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The Other Oliver North Show : As Trial Opens, TV Drama Is at Halfway Point

January 31, 1989|JUDITH MICHAELSON | Times Staff Writer

Today, in Washington, the trial of former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North begins.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the making of "Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North"--a four-hour CBS miniseries based on the 1988 book of that title by Ben Bradlee Jr. and public records--pushes forward with deliberate speed. The CBS docudrama, like the book, is being made without any involvement of North or his family.

While there may be no rush to judgment in U.S. District Court, there seems to be a sense of urgency in portraying the life and career of this once-obscure military officer who became the central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal and, for a time in the fall of 1986 as a member of the National Security Council, one of the most powerful people in Washington.

In the topsy-turvy chronology of TV production, North (played by David Keith who has the requisite dimple in the center of his chin) marries Betsy Stuart (Annette O'Toole) today in a scene being filmed at the Veterans Administration building in Westwood. The cast and crew have spent much of the last month at locations in and around Los Angeles: Griffith Park, El Segundo and, for scenes set in El Salvador, on jungle-like land behind the Prado Dam west of Corona.

Late last week, shooting took place at a Los Feliz restaurant, where North, his wife and four children discuss a possible family move.

The scene occurs several days before President Reagan asked for North's dismissal from the NSC in November, 1986. An embattled North is telling his family he has decided to leave the White House and go back to being a Marine. His eldest daughter, Tait, cuts through her father's cover, asking him why he is quitting instead of waiting for new orders.

"I guess I feel I've done all I can in Washington," North replies. "Some people are grateful for what I've done. Some are not. But I always did what I thought was right."

As rehearsal shifted to filming, Keith, who played Elvis Presley in the movie "Heartbreak Hotel" and Richard Gere's buddy who committed suicide in "An Officer and a Gentleman," suddenly remembered he was missing the gap in his front teeth.

So Keith, who already has a regimental Marine haircut and contact lenses to turn his hazel eyes to pale-North blue, called for the makeup woman to brush in the gap with black paint.

Now in its fourth week of shooting, "Guts and Glory" is nearly half done. Mike Robe, the project's writer, director and executive producer, says filming will be over in early March after several days in Washington.

"We're doing scenes outside the Old Executive Office Building, the Ellipse, the Jefferson Memorial. We've re-created the Oval Office in Los Angeles," Robe said. "Of course we're not being allowed to film in the NSC. . . ."

Instead of the usual 12 weeks of editing, Robe has only eight weeks. "We've been asked by CBS to be ready as early as May," he said.

May would position "Guts and Glory" in time for ratings sweeps.

"Guts and Glory" also features Barnard Hughes as CIA Director William Casey; Peter Boyle as Adm. John Poindexter, the NSC adviser; Paul Dooley as Robert McFarlane, Poindexter's predecessor, and Amy Stock-Poynton as North's secretary, Fawn Hall. The producers had toyed with the idea of having Hall play herself but rejected it because, as Robe noted, it "blurred the line between the illusion of reality and reality itself."

The docudrama picks up North's life at 21 when he was badly injured in an automobile accident that nearly cost him his military career. It tracks him through Annapolis and Vietnam, his 1968 marriage and a 1974 stay in Bethesda Naval Hospital for "emotional distress." Part Two deals with North's White House years, including Grenada and the Contras, and ends with his dismissal by Reagan.

"I think, essentially, the structure of this story fits the classic Greek mold," Robe said. "He's undone by the very strengths that allowed him to rise to power in the first place. His tunnel-vision dedication to duty, his willingness to risk all to accomplish a mission--which was certainly exhibited in Vietnam and later. His tragic flaw is a lack of perspective."

Was North a hero? "I think he was a great man to have in a foxhole," Robe said, "and I don't think he had any business conducting foreign policy. He wasn't trained for it. On the other hand, he arrived at his position with the encouragement and knowledge of a great many people who could at any point have told him to stop. . . .

"You start on a journey with Oliver North in this show and the road is very straight, you understand what he believes, where he's headed, and the impulses are very American. But somewhere along the way the curve signs start to appear, the road distorts, and he curves off on a tangent that is disturbing. What I hope to do is trace the curves."

Pat Faulstich, CBS' vice president for movies and miniseries, says the decision on an air date will be made in April. It's "not necessarily" based on what happens in North's trial.

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