The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years is a CBS miniseries that aired in 1996. It tells the story of the 19 years that are unaccounted for between the birth of Dane and Ralph's return to Australia in the original 1983 ABC miniseries, The Thorn Birds. The Missing Years was generally panned by critics and fans of the original miniseries for being unfaithful to the book. Adding to the dismay was the fact only one actor, Richard Chamberlain, returned to reprise his role as Ralph de Bricassart from the original miniseries.
The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years
Kevin James Dobson
February 1996 (USA)
The Missing Years
The Thorn Birds Revisited
When Richard Chamberlain starred in The Thorn Birds in 1983, it became the second-highest-rated miniseries ever (it still is, after Roots). The love scenes between his character - a priest - and a married woman were so controversial, they were even debated on Nightline. “There were some elements of the first one that were sensational,” the actor admits. But he adds, “It was a soul relationship - not lust. Sex came later, and it’s the same in this show.”
However, little else is the same in The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years which revisits Father Ralph de Bricassart and Meggie Cleary O’Neill. For one thing, Amanda Donohoe now costars in the role originated by Rachel Ward. Chamberlain, in fact, is the only original cast member in the sequel - and even he turned it down at first. In early drafts of the script, “Ralph was just standing around moaning about how confused he was all the time.” Now, he says, “it’s turned out much better than I expected. It works entirely on its own merits. I don’t think it needs to depend on the previous Thorn Birds.”
But Colleen McCullough, author of the original novel, thinks the sequel is strictly for the birds: “They’re using my name, my characters, and my book to make another few million bucks. I killed everybody off so they couldn’t make a sequel. There are no missing years.”
As for Chamberlain’s missing years - his TV roles have been few since his last series, Island Son, ended in 1990 - they’ve been spent in front of canvases at his home in Hawaii. “In 1992, I couldn’t find any work I wanted to do, and I thought, ‘This time I am going to start painting,’” says the former Dr. Kildare, now 60. “More and more, I just want to live on my terms.”
He’s equally forthright about the forbidden love between Meggie and Father Ralph. “They really love each other,” he says. “They’d make a great couple - if only the rules were different.”
A Thorny Return
Priest's `Missing' Chapter Is for the Birds
"The Missing Years" dramatizes portions of Colleen McCullough's best-selling novel that were cut from ABC's 1983 adaptation. The original production, starring Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Simmons, Mare Winningham, Christopher Plummer and Richard Kiley, ranks behind "Roots" as TV's No. 2 miniseries in the Nielsen ratings
Chamberlain, in the sappy lead role of Archbishop Ralph de Bricassart, is the only major "Thorn Birds" player returning in "The Missing Years." Those with a taste for Chamberlain's hammy acting may be tempted to see how his romantic character resolves his basic spiritual and carnal conflicts.
The first "Thorn Birds," set in Australia and filmed in California's Simi Valley, began in the 1920s and concluded in the '60s. Thanks to the "Missing Years" time warp, today's 60-year-old Chamberlain looks much older as the lusty priest in 1943 than he did wearing age makeup in "The Thorn Birds," while his Roman Catholic character matured during the 1950s and '60s.
As the CBS miniseries opens, Ralph prays in Rome for the strength to forget Meggie O'Neill, the Australian woman who bore his son. "I think of her every minute of my life," he says. "I don't know what's real anymore. Nothing makes sense."
The horrors of World War II and rigid Vatican politics test the archbishop's faith. Cardinal Vittorio (Maximilian Schell) sends the soul-searching do-gooder back to Australia and the church-owned Drogheda ranch, where Ralph and Meggie renew their passionate relationship. "When I'm beside you," he tells her, "I'm as close to heaven as I can imagine."
Amanda Donohoe is no match for Ward as Meggie, and "Missing Years" replacement Simon Westaway can't compare to Bryan Brown as Luke, Meggie's rotten husband. In Tuesday's conclusion, Luke slugs the archbishop.
The CBS sweeps event has one advantage over the 1983 blockbuster: The new love story was filmed on location in Australia, so the scenery is better.
© 1996 Lon Grahnke
From Down Under
We all know about sequels, and we've gotten used to prequels. Ever hear of a "midquel?"
