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Rethinking Indiana Jones : George Lucas Picks Up Where Indy Began, Breaking TV's Rules in the Process

March 01, 1992|DANIEL CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From Skywalker Ranch in Marin County — In case you haven't heard by now, Indiana Jones is coming to television. For a month, ABC has been heavily promoting Wednesday's premiere of "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" with fast-cut, triumphantly scored spots featuring the youthful Indy thundering on horseback, fighting in the Mexican Revolution, bravely facing a firing squad and locked in hand-to-hand combat with a tomb robber.

Those rousing promos, however, are a matter of some concern for series producer George Lucas, the architect of the Indiana franchise on film and television. He worries that ABC is whipping up false viewer expectations, that people will be disappointed if they tune in expecting the big-budget, Saturday-matinee cliffhangers that are the hallmark of the "Indiana Jones" film trilogy.

"That's the biggest danger we have on this, the biggest danger," he emphasized.

What Lucas has in store for TV viewers instead is the gradual and sometimes tender unfurling of a remarkable child coming of age.

"I told ABC we shouldn't sell this as a big action thing because it's not a big action thing," Lucas said. "They are selling it as a big action thing. They cannot get it out of their mind."

Viewers are advised by Lucas to set aside for now the image of Harrison Ford's rogue archeology professor, whose sharp tongue, quick wits and handy bullwhip have helped him escape ancient booby traps, clammy snake pits and nasty Nazis in three blockbuster movies that accumulated $620 million in American box-office receipts.

"I've taken the Indiana Jones character and made him a liability, is what I've done," Lucas said calmly, sitting on the couch in his office at Skywalker Ranch, the state-of-the-art production facility and 19th-Century estate he constructed in a serene, secluded valley in Marin County. Dressed in blue jeans, a sweater and worn Nikes, the bearded Lucas looked more like the writer and film editor--two grunt jobs in a fashion-conscious industry--he identifies himself as, rather than the imposing figure many in Hollywood perceive him to be.

"The name (Indiana Jones) allowed me to get the show on the air," Lucas continued. "But the downside is I've created a huge liability, because the audience that would probably enjoy the show won't watch it because it's Indiana Jones, and the audience who likes the movies is going to say, 'Well, where are the bad guys and the chases and the jeopardy?' "

Upon description, it's difficult to imagine that "Young Indiana," from LucasFilm Ltd. and Paramount Television, could be anything but spectacular. The immensely ambitious series, utilizing an international cadre of film directors, has trotted the globe to film stories in Kenya on the Tana River, at the Great Wall of China, in the sacred city of Benares in India, at the pyramids in Egypt. The list stretches on to include 15 countries.

To keep in line the $1.6-million-per-episode budget, which is not much more than the average one-hour drama, Lucas is testing some unconventional production techniques and visual effects that may have a significant impact on television's cost-cutting future (see story on page 82). "Young Indiana" has also been pre-sold in overseas markets to the reported tune of $800,000 an episode.

The TV series spans the period from 1908 to 1918. The young Indy, traveling on a worldwide lecture tour with his father, has a new adventure each week with turn-of-the-century historical figures. He excavates a mummy's tomb with T.E. Lawrence, travels on safari with Teddy Roosevelt, sits down to dinner with Sigmund Freud, receives medical treatment from Albert Schweitzer, discovers sex with Mata Hari and falls in love with a suffragette.

The stories jump back and forth between Indy at age 10, played by Corey Carrier, and at age 17, played by Sean Patrick Flanery, both new faces. There's also a crotchety 93-year-old version of Jones--Broadway actor George Hall--who introduces the episodes each week.

"The more I explore, the more the character evolves and the more interesting he becomes," Lucas said, "because it all hearkens back to the Harrison Ford character."

Lucas even hinted at the possibility of bringing in Ford as a guest star if the series finds life on television. While Lucas has said there will be no more feature films, he liked the idea of using Ford to explore other adult chapters in Indiana's life, and possibly explain where the elderly Indy acquired his eye patch, full-grown daughter and grandson.

"The professionals look at this as marketing suicide because it's not marketed for a specific demographic," Lucas said. "It has aspects of an anthology and features the same character at different ages. The shows themselves go from wild crazy comedy to very serious tear-jerking dramas. So it's all over the board.

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