The Other Oliver North Show : As Trial Opens, TV Drama Is at Halfway Point

Times Staff Writer

Today, in Washington, the trial of former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North begins.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the making of "Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North"--a four-hour CBS miniseries based on the 1988 book of that title by Ben Bradlee Jr. and public records--pushes forward with deliberate speed. The CBS docudrama, like the book, is being made without any involvement of North or his family.

While there may be no rush to judgment in U.S. District Court, there seems to be a sense of urgency in portraying the life and career of this once-obscure military officer who became the central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal and, for a time in the fall of 1986 as a member of the National Security Council, one of the most powerful people in Washington.

In the topsy-turvy chronology of TV production, North (played by David Keith who has the requisite dimple in the center of his chin) marries Betsy Stuart (Annette O'Toole) today in a scene being filmed at the Veterans Administration building in Westwood. The cast and crew have spent much of the last month at locations in and around Los Angeles: Griffith Park, El Segundo and, for scenes set in El Salvador, on jungle-like land behind the Prado Dam west of Corona.

Late last week, shooting took place at a Los Feliz restaurant, where North, his wife and four children discuss a possible family move.

The scene occurs several days before President Reagan asked for North's dismissal from the NSC in November, 1986. An embattled North is telling his family he has decided to leave the White House and go back to being a Marine. His eldest daughter, Tait, cuts through her father's cover, asking him why he is quitting instead of waiting for new orders.

"I guess I feel I've done all I can in Washington," North replies. "Some people are grateful for what I've done. Some are not. But I always did what I thought was right."

As rehearsal shifted to filming, Keith, who played Elvis Presley in the movie "Heartbreak Hotel" and Richard Gere's buddy who committed suicide in "An Officer and a Gentleman," suddenly remembered he was missing the gap in his front teeth.

So Keith, who already has a regimental Marine haircut and contact lenses to turn his hazel eyes to pale-North blue, called for the makeup woman to brush in the gap with black paint.

Now in its fourth week of shooting, "Guts and Glory" is nearly half done. Mike Robe, the project's writer, director and executive producer, says filming will be over in early March after several days in Washington.

"We're doing scenes outside the Old Executive Office Building, the Ellipse, the Jefferson Memorial. We've re-created the Oval Office in Los Angeles," Robe said. "Of course we're not being allowed to film in the NSC. . . ."

Instead of the usual 12 weeks of editing, Robe has only eight weeks. "We've been asked by CBS to be ready as early as May," he said.

May would position "Guts and Glory" in time for ratings sweeps.

"Guts and Glory" also features Barnard Hughes as CIA Director William Casey; Peter Boyle as Adm. John Poindexter, the NSC adviser; Paul Dooley as Robert McFarlane, Poindexter's predecessor, and Amy Stock-Poynton as North's secretary, Fawn Hall. The producers had toyed with the idea of having Hall play herself but rejected it because, as Robe noted, it "blurred the line between the illusion of reality and reality itself."

The docudrama picks up North's life at 21 when he was badly injured in an automobile accident that nearly cost him his military career. It tracks him through Annapolis and Vietnam, his 1968 marriage and a 1974 stay in Bethesda Naval Hospital for "emotional distress." Part Two deals with North's White House years, including Grenada and the Contras, and ends with his dismissal by Reagan.

"I think, essentially, the structure of this story fits the classic Greek mold," Robe said. "He's undone by the very strengths that allowed him to rise to power in the first place. His tunnel-vision dedication to duty, his willingness to risk all to accomplish a mission--which was certainly exhibited in Vietnam and later. His tragic flaw is a lack of perspective."

Was North a hero? "I think he was a great man to have in a foxhole," Robe said, "and I don't think he had any business conducting foreign policy. He wasn't trained for it. On the other hand, he arrived at his position with the encouragement and knowledge of a great many people who could at any point have told him to stop. . . .

"You start on a journey with Oliver North in this show and the road is very straight, you understand what he believes, where he's headed, and the impulses are very American. But somewhere along the way the curve signs start to appear, the road distorts, and he curves off on a tangent that is disturbing. What I hope to do is trace the curves."

Pat Faulstich, CBS' vice president for movies and miniseries, says the decision on an air date will be made in April. It's "not necessarily" based on what happens in North's trial.