You can see one tonight when the four-hour CBS miniseries "The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years" gets under way (9 p.m., Channels 4 and 12, with the conclusion set for the same time Tuesday).
You must remember "The Thorn Birds," the 10-hour miniseries carved out of Colleen McCullough's huge best-seller, which some wags called "Gone With the Wind Goes to Australia." It starred Richard Chamberlain as the handsome parish priest and Rachel Ward and Barbara Stanwyck as the women who took turns lusting after him. (Stanwyck, incidentally, stole the show, playing a 75-year-old.)
"Thorn Birds" recounted the priest's loss of faith and what the purple-prose stylists of the day described as the "forbidden love" between him and a married woman. When the miniseries aired, in 1983, it achieved ratings that would make it TV's second-highest-rated miniseries ever ("Roots" being the first).
Now CBS has decided that the original didn't exhaust the franchise. Although it ran for 10 hours, it left out a critical middle period in the story, meaning there's room for a "midquel" (the word is Chamberlain's).
Chamberlain reportedly had doubts about doing the new miniseries until the script was cut from six to four hours. Satisfied on that score, he's back as Father Ralph de Bricassart, the charismatic, wayward priest. Ward has been replaced by Amanda Donohoe as Meggie O'Neal, the woman who's in love with a man unavailable to her emotionally and physically.
There are some other changes. Simi Valley, Calif., the location for the original, has been replaced by Queensland, Australia -- which would seem to be a logical choice for an Australian epic. That meant replicating sets which had not been preserved -- trying to re-create in Australia settings that imitated Australia in Southern California.
It worked, evidently. The house looks "exactly like it was before, at least in my memory," Chamberlain said in an interview distributed by the network. "Walking into the interior is exactly the same. I could almost feel Barbara Stanwyck coming down the stairs. It's really kind of haunting."
Chamberlain says his role isn't easy.
"Ralph is a difficult role because he doesn't drive the action much," Chamberlain said. "It's easier for me to play more active characters. Ralph is also extremely complex. It was quite difficult for me to find him again."
The attraction of the story, he says, is "forbidden, yet unstoppable love" -- and "the glamor" of the Catholic Church.
© 1996 Bruce McCabe
Miniseries King returns to "Thorn Birds"
"Roots" begat "Roots: The Next Generation." "Gone with the Wind" was followed by "Scarlett." Television folks can't miss capitalizing on a good thing, so now comes "The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years."
Richard Chamberlain returns as Father Ralph de Bricassart in the four-hour saga, airing from 8 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday on Channel 2. This time, the good but sometimes wayward father helps Jewish refugees in wartime Rome, then returns to Australia to become embroiled in his suppressed love for Meggie, this time played by Amanda Donohoe.
The original "Thorn Birds" aired in 1983 to the second-best ratings for a miniseries ever, bested only by "Roots," with a cast that included Rachel Ward as Meggie, Barbara Stanwyck and Bryan Brown.
The first film was shot 40 miles outside Los Angeles in Simi Valley, which approximated the Australian outback. This time, the producers went for the real thing: Craftsmen created the sheep ranch Drogheda in Queensland, Australia.They also constructed an Italian village, St. Peter's, the catacombs and other Roman landmarks, aided by computer graphic imaging.
To talk about "Missing Years," Chamberlain was contacted in Frankfurt, where he was appearing as Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady," now on a tour that also included Paris, Zurich, Berlin, Hamburg and Munich. "The audiences are extremely unpredictable. You never know what they're going to get and what they're not because of the language thing. Sometimes, they'll surprise you and laugh at something very subtle. Other times, they'll miss something rather broad."
Chamberlain admitted to some misgivings about returning to the material. "Sequels are notoriously unsatisfying," he said. "The first script, which was six hours long, was interesting, but I didn't think Father Ralph came off very well. I turned that one down, and I thought that was the end of it.
"Months and months later, I found out that they were doing a four-hour version. I took a look at the script, and it was terrific. I said, `Gosh, this is great, guys.' It's so hard to find a mature love story these days, with actual grownups in it. I was eager to do it.
"It's a whole new cast, of course. So I had to treat it as an entirely new production."
Chamberlain admits to skating on thin ice by playing a Catholic priest who falls in love.
