When the stars of the epic and enduringly popular miniseries “The Thorn Birds” got together for the first time in decades, the reunion was anything but spiky.
In 1983 Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown headlined the ABC miniseries adaptation of Australian author Coleen McCollough’s bestselling potboiler. Set in the outback in the early 20th century, it chronicled the tortured romance between an ambitious Catholic priest (Chamberlain), his spirited ward (Ward) and the ranch hand (Brown) with whom she seeks solace.
A sensation in its initial broadcast, “The Thorn Birds” remains the second-highest rated miniseries of all time (after “Roots”) and continues to amass new generations of fans in each rebroadcast and new home video incarnation.
It was also pivotal in the lives of its stars: On the plus side, it secured Chamberlain’s status as the reigning king of the television miniseries, alongside 1980’s “Shogun,” and Brown launched a successful career in Hollywood with hit films including “Gorillas In the Mist” and “Cocktail.” For Ward, it came with both pluses and minuses: Critical reviews of her performance led her to feel insecure as an actress (even though she was Golden Globe-nominated) and she began to move behind the camera on Australian-based projects. But it was during the project she met and fell in love with Brown, and the couple remain married 30 years later.
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When the PBS series "Pioneers of Television" explored the phenomenon of the network miniseries – airing Feb. 4 – the trio of actors reunited last summer for the first time since they shot “The Thorn Birds,” gathering poolside at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to reminisce about the now-landmark experience they shared.
When did you become aware of how enduring a phenomenon 'The Thorn Birds' had become?
Rachel Ward: When I began to see, 'Someone is making a lot of money here.' I began to wish I hadn't had a buyout.
Richard Chamberlain: Oh, yes, me, too! Oh, my God – we'd be so rich!
Bryan Brown: Rachel used to spend a lot of time in Italy because her mother lived there, and that's where it became incredibly noticeable over the years: people going, 'Meggie!' to her wherever she went. That just went on and on.
Chamberlain: People everywhere come to me... Mothers come up to me and say, 'I named my daughter Megan.'
Brown: It's interesting, that 'The Thorn Birds' [has] longevity – it doesn't matter where you are. As you get older and you know you look nothing like what you looked like then and people still come up and go, 'Hey, loved that show, "The Thorn Birds,"' you think, 'Well, there's been 60 other things between that now. My God, it's remembered!’
You actually haven't spent much time in each other's company since then, right?
Chamberlain: No. We'd been apart for 25 years, and then we were both in this miniseries in Thailand, and I thought, 'Oh, man, I get to see Rachel again and we get to act together!' But we didn't actually get to have a scene together, so we ended up by chance meeting in the Thailand airport. Rachel was coming in as I was leaving and we had 10 minutes – which was great.
Ward: Richard lives in Hawaii and we live in Australia. Otherwise, we'd be knocking on his door all the time.
Brown: I think the nature of this business is that when you do a job, for a moment it's like a family and then sometimes it can be 30 years, it can definitely be 15 years, and someone who you've met who's just had a baby, the next time you meet them they're with a 19-year-old son or daughter. It's the nature of this game.
What are the things that this reunion has brought back to life for you?
Brown: I think just what a lovely bloke Richard is. That's the first thing it's brought back.
Chamberlain: That whole experience was so intense. There are a lot of things I don't remember anymore, but I remember so much about our work together in that. It's almost like being back there in a way.
Ward: It is, isn't it? It's strange because I, obviously, have very mixed feelings about it. In a way, it buries a few demons for me, too. It sort of brings it full circle. I felt terribly like I'd disappointed, like I'd slightly let the team down. I think after all to sort of come back, for me it was a kind of clearing to be able to go through the whole thing and come back and go, 'OK, it's over. I can move.' In a way I can sort of move past it. It's amazing how much it all sort of did for me.
Brown: And also to realize just how much people celebrated this show. It was a phenomenal show. Rachel and Richard were these iconic figures from that show. I think for Rachel who can go, 'Oh, my God, it was important. I'm part of something important,' it’s great for her.
Rachel, I understand how you got to see that the show was important through it's popularity and that giving you confidence, but it’s surprising to hear that you’ve felt down on your personal performance.
Ward: It's quite confusing because on the one hand it was this huge success. On the other hand I didn't feel like I was the successful component as a result of it. I felt that despite me it was a success. That's ridiculous, but that gives you some idea of the actor's vulnerability, that you can have a success like this and because of a handful of quite important, but very negative reviews you can say that your peers have voted and they've given you the thumbs down. That stays with you. That almost eclipses, or it does eclipse, what the public perception is – in a horrible way it does. It obviously doesn't help your career when you get that sort of thing, and also you go to that thing of, 'I won't read reviews.' But then you start to get very paranoid. I remember after 'Thorn Birds,' nobody would talk about it because they knew I'd been badly reviewed. So it was almost like something that we better not talk about. It was a strange one.
