The making of Centennial 1978 is one of those epics to which - perhaps - only a James Michener could do justice. It’s all about an army of TV types who set out to do a 25-hour film of Michener’s 1100-page saga about the American West, and wound up as prisoners of their own creation. After a couple of months of carting cameras into uncharted locations (not to mention facing some real-life Indian trouble and the most merciless weather any Colorado park ranger could remember), director Virgil Vogel assessed the experience with stunning understatement: “I don’t really know if Universal Studios realized what they were getting into.”
From the outset, Centennial was the most ambitious project ever attempted by television. It was budgeted by Universal at one million dollars per hour (or $25 million total, more than four time the cost of Roots), with a cast of thousands and an all location shooting schedule that even called for the building of an entire town in Colorado.
The first five hours were supposed to take 39 days to film. Instead, they took 64 days and cost $8 million which, by quick calculation, is already a red figure of three million bucks. In the course of this, the original director lost his job, executive producer John Wilder came down with Hepatitis, Universal’s TV president Frank Price left to run the feature film division at Columbia, and most of Centennial’s 110-man production crew ended up getting rescued off the Continental Divide.
As Richard Chamberlain, who portrays Scottish trapper Alexander McKeag, describes it: “It was quite miraculous how totally against us nature was in Colorado. If it wasn’t blowing 80 miles an hour and tipping all the tepees over, it was raining. Or if we wanted snow, it would suddenly get hot and the snow would disappear. Then when we didn’t want snow, suddenly we’d be in a foot of it.”
Before its grand design began to run afoul of everyday realities, Centennial had seemed a dream project to John Wilder, whose own ancestors had migrated West along the Oregon Trail. The 42-year-old producer of The Streets of San Francisco would depict Michener’s rich chronicle of life along Colorado’s South Platte River - Indians, trappers, wagon trains, range wars, all the way through the Depression and into the modern era. Wilder adapted and wrote much of the script, signing up such big TV names as Chamberlain, Robert Conrad, Raymond Burr and Clint Walker for the crucial first five hours, and sent teams out to find the most authentic locations.
“Everyone involved felt that this picture had to be shot where the story took place,” Wilder recalls, “because it’s really about man’s relationship to the land.”
Aye, that was the rub. As much as possible, Wilder wanted to film around the spots described by Michener. This meant heading for the South Platte River, but the only places wild enough to simulate 1750s America were a long way from such 1970s necessities as a 200-room hotel. Poudre Canyon, for example, was 90 miles from the home base in Greeley, Colo. Unless you chose to pitch a mobile home on the site (as Robert Conrad did occasionally), you were in for a fair piece of commuting. At one point, somebody counted 37 hired drivers.
All of this was going to cause some monumental headaches when Centennial started shipping Indians in as extras, but we’re getting ahead of our saga. The first problem was the director. Twelve days into shooting Centennial last April, it became apparent that things were not going well at all. So Virgil Vogel, a war-horse Western director (90 episodes of Wagon Train, among others), was rushed in as an emergency replacement. Limiting himself to four hours of sleep a night, Vogel threw himself into the task of reshooting everything but two scenes.
Scarcely had Vogel begun when Mother Nature decided to come visiting. She must’ve had a good laugh the day they tried shooting a canoe scene while the river slowly dried up under them. She let everybody stew for a few days before pelting them with rain. Then, just as they were about to try a big Indian camp scene, she whirled in and knocked down most of the 50 tepees. Worse than that, she twice eliminated all the marble dust that the crew had painstakingly placed to simulate snow. After exhausting all the marble dust in Colorado, they ended up shipping it in from Utah. Again it blew away.
“Did I ever get to the end of my rope?” says Vogel. “Every day! We were losing days by weather. Finally we decided to shoot a tepee scene inside somewhere. We found a warehouse but the tepee wouldn’t fit. So we cut the poles off. Then it started raining, and the warehouse turned out to have a noisy tin roof. About then, my cameraman suggested that we could always set up a tepee in the lobby of Greeley’s Ramada Inn. A lot of people laughed. I wasn’t laughing. That’s exactly what we did. The hotel let us put down two layers of plywood, a couple of inches of dirt, and we put the damn thing right in the lobby. We got some of our best film right there.”
For its opening tale of the Plains Indians and the coming of the first white men to their territory, Centennial needed, besides leads Michael Ansara and Barbara Carrera, about 800 extras. Last spring, Wilder sent a young casting coach named Garrison True to Colorado to make contacts at reservations and local powwows. He was not met with open arms.
