Between takes, actor Jon Voight walked the movie set with a string of rosary beads laced between his fingers, occasionally raising his hand to make the sign of the cross at a captivated extra or onlooking nun. The cameras had stopped rolling, but Voight was still in action.

Voight, a Roman Catholic, isn't the first actor to try to step into the shoes of Pope John Paul II, an actor himself who transformed the papacy into a telegenic role. But Voight might be the first to take an almost devotional approach to the part.

He has perused John Paul's encyclicals, read his poetry and committed documentary footage to memory in an effort to gain command of the late pope's body language.

"I feel a little bit like I'm a protector," he said, expressing concern that John Paul could be "misinterpreted" in the hands of someone of lesser talent, not to mention faith.

As Voight stepped into the rain on a dreary afternoon, an aide appeared at his side carrying a large black umbrella to shield his papal vestments from the storm.

Long gone are the days of "Midnight Cowboy," the 1969 film that features Voight as a male prostitute fresh off the farm. The actor now finds himself moving in more ecclesial circles as the star of the two-part CBS miniseries "Pope John Paul II."

On Nov. 17, he and other cast members will attend a screening with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. Anyone not part of the papal entourage must wait until Dec. 4 and 7, when the two-part TV miniseries will air.

By then, nine months will have passed since the death of John Paul. But the rush to interpret, or misinterpret, the late pontiff's legacy already will be in full swing.

CBS's most direct competition will come in the form of "Have No Fear: The Life of John Paul II," a two-hour ABC production also expected to air this television season.

Both films come on the heels of "Karol: A Man Who Became Pope," the Hallmark Channel production that portrayed the pontiff coming of age under Nazi and Soviet oppression while flirting intermittently with death and the opposite sex.

Of the three, however, the CBS series has come the closest to receiving an official Vatican blessing.

According to Luca Bernabei, whose company Lux Vide co-produced the series, former papal secretary and current Archbishop of Krakow Stanislaw Dziwisz was involved in the script's development, as was papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. Navarro-Valls and Bernabei are members of the conservative Opus Dei organization, which John Paul designated as his personal prelature.

"The Vatican knows this company, and I believe we are making a service to the church in making this kind of movie," Bernabei said.

Flexing its high-level contacts, Lux Vide arranged to have exclusive footage of the Sistine Chapel shot for scenes depicting the 1978 conclave that elected Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as pope.

The production's ties to Dziwisz, meanwhile, secured access to Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, where Wojtyla was made bishop.

But the makers of "John Paul II" are reticent to discuss what kind of insight the series has to offer beyond the visual splendor of Vatican interior decoration.

Bernabei said the series will not delve into the more controversial aspects of the papacy, such as John Paul's clash with liberation theology in Latin America and his response to the sex abuse scandal in North America.

The film will portray John Paul as a hero of the 20th century, flashing backward and forward from the 1981 assassination attempt in St. Peter's Square to scenes of young Wojtyla, played by Cary Elwes, canoeing in the Polish countryside and of Voight taking calls from world leaders as the newly minted pope. Director John Kent Harrison said viewer interest in "John Paul II" will be driven by curiosity rather than controversy.

"They want to see how the pope gets up in the morning," Harrison said, adding, "It's not what you would expect."