Bosoms heaved as the couples danced a stately minuet. Off to one side of the wood-paneled ballroom, but well within camera range, stood Talleyrand, Napoleon's foreign minister, in satin breeches and silk stockings. Regrettably, Napoleon was nowhere in sight. Neither was his wife, Josephine.

No, they weren't having a little tete-a-tete upstairs in Josephine's silk-draped bedroom. Nor were they examining the estate's rabbit hutches to see which bunny they might like for dinner.

Alas, Josephine (Jacqueline Bisset) was in her hotel room recovering from bronchitis. Meanwhile, Napoleon (Armand Assante) was sitting disconsolate in his trailer, wondering if he would be working that day.

Disaster--in the form of a virus--had struck the set of ABC's 6-hour miniseries, "Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story." The production had already been shut down for 24 hours, and now director Richard T. Heffron was trying to shoot something--anything--while awaiting Bisset's return.

So the music played on, and Talleyrand (Anthony Perkins) and Josephine's best friend Therese (Stephanie Beacham) got a bigger scene than they'd signed up for.

Halfway through a carefully orchestrated 13-week schedule, the "Napoleon and Josephine" crew had arrived as planned at the Chateau de Nandy, a small estate on the outskirts of Paris. They would be there for eight days to film all the scenes set in Josephine's Paris house. Naturally, Josephine would be in all the scenes.

But with Bisset ill, the producers were panicking. French bureaucracy and the crowded chateau schedule meant that changes were difficult. "These sets are like dominoes," executive producer Bernard Sofronski explained. "You pull one away, and they all fall down. Sure, we could re-dress another chateau later and bring in new extras, but that would be double the expense."

(In the end, Bisset missed four days of filming. Co-executive producer David Wolper reports that the unshot scenes will be saved until the end, when the unit will either return to the Chateau de Nandy or build sets to match somewhere else. Costs will be covered by insurance.)

Already the miniseries was costing a hefty $18 million because Sofronski and Wolper had decided to "do it right" and film in Paris. "Paris is very expensive," Sofronski complains. "We're paying a premium of 20% to film here. That's $3 million. Americans have stopped coming to Paris to film because they have to pay a 45-46% 'social fee' (fringe benefits) on every French employee."

Sofronski & Co. agreed to pay for one simple reason: "Shows like 'Napoleon and Josephine' or 'Peter the Great' don't come along often. You have to offer something to the public that they don't see every day. We could have shot in Hungary for $12 million, maybe even $11 million. We saw some marvelous locations there. But we'd have spent all our time trying to make them look like Paris."

Instead, the producers are using ABC's $15-million license fee, plus additional funds from Warner Bros. TV, to film entirely on location in Paris, Morocco and Portsmouth, England, using numerous locales that Napoleon himself once graced.

But enough already about money. What will audiences see if they switch on "Napoleon and Josephine" in November? "We are telling a love story, not giving a history lesson," director Heffron stresses. "The history is accurate but it's in the background, not the foreground."

Heffron, a Harvard graduate who says he developed his love of history from reading historical romances, directed "North and South" several seasons back. "Giving people a sense of life about a certain time will make history come alive for them," he believes.

" 'North and South' also had a great deal of historical accuracy, but it was a less elegant tale than 'Napoleon and Josephine.' 'North and South' was not a story of the most powerful people of the time."

"Napoleon and Josephine" begins in 1794. Josephine Beauharnais, a widow with two children, has just been released from prison. Napoleon, a 24-year-old military officer, is beginning his quest for power. They meet, woo and wed.

But Napoleon's life never followed a normal course. Twelve years after the wedding, he had the marriage annulled because Josephine could not bear him an heir. Although they still loved one another, they decided he should marry the young and fertile Marie Louise of Austria, who did indeed provide him with Napoleon II. The miniseries ends with Napoleon being exiled to Elba in 1814, after failing to conquer Russia.

It's a dramatic love story but one that has always seemed secondary to Napoleon's military exploits. Assante is happy to play this side of Napoleon, but he wants to make sure that the stress on the bedroom rather than the battlefield doesn't turn the production into a soap opera.

