband's release. Jerry Levin didn't find out she had made trip until Christmas Eve, he said, "when a higher-up person came in to my room and had a short conversation with me, just to wish me a merry Christmas ... He revealed that they knew that my wife had been here. I thought they meant Beirut, because I was in Lebanon, but it was clear when I got out that they meant Damascus."

Sis Levin's argument to Syrian officials had been that freeing her Jewish husband would be politically advantageous. It would prove, as Syria insisted, that the country does not hate Jews. And because Jerry Levin was a television journalist, she pointed out, news media would cover such a release.

As Sis Levin explained: "We're saying to Sharaa, the foreign minister who is an old PR man: You're trying desperately to rebuild your relationship with the United States and you're foiled at every turn by Israel, who says 'You can't be friends with our enemy.' Then out of nowhere comes this situation: You can free a Jew with a visible Christian wife ... and Syria improves her image."

Levin said she feels the lack of this kind of mutual bridge-building and familiarity contributes to strained international relations, then and now.

While she was in Syria, Sis Levin had spent time at Damascus' children's hospital working with depressed children who had been maimed in the war; the head of the children's hospital, she learned, was Assad's personal physician.

And, she said, she explained to them that as an American Southerner, she understood the scars that civil war brings. She understood too that "buzzwords like 'Hitler,' 'mindless,' 'groundless,' send us instantly into the mindset to fight. We ought to remember Vietnam. We ought to remember 'Japs,' 'Nips,' 'Krauts.' I said to them, 'Everybody in the South doesn't belong to the Ku Klux Klan and all of you don't belong to Hizbollah {"Party of God," an Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite faction of Moslem fundamentalists}.'"

Meanwhile, Levin, who had grown weak and lost 40 pounds, suddenly began to receive hot food and more blankets and was allowed to exercise. On Valentine's Day, his guard left his chains so loose he could slip out of them, tie together his blankets, and drop himself out the second-story window.

The ABC movie follows Sis Levin's journey from her garden wedding to Jerry Levin to war-torn Beirut, back to the United States and to Syria, where she lived in a convent while she worked with war-traumatized children and set about trying to contact Syrian officials.

"It's really an action-adventure movie," said Marlo Thomas, who plays Sis Levin. "It's interesting because there's so much that happens in the movie that we've already lived through. Levin was the first to be kidnapped, then Buckley, the Marine {barracks} bombing ... It's interesting that Jerry Levin's story is a part of all this other history."

Marlo Thomas, a woman of Lebanese descent, wears an auburn wig to play Sis Levin, who, like her, has short brown hair. And she affects a Southern accent.

"She's an interesting woman to play because she's such a Southern belle," said Thomas. "She wasn't a woman who was ready to take on the Syrian government. She certainly knew how to win friends and influence people, but she wasn't strident and she has a soft way of speaking. When I was starting to work on the part, she said, 'Are you going to do a southern accent? I'm glad, because I really think my southern accent helped me. Those men responded to what I said.'

"Her point of view was that we must talk to these people. She says all the time, 'We say we won't talk to them, but what we really mean is we won't listen to them. We have to talk peace with our enemies -- there's no point in talking peace with our friends.' It's like talking with Will Rogers."

Filming the movie in Israel became an adventure of its own, said Thomas.

"Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, and two of our crew went home -- they were terrified. The helicopters overhead were as big as buses. On the cover of the Jerusalem Post were instructions on how to put on your gas mask. You're watching CNN, and Bush is on and Thatcher and France and Italy, who's lining up where, all this energy and money and might."

Sis Levin sees the Middle East as "a dysfunctional family. It can be settled, but they are terribly frightened and violent."

The only answer, she believes, is talking out the problems. To this end, Sis Levin is pursuing a doctorate in Peace Studies at Columbia University. The Levins, both Woodrow Wilson Visiting Scholars and both part of a group called World Peacemakers, make two or three talks each week urging that people, and governments, talk together to solve problems.

"The Arab world is embarrassed and pained about terrorists. Their peace movements are as loud as war," she said.

"We are either going to live on this globe as a family or perish. I am a believer. I truly believe that God is trying to break through. Nobody can win this one. Forgiveness is a form of healing. We all need some good family therapy, but again you can't do that if you don't talk.

"When the government doesn't talk," she said, "a red flag should go up. When they say, 'trust us,' we should get a red flag. I know there's delicate maneuvers. But there's no reason why they can't tell us some things. Why don't we talk out loud. Unpleasant? All the more reason. Questioning the government? All the more reason. A problem can't be solved if you can't talk about it.

"Everybody said, don't speak out. But it didn't make sense not to. What's a journalist's wife to do? You speak out, don't you? Debate openly. They said, 'Quiet diplomacy is best. The government knows what they're doing.' And look what the government did. Don't you shine the light on strange things? If you're afraid to speak, then we're not being critical participants in our government. This smacks of totalitarianism: 'The president knows best.' 'My country right or wrong.' 'The end justifies the means.' All kinds of things go with that."

Sis Levin said that a wife of a hostage told her that when she repeatedly contacted the State Department for news of her husband, she was finally told: "Look, you're not a high priority."

"That's so counterproductive," she said. "Jerry said, 'Look at it this way: If they treated you any other way you wouldn't have been so driven to come get me. If they hadn't slammed all those doors in your face and given you no other recourse, would you have found the courage to go public and come back and get me?' There's a lot of truth about that in a strange, inverse logic."

The movie is based on her book, "Beirut Diary" (Intervarsity Press), which in turn was based on her own personal diary.

"It was a terrible time," Sis Levin recalled. "I think the Good Shepherd went after even one sheep. Jerry said we're going to have wonderful stories to tell the grandchildren."