“Basically, I kept hearing how Hollywood had done them dirt by misrepresenting their history and not using real Indians to play Indians,” says True. “My answer was, you find me people I can work with and I’ll see that they get the parts. And I challenged anybody to show me where we’re misrepresenting Indians in Centennial!”
But once True conquered his recruiting problem, there came the difficulty of transportation. Most of the original extras lived in Denver, a two-hour bus trip to the nearest location. And once they arrived, they’d have to spend an additional hour in makeup. When you arise before dawn to face the prospect of standing half-naked all day in freezing temperatures, $25 a day plus expenses isn’t much of an incentive. By the third morning, nobody showed up for the bus.
Eventually, admits second assistant director Robert Shurley, the producer wound up using a number of Mexicans with Indian blood from the closer Greeley area. “They were very dependable, but I don’t think that necessarily made the Indians very happy. By that time, though, we’d exhausted almost every Indian in Colorado.”
The most dangerous situation involved a long-standing rivalry between two local Indian tribes. One midnight, Shurley received a call in his room. The hotel manager had an Indian hidden in his office who believed he was about to be killed.
“I went down,” Shurley says, “and asked him what happened. He said ‘I’m Arapaho. The Sioux don’t like the Arapaho. I was in a room with them and they were drinking. They told me if I could make it to the door I could get out with my life. They kicked me a couple of times, but I made it. They’ve left now but when they come back, I know they’ll get me.’ I stayed with him that night. The next day, after we shot his scene, I made sure he got out all right.”
Besides distances, weather and Indians, there was also the problem of Robert Conrad. He had not been Universal’s first choice to play the plum role of the feisty French trapper Pasquinel. Robert Blake turned down the offer for “personal reasons.” Wilder then went after Charles Bronson, who wanted more money than Universal could pay. Just a few days before production was scheduled to begin, Conrad got the role.
The crew did not find him easy to work with. Conrad’s contract demanded a minimum of 12 hours between work calls. On the set, his false beard drove him crazy and he seemed constantly to be taking it off.
Director Vogel put it tactfully: “Robert Conrad is almost Pasquinel. He is honest almost to a fault. Pasquinel doesn’t tell a lie because he doesn’t answer a question where he has to; he just looks at you. Bob’s very similar. Pasquinel has no fear, Bob has no fear. But Pasquinel has a flaw in his character: he’s afraid of commitment. So is Bob, I believe.”
Despite all, the chemistry between Conrad and his trapper sidekick Chamberlain seemed to work. Both actors endured remarkable hardships. A shirtless Conrad entered an icy river carrying 185 pounds of pelts atop his head; Chamberlain stepped out of his canoe into the same conditions, and pulled the canoe ashore.
Indeed, the struggle seemed to invigorate the actors. “I’ve found my energy is quite available to me, really for the first time in years,” said Chamberlain. “I’ve had a kind of dry spell enthusiasm-wise, but I’m in love with acting again. I feel 10 times more alive.” Added Conrad: “Probably only for this role would I ever do anything like what I’ve gone through on this.”
Just as the first pioneers must have blessed the gods for seeing them through, so did the Centennial cast and crew consider their escape from Colorado a minor miracle. Only on the last day of shooting there, 12,000 feet up at the Continental Divide, did the weather grant them a timely wish. Even then, there was a price.
A hot day seemed imminent, but snow was desperately needed to film Pasquinel’s crowning scene. Suddenly it began to rain, then sleet, and finally to snow. “This was accompanied by a phenomenon I’ve never experienced before,” says veteran cameraman Duke Callahan. “Continuous thunder and lightning. The snow got heavier and heavier, we kept filming. Finally they closed off the roads below. They had to run snow plows up from Estes Park to get the company down, two miles an hour, in emergency rescue conditions. We came down off that mountain and flew out of there to Kentucky, quick as we could.”
Augusta, Ky., an agricultural and industrial community of 1500 on the banks of the Ohio River, was chosen as facsimile for St. Louis circa 1800. It is here that Pasquinel and McKeag journey with their pelts, before starting the long trek back to Colorado. It is here, too, that Centennial prepares to finish shooting its first five hours.
It is now late June. As always, nothing comes easy. Augusta is 50 miles away from location headquarters near Cincinnati. The temperature is soaring into the 90s. On the set of an 18th century doctor’s office the director paces back and forth. Then, as a 20th century railroad whistle sounds outside, Vogel exclaims: “Oh, my God! Please, somebody, get me through this!”
In front of the cameras, Conrad, as Pasquinel, is describing what it’s like back there along Colorado’s South Platte River. “Violent,” he says. “There is a wind that never seems to stop. Storms like you have never seen - screeching, booming, thunder. Between the storms, it falls silent. So quiet you are certain you are going mad. You pray for the wind to come back and when it comes back you pray for it to stop! And if you survive the elements, and the Indians . . . .”
