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TV Remakes ‘Around the World in 80 Days’

The cavernous ballroom of the Institution of Civil Engineers off London’s Parliament Square might be a little oversized to represent the lounge of a transatlantic sailing vessel of the 1870s. Luckily, the ceiling mural depicting the heroism of Britain’s construction industry, complete with burly nymphs wrapped in the Union Jack, won’t be in the shot. The camera was focused at deck level on Pierce Brosnan impersonating David Niven--er, Phileas Fogg.

A lavish television remake of Mike Todd’s--er, Jules Verne’s--"Around the World in Eighty Days” was getting under way in London and points east, aiming for a six-hour rendezvous on NBC next April.

Aside from new miniseries king Brosnan as the peripatetic Fogg, this “Around the World” version stars Eric Idle as his fussy French valet Passepartout, Julia Nickson as Fogg’s Indian love interest and Peter Ustinov as Detective Fix, who pursues the eccentric travelers, convinced that they have robbed the Bank of England.

The $16-million production (two-thirds NBC money, one-third from Europe) is studiously avoiding copying anything in the hit 1956 movie, except its gimmick of casting recognizable faces in small roles. When showman Todd credited such bit-part stars as Frank Sinatra using their portraits in oval frames, he invented “cameos.”

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Cameo artistes this time around include Lee Remick, Robert Morley, Robert Wagner, Pernell Roberts, John Mills, Christopher Lee, Patrick Macnee, John Hillerman, Roddy McDowall and David Soul. Morley and Mills are the only repeaters from the 1956 film.

Many of the one-scene players will be impersonating historical figures such as Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Pasteur, Queen Victoria and Jesse James. The script is full of fantastic inventions from the 1870s, such as an early dirigible and a sort of armored personnel carrier in which the travelers traverse the American desert.

No, this isn’t a docudrama. “It’s fantasy time,” Brosnan said. “The writer, John Gay, has taken plenty of artistic license. When it comes to Jules Verne, it’s not hallowed ground we’re treading on.” In any case, the book is in the public domain.

Although the scene Buzz Kulik was directing here in the civil engineers’ ballroom was meant to represent the last leg of Fogg’s globe-girdling adventure, it was one of the first scenes to be shot. In fact, as Brosnan spoke, he was preparing to go on camera as Fogg for the first time.

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“Fogg is something of an enigma to me,” the actor said. “I’ll discover what makes him tick over the next few months. ‘Tick’ is the right word, I suppose, because he’s a man who lives his life by the clock. His wardrobe is numbered so he can wear his clothes in the proper sequence. He’s very polished, very precise, but slightly off-beam in some respects.

“David Niven was wonderful--though I find watching the film now a little too much for one sitting. In its day it must have been thrilling.”

Since the film isn’t still a crowd-pleaser, a remake might seem a chancy proposition, and co-producer Renee Valente confirmed that “The network didn’t want to do this show when we first proposed it six years ago. At that time, we were thinking of Michael Caine or Roger Moore for Fogg.

“The people at the network then didn’t like the idea of a period piece. So we contemporized it. Instead of Phileas Fogg wagering at a game of whist that he could make the trip in 80 days, we had him betting on tennis. Luckily, no one wanted to do it that way, and neither did we. We prefer the idea of doing it in period but with performances that aren’t dated. The comedy especially has to reflect current audience taste.”

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Peter Ustinov agrees that the 1956 original is dated. “It’s peculiar to see the film now on television,” he said. “Owing to the film process they used, vertical black bars appear on the TV screen. It looks like a Hershey product.”

Ustinov, too, was shooting his first scene, a comical exchange with Brosnan, as propmen caused the ship’s chandelier to sway behind them. Of his character, Ustinov said, “Fix is dogged yet confused, aggressive yet defensive, blustering and retracting it at the same time, thinking he’s mastered the devious workings of the criminal mind, as if there were only one.”

Robert Newton played Fix in 1956 after Ustinov himself just missed getting the job.

“I was supposed to do it,” he said, “but I was preempted by 20th Century-Fox, where I was under contract. Fox were doing all they could to torpedo Todd because they’d just staked a lot of money on CinemaScope, and Todd’s picture used a similar wide-screen process. I eventually got out of my Fox contract, but too late.”

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