Chris Millard was a 12-year-old kid whose world consisted of playful sword fighting with friends, learning the constellations and collecting baseball cards.
But all too quickly he entered a world of chemotherapy, radiation treatments and friends teasing him about his newly bald head. Chris, right in the middle of growing up, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer--a tumor growing in his nose that at first threatened his sense of smell, and then life itself.
In the face of this, Chris mined his vivid imagination to create a fictional world--a short story that would eventually help him and those who loved him cope with the ravages of his disease. It all started when his teacher gave him an assignment to write about his summer vacation. Since Chris had spent the summer undergoing cancer treatment, he didn't want to relive those experiences.
Instead, he wrote a life-affirming tale about Squire Millard, one of the forgotten knights of King Arthur's court who overcame obstacles to attain the coveted four diamonds representing courage, wisdom, honesty and strength. And while his alter ego Squire Millard learned valuable lessons on his quest, Chris Millard used the same lessons to fight the battle of his life.
The creative tale Chris wrote--and the real-life story of his ordeal with cancer--touched a chord with producers Joe Byrne and Jeb Rosebrook. They undertook their own arduous five-year journey to bring a movie weaving both stories together to television. "We said, 'This story has to be told,' " recalls Byrne.
And like Squire Millard, who had to deal with the evil sorceress Raptenahad to acquire the four diamonds, the producers didn't have it easy. "When we came upon this story, it was divorce-of-the-week time," says Byrne. But finally, the Disney Channel agreed to make "The Four Diamonds" from a script written by Todd Robinson, a friend of Chris' sister Stacia.
Although the telefilm has many heart-wrenching moments, those involved say it's not typical disease-of-the-week fare. As 14-year-old actor Thomas Guiry, who plays Chris, the boy who eventually succumbed to his disease in 1972, put it, "It's not just a regular cancer movie. It's not like this boy died and that's it. It's about him leaving something behind--he left hope behind."
But at times it was emotionally difficult for Guiry to play the role in which he actually shaved his head to become Chris. It hit him even harder to have Charles and Irma Millard, Chris' real parents, on the Eugene, Ore., set. "When I came out of the makeup trailer and saw Mrs. Millard crying, that kind of made me think, 'Y'know, this really happened to somebody,' " he says.
Christine Lahti, who plays Chris' no-nonsense, detached oncologist, Dr. Burke, also found her role to be tough. "It was difficult. My natural instinct is to be a lot more compassionate."
Lahti's preparation for the role of Dr. Burke including spending time in children's cancer wards. It was "pretty painful," she says.
But in the movie, the magical adventure story featuring Squire Millard alleviated the intense scenes featuring Chris Millard for the actors. Thanks to the real Chris, who put the people in his life into his story as characters so he could work things out with them, Lahti had a break from Dr. Burke. The doctor is transformed--literally with the use of morphing special effects--into the campy witch Raptenahad, Lahti's other role in the film.
"It was helpful to kind of vent and chew up the scenery as Raptenahad, because Dr. Burke didn't have a lot of fun," Lahti says.
Playing the over-the-top redheaded witch was sheer fun. "I don't really get the opportunity to play someone so outrageously wicked," Lahti says of the character who captures Squire Millard and makes him accomplish tasks to earn the four diamonds.
Because Raptenahad speaks in perfect rhyming couplets, Lahti says she approached the role as if it were Shakespeare. But the character required some additional interpretation. "I didn't want to make her a cartoon character. I wanted to make her a real person with real problems and needs."
Guiry also felt his dual role as Squire Millard offered a bit of relief from his demanding scenes as Chris. "It gave me a break," says Guiry, who took horseback riding lessons to prepare for his knightly activities.
But Guiry found that his most challenging scenes were not on horseback. "There was one scene where I was talking to my dad, and I had to keep crying and crying. It was really heavy."
Producer Byrne finds that scene in which Chris helps his dad, in deep denial, face the reality of his son's impending death to be extremely powerful. "I think about it and I get a little ...," he says with a shaky voice.
Irma and Charles Millard experienced many such emotional moments when watching the film being made. For Irma, seeing Guiry as Chris was the most difficult. "I felt I was looking at Chris, and yet they really don't look like each other. He took on certain aspects of Chris' personality."
The Millards, who participated in almost every stage of the project, say they didn't want the film made for Chris' memory, but for "what the story could bring to other people." The couple started the Four Diamonds Fund that helps kids with cancer and their families in Hershey, Pa., for the same reason.
Lahti plans to have a discussion with her own 7-year-old son about the movie. "I'll tell him that people do die from this--but what a way to go out and what a way to live because he was such an incredibly brave kid," she says. "That's really the lesson I think."
"The Four Diamonds" airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on the Disney Channel.