Yes, if you survive those, he might have added, maybe someday you can build a mythical town called Centennial, Colo. That is what Universal has done this fall. On that set, such other stars as Chad Everett, Pernell Roberts, Dennis Weaver, Donald Pleasance and Lynn Redgrave have gathered to continue the story. With a little luck, maybe things will flow easier. But don’t bet on it: shooting isn’t expected to be finished until Thanksgiving.
To call “Centennial” a mini-series is to alter the meaning of the term.
“Centennial” is anything but mini. It is the longest film ever made for television or the movies. It will take 26 hours on NBC to tell the story that closely follows the novel by James A. Michener.
“On this project I have no other life,” says John Wilder, executive producer for the $30 million production, who also adapted the story and wrote 10 hours of the script.
“Centennial,” like most Michener books, is part fiction, part history and part ecology lesson. Even seeing only brief, isolated scenes suggests its epic strength.
The story tracks the hardy frontiersmen and the events that shaped the West, from the 1700’s to the present day. Robert Conrad is the French-Canadian fur trapper Pasquinel. It is probably the first role that has ever challenged his acting ability, and he meets it admirably. Richard Chamberlain is his partner, McKeag, a red-bearded Scot who flees to America after killing a Highland lord.
Their story occupies the first five hours. Sally Kellerman, Raymond Burr and Barbara Carrera also star. Subsequent stories star Chad Everett, Richard Crenna, Brian Keith, Lynn Redgrave, Donald Pleasence, Dennis Weaver and David Janssen.
Although “Centennial” is presently ruling Wilder’s life, it was the opportunity to make the film that lured him to Universal Studios.
He has previously produced “The Streets of San Francisco,” one of the best police shows ever on television. Frank Price, then president of Universal Television, wanted to bring Wilder to the studio.
“Frank asked me what he could offer me,” says Wilder, a former child actor in the heyday of radio. “I said I’d heard he had the rights to ‘Centennial.’ He said ‘it’s yours.’”
Wilder started the project by reading the book three times - once aloud, a habit from his days as a radio actor. Then in the back of the book he began writing names of actors for the characters. Sally Kellerman was his choice for Lise Bockweiss.
“I had to fight for her because she’s taller than Robert Conrad,” he says. “But the book says Pasquinel is only five-foot-six. When I told Frank Price I wanted Sally, he said I was out of my mind.”
But he won Price over. Conrad was also concerned. “But I wanted to do the book the way it was written,” Wilder says.
Conrad himself was not Wilder’s first choice for Pasquinel. He says, “The name I wrote in the back of the book was Robert Blake. We offered it to Blake on three occasions, but Blake said he was exhausted, physically and emotionally, from ‘Baretta’ and wouldn’t do it.”
Then, he thought he could make it a TV event by casting Charles Bronson. It would mean reworking the material to accommodate his older age. Wilder says, “We went to him with a respectable offer, but it fell short.”
Finally, Wilder thought of Conrad. “I looked at some film on him because I had a director and people working with me who felt he wasn’t the right image to put into an epic drama. He’d never been called on to do this kind of part.
“But he has strength and integrity. The key scenes called for a man of Bob Conrad’s strength, a man who believes he can do anything, but has to say maybe he can’t do everything.
“In one key scene he says to Richard Chamberlain, ‘Maybe you’re a better man than I am.’ In another he tells Sally Kellerman, ‘Maybe I’m a coward.’”
Wilder says he sees “Centennial” not as a Western but as a history of the West. “It’s about the development of the West.
“For me the bottom line is that this is the definitive ecological editorial. That’s the real value of the book. It tells how the earth was formed, how animals live in balance with it, how primitive man lived in harmony with it, then how later men tried to own the land.
How the West was nearly lost – at a cost of many millions
Shooting James Michener’s epic for TV gave the cast and crew some idea of what it was like for the poor pioneers
“What’s that I see, circlin’ over the Black Hills? Its wingspan fills the skies, thunder crashin’, lightnin’ flashin’ ever’ time he turns his eyes…”
Buddy Red Bow sang with his eyes closed, to the drone of a repeated minor chord on his guitar. He was on a cottonwood log in Colorado, on the banks of the South Platte River, 10 miles east of Greeley, but his heart was in South Dakota. Buddy Red Bow was an Oglala Sioux from Wounded Knee, and the legend of the thunderbird, learned from his grandfather, was sacred to him.
