Makers of 'Reagans' Have Their Say

Times Staff Writer

The actors and filmmakers behind "The Reagans" spoke out Monday, insisting their project had no political bias against former President Reagan and his wife Nancy, and complaining that changes requested by CBS before it shuttled the project to its sister pay cable network would have "butchered" the production.

CBS, which was originally slated to air "The Reagans" Nov. 16 and 18, had cited the film's focus on politics as its main reason for deciding not to air it. The film will air Sunday night on pay cable channel Showtime.

While they said they were glad "The Reagans" would be seen on Showtime on Sunday, producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, director Robert Allan Ackerman, actors James Brolin and Judy Davis (who play the former president and first lady) and others associated with the project voiced concerns that the experience with CBS could have a chilling effect on future projects. They said the film's main objective was to "humanize" the Reagans in a love story set against a political backdrop.

"The point of view of this was not so much politically driven as it was character-driven," Ackerman said during a conference call with reporters. He insisted politics was merely a background issue in the story.

In his own conference call a few hours earlier, CBS Chairman and Chief Executive Leslie Moonves found himself barraged with questions about "The Reagans" as he tried to keep the focus on his network's winning performance during the November sweeps. Moonves reiterated his contention that "The Reagans" was "one-sided" with a specific political point of view that differed from what the producers had promised CBS.

Moonves likened "The Reagans" to another film with a strong political slant, Oliver Stone's "JFK," which suggested that Lyndon B. Johnson had a role in President Kennedy's death. In their own conference call, the filmmakers rejected the analogy.

Ackerman claimed that Moonves never had a conversation with him or others about his concerns after seeing a rough cut of the film in late October.

Saying the rough cut had been "rushed" to accommodate the network, Ackerman said, "We would have been open to dialogue, but that dialogue never took place. We got notes about a lot of changes that were non-negotiable, changes that would have led to the artistic butchering of our movie, making it incoherent.... He never discussed it with any of us."

The filmmakers said they were happy that Showtime will air what they are calling their version of the film. But Zadan questioned whether the controversy will have a chilling effect on producers tackling sensitive or controversial subject matter or political figures.

"The bigger question is what happens the next time, when we take something like this to the networks," he said.

Davis seconded the opinion, calling CBS' decision not to air the film an apparent "attack on free speech."

Brolin denied that his wife, performer and liberal political activist Barbra Streisand, had any involvement with "The Reagans."

For the Showtime version, at least one heavily contested line of the script has been removed. In the script, Reagan, long criticized for failing to act decisively on the AIDS crisis, remarked, "They who live in sin shall die in sin" -- a phrase Reagan never actually said.

Conservative groups concerned that the movie was an unflattering portrait and poorly timed, given the former president's faltering health, had mobilized against the miniseries on cable TV, radio talk shows and the Internet. After days of criticism, Moonves shifted the miniseries to Showtime, which, like CBS, is owned by Viacom Inc.

"The Reagans" will air uninterrupted Sunday in a nearly three-hour version. The film also will be the focus of a panel discussion, featuring politicians, historians and journalists in a live broadcast Dec. 1, also on Showtime.

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