Richard Chamberlain returns to one of his favorite roles--the sexy, charismatic Father Ralph de Bricassart in "The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years," airing Sunday and Tuesday on CBS.
"The Missing Years" fills in a critical period in the romantic saga of the forbidden love between Father Ralph and the beautiful Meggie Cleary not covered in the 1983 Emmy Award-winning ABC miniseries "The Thorn Birds." Based on Colleen McCullough's bestseller, the original miniseries chronicled the years between 1920 and 1962 but omitted the World War II period that "Missing Years" fills in.
Filmed entirely in Australia, "Missing Years" finds Father Ralph traveling from the Vatican to the land Down Under in 1943 to evaluate the finances of the sheep station Drogheda. There, he meets and rekindles his feelings for Meggie, who has just reunited with her estranged husband Luke and is carrying his child.
Chamberlain is the only familiar face in the "Missing Years." Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown opted not to reprise their roles of Meggie and Luke. This time around, Amanda Donohoe of "L.A. Law" fame plays Meggie and Australian actor Simon Westaway is Luke.
Donning Father Ralph's priestly collar after 13 years was an "interesting" experience for Chamberlain, who received an Emmy nomination for his work in "Thorn Birds."
"It wasn't quite as much of a gigantic deja vu experience as you might think," he adds over the phone from Frankfurt, Germany, where he was on tour with "My Fair Lady." 'It's an entirely new cast except for me. Because of the casting, I had to treat it as a brand-new show, which I did pretty much."
Chamberlain purposely didn't watch "The Thorn Birds" again before production began "because it would have been too confusing, because I am playing with all new characters now. But it was really exciting. It's a wonderful story and a wonderful cast. I think it turned out really well."
According to executive producer David L. Wolper, the middle section of Father Ralph and Meggie's story was eliminated from the original miniseries because, "there were so many hours that we could do for the original. We decided in the original that after he made love to Meggie that we would just cut ahead to the children."
But Wolper decided audiences would flock to a new "Thorn Birds" installment after the original scored high in the ratings when it was repeated during the summer of 1993 on ABC. ("The Thorn Birds" holds the distinction of being the second-highest rated miniseries of all time; "Roots" is the first.)
But David Stevens' first script for "The Missing Years" failed to whet Chamberlain's appetite. "It was very good, but I don't think it treated Father Ralph well enough, so I turned that down," Chamberlain acknowledges. "I thought he wasn't active enough in the story. There was a certain element of self-pity in the first one which I didn't like. It didn't feel right for him at all because he's a very bright and very strong character."
With Chamberlain out of the picture, ABC passed on "The Missing Years." CBS, though, expressed interest and eventually greenlighted the project. Meanwhile, Stevens ("Queen") was busy revising the script.
"We were going to hire another actor to play the part of Ralph," Wolper says, "and all of a sudden we said, 'Let's send [the new script] to Chamberlain, maybe he would like the new one.' By God, he did."
When the story opens, Chamberlain says, Father Ralph is working to save refugees from the war despite opposition to his involvement by the Catholic Church--"because mostly he was dealing with Jews and the Church wasn't too happy about that." Then he's sent back to Australia ... and he has to face up with Meggie again just at the time when he thought he was getting free of her, the memory of her."
Father Ralph doesn't even want to see Meggie when he arrives but, "they accidentally meet at the railroad station and it starts up all over again. They both want it and they both don't want it." Of course, Father Ralph has no idea that Meggie's 10-year-old son Dane, who wants to be a priest, is actually his son.
Wolper wanted to shoot the original miniseries in Australia, but had to settle for Simi Valley because of the lack of film crews available Down Under. "Over the years, there have been many crews developed in Australia," he says. "We had an Australian director [Kevin James Dobson], so he knew the best crews down there."
Replicating Drogheda, though, was a painstaking affair because the plans for the grand house were missing and the designer had died. "So they had to re-create it from the film, which was very difficult," Chamberlain says. "They did an extraordinary good job, I think.
Despite cast changes, Wolper says, the four-hour drama parallels the original in tone and style. "It's the same characters and situations. We just told a different story. It's romantic. It's beautiful. It has the same feeling. The only difference is that you are looking at a different Meggie. For the first five minutes, [you will notice the change], but once you are into the story, you totally forget [Ward]."
"It's a terrific story," Chamberlain adds. "It's full of intrigue. But the love story is classic, an absolute classic. Never have there been so many crucial barriers between the lovers."
"The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years" airs Sunday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.