MARINA DEL REY, CALIF. -- The story goes in Hollywood that "Son of the Morning Star," an ABC miniseries airing Sunday and Monday at 9, had first been offered to NBC.
It languished there for five years, no doubt labeled with many of the negatives that drive network programmers away from such projects. It was, first of all, a period piece, and a western to boot, meaning it would take lots of money to do it well -- costume and set design would be big ticket items. And, after all, wasn't the western dead?
Too, the TV movie, a reconstruction of the final years of Gen. George Armstrong Custer leading up to his defeat at Little Bighorn, had attached to it the name of an actor no one knew much about. Oh, yes, he had been pretty good in "Silverado." But who was Kevin Costner, anyway?
This week, the series that surely suffers by Costner's absence may benefit from his presence in "Dances With Wolves," the feature movie that, like "Silverado," has at least temporarily revived the national interest in the western.
ABC has hinted, if "Son of the Morning Star" does well, that may in turn pave the way for more work of this type on television.
Anyone coming to "Morning Star" with "Wolves" expectations will be disappointed. Gary Cole simply is not Kevin Costner. But what we do have is an impressively mounted attempt at tell-it-straight American history, a goal not to be brushed off given TV's history of distorting or ignoring native American history.
The series, based on the book of the same title by Evan S. Connell and other source material, opens in the final days of the Civil War and follows Custer to his destruction on June 25, 1876.
An unusual style of narrative is employed, with voice-overs offered by Rosanna Arquette, who plays Custer's wife Libbie, and an Indian woman, Kate Bighead (played by Demina Becker and Kimberly Norris at different ages), who is given voice by Buffy Sainte Marie.
The narratives sometime put events in sharply different perspectives, and Sainte Marie puts the whole epic in the perfect light: Little Bighorn was not Custer's last stand, she says. It was the Indians'.
Rodney A. Grant, who played the tougher of the two Indians first encountered by Costner in "Wolves," lends his considerable presence as Crazy Horse.
A number of other "Wolves" production personnel also contributed to the mounting of "Son of the Morning Star" (one of the Indian names for Custer, the man who attacks at dawn). The production required a gymnasium full of authentic Indian costumes, and hair styles were done to match those of the four tribes of Plains Indians involved in the Custer saga (Arikara, Cheyenne, Crow and Sioux). Legions of historic reenactors served as U.S. cavalry extras.
Given the success of "Wolves" in movie houses, the phenomenon of PBS' "The Civil War" and with the success of "Lonesome Dove" on CBS, television executives will be closely watching the level of viewership achieved by "Morning Star."
Allen Sabinson, executive vice president for motion pictures and miniseries at ABC, suggested at a press conference here that this series would be a guidepost to future ventures. Translation: If people don't watch this one in sufficient numbers, there won't be another one, at least not from ABC.
For example, there is a Civil War script that might go forward at ABC if "Morning Star" does well. That project has a name attached to it too: Robert Duvall.