There was the chemistry that the two of you shared as leads and then the personal chemistry as well. Did you know something special was happening with you onscreen?
Chamberlain: Well, if I may, Rachel was falling in love with Bryan, but we're playing people who fall in love and so she was glowing with love and I thought it was me! It was fabulous. 'God. She's really into me.'
Ward: It wasn't hard, let me tell you! That's hilarious.
Chamberlain: We had a lot of kissing and stuff like that, and I felt that we really trusted each other, which doesn't always happen.
Ward: Yes, you trusted me, my God. Of course I trusted you. I was absolutely in your hands. Obviously, you were just so protective of me, I felt, too. I felt that came into the relationship. I felt safe with you, actually.
Chamberlain: That's it. We felt safe with each other.
Ward: Interestingly enough, after we did this reunion and I was terribly re-upset, it all came bubbling up, how I felt. And my kids have never seen it either, because I've said, 'Don't watch it!’ And my daughter watched it finally. She went, 'Mom, you were fabulous.' That was for me the most important response that I could've ever had. She's 24 now and she's discerning. If she hadn't thought so, she would've said, 'Oh, well, Mom – you were very young, very inexperienced.' She would've done that, but she just went, 'What was their problem? You were fabulous.'
Brown: You were actually quite electric in that show.
With what was going on off set and on set with Rachel and Bryan, did the two of you try to hide it or did you lend it to your performances?
Ward: He's not that good an actor!
Brown: I kept trying to get her arms off from around my neck every minute of the day, but it just didn't work. No. We had a great time. Hawaii was fine. Hawaii was just great. When I think back on that period, it was like this wonderful holiday. I met Rachel, and so all I was thinking was, 'Man, am I having a great time. I've found this fabulous girl. Oh, I have to go to work. I have to get that over with real quick.'
Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Simmons each gave brilliant performances. What was it like working opposite them at that stage in their professional lives? Actors weren’t quite getting back then the third acts that they get now.
Ward: I think that everybody only gives anything but their best every time and have a go. I remember that Jean was totally in cahoots with me about Bryan. She kept going, 'Oh, God, he's so hot. He's fabulous. Don't let him go.' She was flirting with him like mad herself.
Chamberlain: She got herself sort of dowdy for that show, and I thought, 'Well, she's a little older and dowdy.’ And then a couple of months later there was this thing for Laurence Olivier in New York. An elevator door opened and she was in a gown looking as beautiful as Rachel. She had lost whatever it was she had gained and was absolutely gorgeous.
And I have never seen Stanwyck put a foot wrong at all. She's always at the top of her game, in her earliest movies all the way through. Bad movies, good movies – always at the top of her game. In this – at the first table reading she knew all her lines. She said to the cameraman, 'You'll catch this look, won't you?' This was the first reading and she knew exactly what she was going to do, and did it! When we had many takes she was exactly the same every take, and totally real, totally fresh. I thought I certainly wasn't up to her level in the scene and then at some point I saw it later, and I thought, 'Oh, well – I did hold my own.' Her last scene before she dies was just monumental.
You don't see that kind of sumptuous miniseries production on a network level anymore. What are we missing out on in its absence?
Brown: I'm not sure that it's not cyclical and I'm not sure that it won't come around again. There are books out there that only lend themselves to being miniseries. I just think that we went through a time when it was, like, 'Okay, miniseries in the '80's...' And then we got sick of them: 'What else can television offer?' The fact that they moved back to the limited series shows that people do want drama, do want a lengthy drama. I think in five or six years I wouldn't be surprised if it came back. I noticed that telemovies are coming back, a two-hour telemovie. They were a no-no for the last 10 years.
Is there a day on the shoot when someone brings 'The Thorn Birds' up that you always flash back to?
Ward: I remember struggling with this scene that we had to re-shoot three times and you're leaving in the car and I'm standing, going, 'Go on then. Go to that God of yours, but you'll come back to me because I'm the one who loves you.' Now, I defy bloody Meryl Streep to pull that one off! I mean, really! Each time we were doing about 90 takes, and then we had to come back and they still didn't have it and we'd have to come back and do it again and again. That's when Daryl [Duke, the director] said to me, 'Rachel, you're a little bird with a broken wing. Does that help?' I absolutely got it, straight away. I'll never forget those lines. I had to do them enough times!
Is there a far-flung corner of the globe where someone has come up and unexpectedly mentioned 'The Thorn Birds' to you?
Chamberlain: I took my parents to Switzerland once and we were way on the top of some mountain and some Swiss person came up and said, 'Oh, "The Thorn Birds..."' And my father was suddenly impressed for the very first time in his life. He said, 'Oh, my God, they know you on a mountaintop in Switzerland. You must be something.'
Brown: And that is the truth. It is as silly as that: that in the most faraway place and when you don't look like you in the middle of a ski field and you say something and they go, 'I love that "Thorn Birds."' And you're thinking, 'How the f**k do you know it's me?'