"I think they were careful in the script," he said, "and I'm somewhat careful in the performance. I try to play him as honestly as possible. "He is a man who is torn between three basic loves - Meggie, God and the glamor and the power of the church. All three have a claim on him. It's quite an unhappy position for him to be in. "However, I think he comes out of this episode with a kind of self-knowledge that he never achieved in the original."
Chamberlain retains fond memories of making 1983's "Thorn Birds," especially when it comes to Stanwyck, who died in 1990. "She was everything people said she was," he recalled. "The most consummate pro I have ever encountered. "In the first read-through, she not only knew all her lines, she knew every look, every gesture, everything she wanted to do. It was quite amazing. I'd never seen an actress work like that before.
"When we shot the scenes, even if we did seven or eight takes, she would be exactly the same every time. But never, ever stale. It was always wonderful what she was doing."
Chamberlain may well be the king of the miniseries. Among the wealth he has done, his favorites are "The Thorn Birds," "Shogun," "Wallenberg: A Hero's Story" and "The Bourne Identity." "My favorite character, funnily enough, was in my first miniseries, `Centennial,' " he said.
© 1996 Bob Thomas
Miniseries King Returns For Sequel To `Thorn Birds'
The sun sets about five feet from Richard Chamberlain's modest beach house on the west coast of Oahu, Hawaii. When possible, he greets the spectacular sight with a glass
of mai-tai in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other.
"I describe myself now as a Hawaiian beach bum who paints and occasionally acts. I'm
not pursuing my career with the same enthusiasm that I used to," says the tall,
deeply tanned and very fit Chamberlain, a man very much at ease with himself as
he hones in on his 61st birthday on March 31.
A former art and history major at California's Pomona College, he picked up the brush again in 1992, after a year of voluntary unemployment. "I didn't find any (acting)
projects I wanted to do, so I started painting to relax while maintaining a level of creativity," Chamberlain explained. "Gradually, I turned from a work freak -- a total workaholic -- to someone learning the art of hanging out. It's a wonderful skill to develop."
But, to pay for his generous lot in the Garden of Eden, Chamberlain still crosses
the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans with some frequency. Last year, he spent August-September in Queensland, Australia, shooting "The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years,
" a four-hour "mid-quel" to the nine-hour "Thorn Birds" in 1983. It airs at 9 p.m.
Sunday and Tuesday on CBS.
Apparently inspired by Colleen McCullough's best-selling romance novel, the plot now revolves around Archbishop Ralph de Bricassart (Chamberlain), a man who infuriates the hierarchy at the Vatican in 1943 by aiding hordes of refugees from Nazi concentration camps. As punishment, he is sent back to Australia where the true love of his life,
Meggie O'Neill (Amanda Donohoe), is battling to save her beloved Drogheda sheep
station from a devastating drought.
Deemed too old for their old characters, Rachel Ward, Bryan Brown, Ken Howard,
Richard Kiley, Piper Laurie, Christopher Plummer, Jean Simmons, Mare Winningham and the late Barbara Stanwyck have been replaced
by mostly younger (and cheaper) talent, including, Simon Westaway,
Maximilian Schell, Julia Blake, Olivia Burnette and Zach English. Like the Phoenix
rising from the ashes in good shape, Chamberlain is there to lead his flock of actors through the wilderness once more.
"I turned down `The Missing Years' the first time around because I didn't like the way Father Ralph came off," he says. "But they worked on it some more and came back
with a quite wonderful, shorter four-hour script. It was great because this is
a mature love story not aimed at a teen-age audience...for a change."
The seemingly ageless actor found it "very tricky" to work with new cast members in old roles. "Archbishop Ralph has the same problems he always had, being torn between God, Meggie and the power of the Church, but I had to pretend with all my strength that I was part of a whole new project with brand new relationships," he says, laughing.
Chamberlain now has a few more stories to entertain Hawaiian friends with at sunset.
"The very first scene was the most difficult -- a love scene with Amanda," he recalls.
"We tried hard and just couldn't get it right. We came back to it a few days later after becoming acquainted and learned to trust each other as actors. It went wonderfully well after we had a couple of shots of vodka."
© 1996 Eirik Knudzen The Morning Call