When Patrick Stewart decided to play King Henry II in Showtime's new "The Lion in Winter," airing Sunday at 7:30 p.m., he deliberately avoided watching Peter O'Toole's 1968 version that earned an Oscar nomination for best actor.
"I did see it when it was first released, and that was the last time I saw it," Stewart said. "And there's a good reason for that."
Turns out that when Stewart was at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the late '50s, he and his fellow students were required to see all the performances of the school's professional company. The troupe's leading actor: Peter O'Toole.
"He became for me the benchmark for what a charismatic character should be. I was so strongly influenced by him -- certainly by his intensity and charisma -- that the last thing I needed to do when I was playing this part was to sit down and watch him in the role. I do remember I enjoyed the film," Stewart noted.
The updated "The Lion in Winter," which follows the same award-winning James Goldman screenplay as the 1968 version, is filled with intense characters and brilliant banter as it tracks the reunion of an incredibly dysfunctional royal family.
To celebrate the Christmas holidays, King Henry II summons his wife, the feisty Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his three sons. It's a rare reunion, as Henry has kept Eleanor imprisoned for more than a decade after she and two of his sons conspired against him
during a political coup. To further complicate matters, Henry's mistress, Alais, is in attendance, as well as her brother, King Philip II of France. Henry plans to use the gathering to announce the heir to his throne, a spot all three brothers are desperate to claim.
At the center of the behind-the-scenes deal-making and scheming for the crown is the shrewd and calculating Eleanor, played by Glenn Close.
"You always start out with a dream cast, and then you compromise," said Stewart, who is an executive producer of the film. "Rarely do you get the person you want. She [Close] was always our Eleanor. She's a brilliant actress. But there is something about Goldman's script that is best for a stage actress. And she's one of the best stage actresses in English theater."
For Close, the part was not one to pass up.
"It's a great adventure, trying to bring to life one of the great, great women in history. She's a towering figure," Close said. "I did a lot of research, and I haven't stopped reading about the Middle Ages, and the Crusades in particular. I'd like to take a course in it somewhere."
Three weeks into shooting, Close said she finally watched the original film, which won Katharine Hepburn a best actress Academy Award for her take on the scathing queen. "Everyone else had [watched], and I thought perhaps I was a chicken," Close said. "Katharine Hepburn's tempos are quite slow. I found that quite helpful."
Stewart turned to the real king for inspiration for his role.
"I came across three details about Henry that helped me a great deal: He ate standing up, because he didn't have time to sit down to eat. He didn't change his clothes -- he had no interest in rich, kingly garments," Stewart said. "And . . . he was always on the move, constantly on the go. These three little things were wonderful insights into a man -- his energy, vitality -- and that came out of the history books."
The 2 1/2-hour movie, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, is rooted in history but written with witty wording and clever language. (A classic line, delivered by Eleanor: "What family doesn't have its ups and downs?") Showing off the script's humor and wit -- and the sexual tension between Henry and Eleanor -- were two reasons Stewart said doing a remake of the classic was considered.
"I don't think there's ever been a time when audiences have not been drawn to a colorful piece of history," he said. "What's working for us is a script that's heightened and stylish. It's contemporary without being modern. . . . It's the kind of family world Goldman created that people will have no problem relating to."
"It's a good yarn, and it's very relevant to today," Close added. "I'm very into history and personalities -- the people who decide if it's war or not war. They were just a family, yet their behavior and the dysfunction of the family affected countries. As Eleanor says, 'We breed wars in us.' "
The remake varies from the original in a few ways, Stewart said. It was filmed mostly in Hungary, and offers more scenery to give viewers a heightened feel of 12th-century Europe. And it adds a brief prologue, shot in Slovakia, to show the family feuds subsequently discussed by the characters.
While filming a battle scene outside the Spissky Castle in Slovakia, Close had insight into landing this rewarding role, especially for an older actress.
"My final day of shooting I was sitting on my horse in armor, and I thought, 'Where else would a woman in her 50s be able to do this? This is just great!' "
Sunday at 9 p.m. on Bravo
This five-part series examines moments in TV history that helped break new ground in American culture. The first episode, "Out of the Closet," looks at how television has covered homosexuality, from a Mike Wallace report in 1967 to "Will & Grace" today. Other topics include the way women are depicted, and the roles of race, sex and violence on TV.
A FAREWELL TO ARMS
Friday at 8 p.m. on TCM
The showing of this Oscar-winning film from 1932 marks the start of a Memorial Day movie marathon. Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Robert Montgomery are a few of the actors who depict men in the throes of war. Films include "Sergeant York" (Saturday at 3 p.m.), "The Red Badge of Courage" (Saturday at 8 p.m. and May 30 at 6 p.m.) and "Kelly's Heroes" (May 31 at 8 p.m.).
WWII MEMORIAL DEDICATION
Saturday at 2 p.m. on the History Channel
The History Channel begins a week of programming in honor of D-Day with a 90-minute live broadcast of the World War II Memorial dedication in the District.
Elaine stritch at liberty
Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO
This documentary follows the incredible ups and downs of one of Broadway's best, combining footage from her Tony-Award-winning one-woman show with behind-the-scenes footage of the actress and her friends. The show highlights some of Stritch's stage songs, including her signature tune "The Ladies Who Lunch."