When he finished his song and opened his eyes, he would return to the here and now of the South Platte, and the lunch-break activity of the Universal production company that was filming Centennial for NBC Television. For today’s scenes, he was functioning as technical advisor, not actor. So while the other Indians, eating lunch or snoozing, or playing tomahawk mumbletypeg, were dressed in Arapaho robes and leggings, Buddy Red Bow was in his “street clothes” – denims and chambray adorned with beadwork and a talon necklace, and surmounted by a magician’s black top hat.
When the assistant director’s bullhorn summoned the company back to work, the riverside setting would be a teepee village of the Arapaho tribe and the time would be 1798, five years before the U.S. purchased from France the great westward sweep of prairie from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. It was the 45th day of shooting on Centennial. Scene No. 470, coming up, would appear on the home screens during hour three of 25 to be shown. The action would bring us one-fifth of the way through the 1000-plus pages of James Michener’s novel of the white man’s invasion and occupation of Colorado, focusing on a fictitious town called Centennial.
A cast of 54 is on call and in costume, milling about the cottonwood grove with an equal number of crew, staff, local constabulary and rubberneckers – clutching copies of “Centennial” to be autographed. The stars on the set today include Richard Chamberlain (playing a Scottish Indian trader named McKeag), Robert Conrad (as Pasquinel, a French-Canadian coureur de bois) and Barbara Carrera (as Clay Basket, an Arapaho warrior’s daughter). They have retreated to their mobile dressing rooms. The 40-odd Indian extras, after second and third helpings of the caterer’s prime-rib lunch, have drifted together, drawn by coffee, ice-cream bars and the sound of Buddy Red Bow’s guitar.
At the end of the thunderbird song, there was respectful silence, no applause. Brian Talmadge, an itinerant Apache roofer, took a harmonica out and asked Buddy what he knew in the key of D. They launched into a Sioux-Apache duet of Beatles favorites.
The good spirits were surprising after all the Centennial company had struggled against in the first two months of shooting. After racing to the first Colorado location, already behind schedule, the director was replaced and early footage scrapped. There were paralyzing snowstorms, tornados, cloudbursts and floods. Then, perverse clemency: when a winter scene was scheduled, the snow was gone. The resourceful crew marshaled 80,000 pounds of shaved ice for the foreground, and mountains of chemical foam for the background. One week later, a May blizzard lashed central Colorado, dumping two feet of snow on the site picked for a Pawnee camp. So they set up the chief’s teepee in the lobby of the Greeley Ramada Inn; with tight camera work blotting out the bizarre context, it looked fine on film.
It was Man vs. the Western Frontier all over again, and this time the West almost won. But somehow Centennial, the biggest and costliest movie ever made for television, has avoided becoming what all laws of cinematic inertia said it should be – a runaway production. (Has avoided it so far, that is; as Chapter Two unfolds before this Sunday night’s audience, shooting continues. It will be weeks before this marathon project is wrapped.)
Scene 470. Exterior river bank – day. Pasquinel and McKeag supervise the loading of six bales of pressed pelts into their big birch-bark . . . Conrad and Chamberlain, as the traders, are saying good-bye to their Arapaho hosts. An assistant director calls, “Cut!” Director: “What’s the matter?” Assistant: “Across the river there – a cow was coming into the frame.” Director: “No problem. We’ll just call it a red and white buffalo.”
The scene resumed, but had to be stopped when the sun unexpectedly broke through, throwing the camera settings off. The South Platte, still swollen and muddy, rushed onwards. The stray Hereford disappeared. Robert Conrad called for his ubiquitous between-scenes glass of wine. Richard Chamberlain chatted with a still photographer.
Barbara Carrera, a Nicaragua-born beauty, concentrated on her transition from model to actress: “It’s not just that I have to age in this part, from 15 to 73. Clay Basket was truly revolutionary, marrying a white man at that time and moving into a totally different environment. What a culture shock. Excuse me . . .” It was the still photographer.
Instantly, instinctively, she struck a series of poses.
The bullhorn sounded. The lights had been adjusted. “Ready on the set.” “Fires, please!” A detail of assistant directors sprinted from teepee to teepee, carrying torches to light the smoke pots. “And – action!”
The bearded traders, Conrad and Chamberlain, made sign-language farewells to Carrera and her Arapaho family on the sandy river landing, leapt into the birch-bark canoe piled high with beaver pelts – and promptly capsized. Two attendant stage hands, in waist-high boots, grabbed the frontiersmen before they got dunked, snatched up the bales of fur and righted the canoe.
On the next take, Chamberlain lost his paddle. On the third take, they made it into the canoe and started paddling furiously – around and around, in greenhorn circles.