"We don't believe anything within the picture would influence the trial. We would presume the jury would be impaneled," Faulstich said. "Is it to our advantage in essentially reestablishing North as a public figure? I would guess it is . . . ."

As for the timing of miniseries and trial, Faulstich said that's "coincidental not intentional."

In federal court, North faces 12 felony charges based on his conduct during the Iran-Contra affair. Those charges include obstructing and making false statements to Congress, misleading the White House and the Justice Department, shredding and changing official documents and illegally accepting a free home-security system.

Robe maintains he is unconcerned about the effect of "Guts and Glory" on the trial--or vice-versa. "Everything in our script is from the (Bradlee) book and the public record so I don't think we will affect the trial no matter what. Also a couple of the more serious charges were dropped, and it has to do with when the show is aired and what the status of the trial is at that time. . . . All I'm doing is making a movie."

Robe, producer Robert Papazian ("The Day After") and CBS officials point to the meticulous care taken with this docudrama to be certain of its accuracy. In addition to Bradlee's book and its 312 interviews--North and his family declined any involvement--the miniseries is based on the Tower Commission report, the transcripts of the Iran-Contra hearings, the congressional report on those hearings and news accounts.

Unlike other docudramas where the main characters participate in the production, "Guts and Glory" had to be fact-checked and double-fact-checked, its wording gone over by a battery of lawyers. On the "Guts and Glory" set, producers say, the only departure from script involve irrelevancies.

There are, to be sure, composite characters, compressed events and made-up dialogue, such as that between North and his family, or North and Casey, but Robe insists that what's said is "the essence of truth." And if some scenes do take a certain dramatic license, Papazian maintains it's only where the material is "not offensive."

Andy Messing Jr., executive director of the National Defense Council Foundation in Virginia and a close friend of North's since 1982, said last week he didn't know whether North was aware of the miniseries or whether he has read Bradlee's book. "Ollie is so busy right now preparing for his trial he wouldn't have time. . . . He's a public figure, so you can write the most audacious out-of-balance things. Anybody can scream anything about you at the top of their lungs, and it's irrelevant what he thinks about the book or movie."

Messing, who was interviewed for the Bradlee book, claimed there are "a lot of inaccuracies and a lot of things were taken out of context. It's a trash-North book."

He also expects similar treatment in the miniseries. "You're going to see a fictionalized Hollywood version rather than the truthful Ollie North," Messing said. "He's a genuine American hero and a very nice person. . . . To launch a miniseries before the main events have been finished is premature. I don't think it's ethical. It's like writing the end of the book before the author--the jury--has been allowed to write it. This trial could take a year."

"Guts and Glory," both the book and the docudrama, deals with the diversion of funds to the Contras. As Messing noted, the main conspiracy charges--diversion of about $14 million in Iranian arms sales profits to secretly fund a war in Nicaragua--were dropped Jan. 13 after the Reagan Administration withheld key classified documents.

However Larry Strichman, CBS' director of movies, asserted that "the events depicted in the script are a matter of record" in the hearings and through North's own admissions. He suggested there was a difference between "legal culpability" and fact. "We're confident the events we portray are those that can be verified."

President Bush comes up in "Guts and Glory" twice: The then-vice president is pictured in the background at an Oval Office meeting after Reagan has signed a key finding allowing direct U.S. contact in the selling of arms to Iran. The second time is when North, after his dismissal, tells arms dealer and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Secord that the vice president is "on my side."

As for the participants in this docudrama, they are all over the lot in how they approach actual personalities and events. Keith finds North "fascinating."

"Like the rest of the nation, I was caught in Ollie-fever," Keith said. "And it sounded to me like he believed in what our nation was founded on, which is the cause of freedom. I can't say whether or not he broke the law, but he kept the Contras alive, and I personally believe that was a very just cause."

The actor wishes he could have sat down and had a beer with North.

Stock-Poynton said that she can't let her own opinions come into play. "I believe (Fawn Hall)'s very intelligent and knew what she was doing, and had faith in her boss, although I don't think anything was going on between them. . . . You got a White House full of blue suits, white shirts, older men, and in comes Oliver North. Congenial, happy, tells jokes. He's Like this rose in a garden of onions."

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