"Part of the challenge of the role is that I must bring the military aspect of the man to the story," Assante says, sipping an espresso in his trailer, set up in a grassy field opposite the Chateau de Nandy. "That was part of the great conflict of Napoleon's life. He spent so much time on military campaigns."

By all accounts, Assante is attacking the role with enormous gusto. "I'm impressed with Armand's commitment to this," says Perkins, whose character Talleyrand is Napoleon's main adversary in the miniseries. "Armand works himself up into such intensity. It must be excruciatingly difficult to sustain it for 15 to 16 hours a day."

Assante agrees. "Any seasoned gladiator will tell you, farmers won't work this hard," he says with a sigh. "It's a physically grueling schedule. We're working 90-hour weeks."

However, apart from wishing the schedule were twice as long, Assante has no complaints. "To play the role is suicide," he says, "but to turn it down is also suicide. The reward is to play a man of historic proportion who has a great tragic flaw.

"This is probably the greatest story of how power corrupts. It's the story of a man selling his soul to the devil. You can't compare him to Hitler. Napoleon was a true hero who went wrong."

Assante has been investigating the French emperor's life for five years, ever since he played him briefly in a 1982 stage production, "The Pope and Napoleon." "When you start studying Napoleon, you can't stop," the actor says.

"His life has all the ingredients of Shakespeare's heroes in one. You can pick out moments very like Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III. If he'd lived at that time, Shakespeare would have written about Napoleon."

However, Shakespeare died 150 years before Napoleon was born, so the task of writing the miniseries fell to James Lee, whose previous credits include "Roots" and "Scruples." Producer Sofronski touts the script's accuracy. "There's no scene in the drama that didn't take place in real life," he insists. "We're talking about history here. We have to be responsible."

However, to make sure no liberties were being taken with one of their heroes, the French insisted on reviewing what was written. "Before they would let us film, we had to present the script to every chateau and Notre Dame for approval," Sofronski reports. "We only had one problem. The French refused to believe that Napoleon had epilepsy."

So did Lee have to rewrite the script? Sofronski smiles slyly. "I'm told that the production coordinator tore out that page before submitting it."

Many of the miniseries' supporting roles are being played by English actors, although three Americans in addition to Assante--Patrick Cassidy (an Army officer), Ione Skye (Napoleon's sister) and Anthony Perkins (Talleyrand)--are in the elaborate costume drama.

"This dress-up stuff is very important for an actor," says Perkins, who starred in a 1978 television version of "Les Miserables." "You've got to be able to be comfortable in pelts, spacesuits or French Revolutionary gear."

Or, in the case of Josephine and her companions, very low-cut gowns.

"This period is so sexy," producer Sofronski says. "It's breast time. Women wore see-through dresses and no underwear. They enjoyed being shocking. But we can go only so far."

"In real life, my character often turned up at parties topless," reports Stephanie Beacham, late of "The Colbys," who plays Josephine's friend Therese. "She didn't care. She had a lot of fun and got a few colds, I expect. She was a bit loose, a bit forgetful. She had 10 children and didn't quite know who the dads were."

For "Napoleon and Josephine," however, Beacham and Bisset will be fully covered--or mostly, anyway. "The costumes are pretty revealing," acknowledged Bisset by telephone from Paris, a few days after she recovered her voice and went back to work.

As Josephine, Bisset is playing a woman who at the time was considered ideal. "Josephine wasn't a particular beauty," Bisset has concluded from her research into the period, "but she had a very feminine quality. She was very charming, gracious and had a lovely disposition. However, she had terrible black teeth like everyone else of that period."

Bisset, who doesn't wear black caps in the interests of historical accuracy, says she couldn't resist the part despite not wanting to do another television project. "I do prefer the medium of film because you can see the work better. When the picture is reduced to such a small size, it's disappointing.

"But this is such a good story. That's what pulled me to it. And there's not too much battle stuff, which I thought would be tedious. David Wolper wanted to do something more accessible than 'Masterpiece Theater.' He didn't want people to feel they're going to be banged over the head too much with a history lesson."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World