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Intrigues Of 'Peter The Great'

January 16, 1986|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

Pyotr Alekseyevich the First would have been proud.

NBC has spent about $30 million producing and promoting its eight-hour miniseries named for that 17th- and 18th-Century Russian czar known as Peter the Great.

And in the tradition of Czar Peter--at least the video tradition to be presented by NBC Feb. 2-5--real-life events surrounding the miniseries "Peter the Great" have been a mix of the great and not-so-great:

--"Peter the Great" boasts the proverbial cast of thousands: 7,500 extras, including entire Russian cavalry and infantry regiments and the all-star likes of Maximilian Schell as Peter, Vanessa Redgrave, Omar Sharif, Ursula Andress, Laurence Olivier and Elke Sommer, among many others. . . .

--But Schell took ill toward the end of shooting and then had to fulfill a commitment to the Berlin Opera, causing the production company to speed-read the London actors directory and come up with one Denis De Marne as a "photo double" for Schell. Producers claim that through the miracles of modern makeup plus audio dubbing of Schell's voice, viewers will be unable to tell the real Peter from the pretender, who appears in several scenes.

--The program is the first major American-based production to film in the Soviet Union, where it spent 26 weeks in 1984 and 1985 after spending several weeks in Austria. . . .

--But Lawrence Schiller, the project's original producer and director, who paved the way for Soviet cooperation, was ousted from the production just before it began shooting on Russian soil. He has filed a $10-million-plus lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles against NBC and NBC Productions, among others.

--A portion of the more than $1 million the network is spending on promoting "Peter the Great" went toward bringing Schell, Redgrave and Marvin Chomsky, credited as producer and co-director, before a local gathering of the nation's television critics last week. The critics also were treated to a lunch of borscht and an evening at Mischa's, where they were regaled with balalaika music and feasted on farshmak (salmon pate), Ukrainian sausage and Chicken a la Odessa . . . .

--But the Redgrave portion of the press event was marred by several awkward moments when the one-time PLO sympathizer was asked if she still supports that organization in light of recent terrorist activity.

Redgrave: This isn't a political conference, so I won't take any political questions.

TV Critic: It's a pertinent question.

Redgrave: Perhaps you'd like to write a letter to the press office and put forward a request for a political interview, and then we'll think about it, but not now.

(Redgrave also declined to discuss her upcoming role as male opthalmologist-turned-female tennis star Renee Richards in the CBS TV movie "Second Serve." "I prefer to just talk about 'Peter the Great' now," she told one critic inquiring about her hair, buzzed short for the Richards role. "I know you'll understand.")

And the capper: The Television Critics Assn . , to which most of the visiting press belongs, held its own conference on Tuesday with Schiller , who wasn't present at any of the official NBC events.

During that session, Schiller revealed that he has received only about 50% of the $1.6 million in fees he said he was promised for developing, producing and directing the film; that an adding-machine error, among other things, contributed to what he says is a misconception that he was going over budget, which was cited when a bonding company insisted that NBC remove him from the project, and that he sold his company, PTG Productions (for Peter the Great), to NBC with the verbal agreement that ownership of "Peter the Great" would revert to him, which, an NBC executive verified, has not occurred.

Because of the litigation, NBC executives declined to comment further on Schiller's remarks.

In NBC's opinion, it takes a special effort to get people to watch a series of programs about Peter the Great, a man who, in the words of NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, "most Americans will think . . . is a wrestler."

February also is one of the "sweeps" months, a time of sharp competition among the three commercial networks during which advertising rates are set.

Starting an hour earlier than "Peter the Great" on Feb. 2 is the CBS miniseries "Sins," starring Joan Collins, which opens with a three-hour installment (at 8 p.m.) versus "Peter's" two-hour opener. The two will be head-to-head on Feb. 3 and 4 as well.

NBC, meanwhile, has guaranteed "Peter the Great's" sponsors--including Aetna Life & Casualty, AT&T and Ford--that at least 28% of each night's total TV-viewing audience will be tuned in to its maxi-mini epic. Tartikoff believes that's a conservative figure fairly easily attained, but he also acknowledges that he's hoping for a "mid-30s" share of viewers.

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