With Europe in the throes of war, I sat enthralled in a movie theater watching an epic film that captured the tragic yet heroic panorama of America in the 1860s--a vast land torn asunder by a vicious war, people believing passionately in a cause each side viewed as noble, families and individuals surviving in spite of almost impossible odds. The film was "Gone With the Wind."
Little could I dream that 50 years later I would be the one to put the sequel to that classic story on screen (" 'Scarlett' to Be CBS Miniseries," Calendar, Nov. 4).
In the last week since my company won the intense bidding war for "Scarlett," I have been asked repeatedly why I was willing to pay a record $9 million for the film rights. The answer is quite simple.
For years I had been devoted to all things American--especially its films--but "Gone With the Wind" had an especially powerful effect on me.
It was the last movie I saw before I began my intensive involvement with the anti-Nazi underground and, later, worked as an anti-Communist intelligence agent.
During the darkest days of those perilous times, I often flashed back to scenes from "Gone With the Wind," and firmed my resolve to live some day in the United States of America.
I should add that we Hungarians are a chauvinistic lot, and I was very proud of my countryman Leslie Howard (whose real last name was Stainer) and his contribution to the film.
But if Leslie Howard was my hero, the manager of New York's Roger Williams Hotel was my savior. When I emigrated to America in 1950, that's where I first stayed. I had $5 in my pocket. My room was $12.50 a night.
But the manager had faith in me. He didn't want payment, he said, until I had a job--which by the end of the first week I had, photographing babies for a diaper service.
Ten years later, after a stint as a photographer for Life magazine, I was in the filmmaking business. I've since made almost 100 pictures, most of them for television.
My films reflect a lifelong love affair with the United States. Look at the titles and the stars, which include "Barnum," with Burt Lancaster as P.T. Barnum; "Terrible Joe Moran," with James Cagney as the boxing great, and "April Morning," based on Howard Fast's classic novel about the birth of the United States. As I write this, Kirk Douglas and Walter Matthau are on Halmi sets, making films for us.
The basis upon which I decide whether or not to make a film is fairly simple: The story should be a slice of Americana, the audience should be happier at the end of the film than it was at the beginning and my children should be proud to look at it.
I believe the "Scarlett" miniseries will fulfill those criteria.
My company, RHI Entertainment, was the smallest in the bidding for the rights to "Scarlett." Why did the Margaret Mitchell estate vote for Robert Halmi and RHI?
Partly, because I was able to sign a very large check. But, mostly, because of our track record--just in the last two years, awards have been showered on our "The Incident," "Lonesome Dove" and "The Josephine Baker Story."
The Mitchell estate told me they had faith I'd produce a miniseries they'd be proud of.
"Scarlett." It will be "Gone With the Wind" for the '90s. I've already hired my screenwriter. I've drawn up a short list of actors. I know where I want to shoot it. Production will start one year from now.
Is $9 million a lot of money? Yessir. And I'll spend $30 million more before it's ready to air on CBS in 1993.
Will I make my money back? Yessir.
I've bet on America and Americana many times before, starting when I sailed into New York harbor in 1950.
I still believe this is the land of opportunity, even if you have to help opportunity along a bit.