If Aaron Spelling has heard the question once, he has heard it a dozen times.
“Why are you doing a show like this?”
The program in question this time is “Day One,” a three-hour TV movie presented by AT&T; and produced by Aaron Spelling Productions about the U.S. decision to develop and drop the world’s first atomic bomb.
Written by Emmy Award-winner David Rintels, directed by veteran Joe Sargent and sporting a cast that includes Brian Dennehy and Hume Cronyn from “Cocoon,” Michael Tucker and Richard Dysart from “L. A. Law,” and David Straithairn from “Eight Men Out,” the project--which airs on CBS at 8 p.m. Sunday--is a far cry from the shows for which Spelling is best known: “The Love Boat,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Dynasty,” “Fantasy Island,” “Mod Squad,” “Starsky & Hutch.”
Spelling is the first to complain that he never gets proper credit for the other programs he has made, such as the series “Family” and TV movies about anorexia nervosa (“Best Little Girl in the World”) and drug addiction (“Cracked-Up”).
“You can’t win. You just can’t win,” Spelling said, shaking his head sadly. “If you try to do something better than ‘SWAT,’ for example, instead of giving you credit for it, people say, ‘What right does he have to do that?’ ”
Even Rintels admits he was put off by Spelling’s flash-and-trash reputation when he was first approached to write the script for “Day One” by Bill Haber, the two men’s mutual agent at Creative Artists Agency.
“The first question I asked was whether I would have creative autonomy. And I received assurances that I would,” explained Rintels, whose television credits include such meaty specials as “Sakharov,” “Clarence Darrow,” “Fear on Trial” and “Gideon’s Trumpet.”
But it was Spelling who first had the idea to make the TV movie after reading “Day One: Before Hiroshima and After” by Peter Wyden in 1984. His reaction, he recalled, was “Wow. Wow. Wow .”
Immediately, he thought about adapting the book for television. But did viewers need yet another drama about the atomic bomb? Spelling looked for the answer within his own family.
“I found out that my daughter, who was 10 at the time, really knew very little about why the atomic bomb was built, who started it, what it did to Japan. And even though I think I read a lot, I realized that I never knew the real reason that we developed the bomb. And it was then that I said, ‘Hey, can we buy this book?’ ”
Spelling got hold of the galleys and immediately enlisted Rintels to write the script and co-produce the project.
“The atomic bomb has dominated politics and international relations and debates on morality and philosophy for the last 40-odd years,” Rintels said. “And it is still such a central part of all our lives that I can’t imagine that there’s a more important story than this.”
But getting someone to finance production was “a very, very hard sell,” Spelling said.
The veteran producer was still under contract to ABC at the time, so he was obligated to take the project there first, even though he knew the network already had aired the movie “The Day After” and was unlikely to want to do another film about nuclear weapons so soon.
“They just weren’t interested in it,” Spelling said. “Then we took it to CBS, and they were fascinated.”
No doubt aware that PBS already had aired a 7-part BBC series, “Oppenheimer,” that covered much of the same ground, however, CBS wanted to cut “Day One” from three hours to two.
Then his agents took it to AT&T;, which decided to fully underwrite the project as the third in its series of “AT&T; Presents” specials.
“Without AT&T; saying, ‘We want to do this with you,’ we would never have gotten it on,” Spelling said.
Rintels said that he based his script not only on Wyden’s book but also on two dozen other volumes about the period when The Manhattan Project was underway.
He took care, he said, “to write this not from a 1980s perspective but from a 1940s perspective, when people were living in a very different world when there were specific practical and political dimensions beyond morality that were part of the debate over using the bomb.”
To keep an eye on the historical accuracy of the movie, the producers enlisted the help of James MacGregor Burns, a senior fellow at the Williams College Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the author of a trilogy on American history, “The American Experiment.”
Calling the movie “wonderfully authentic,” Burns maintains that any controversy that results from its broadcast probably will center not on the film itself but on the U.S. decision to drop the bomb on Japan and usher in the nuclear age.
To Burns, the film portrays what he calls the “horrible calculus of death"--the weighing of how many lives would be lost by dropping the bomb versus how many would be lost if the United States were to invade Japan.
“There was a lot of agonizing over whether to use the bomb, and the film dramatizes the different points of view very effectively,” he said. “It shows people fumbling and feeling their way to a decision. But I think there still will be a question in the minds of some viewers as to whether dropping the bomb was necessary.”
Spelling denies that he wanted to make “Day One” in a bid for a career-crowning Emmy. But he also acknowledges that he didn’t do it to win big ratings, especially up against Robin Givens in the ABC movie “Penthouse.”
“I think there’s a chance--and I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious,” Spelling said, “that maybe a modicum of the audience that likes my shows will say, ‘Well, let’s watch it. It’s one of his .’ Whereas maybe if some other company were presenting ‘Day One,’ they wouldn’t. Because good, bad or indifferent, my name is synonymous with entertainment.”