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COVER STORY : Is This Really His Life? : Frank Sinatra blessed a TV bio with daughter Tina as executive producer. Cynics have already cried whitewash. But the CBS miniseries script includes the heartbreaks, the fights and the Mob. The question is: Why did he allow it?

July 26, 1992|CLAUDIA PUIG | Claudia Puig is a Times staff writer

Frank Sinatra has always done it his way. But which way did the producers of the upcoming "Sinatra" TV miniseries do it?

Did they tell the real story of the performer's long, legendary career, or did they create a sanitized version, minus the Mafia associations, the marital infidelities and the ties to various politicos?

With the imprimatur given the project by Sinatra--he cooperated in its production and has sanctioned it as an "official" biography, in lieu of a book--and with the presence of his youngest daughter, Tina, as executive producer, skeptics could be excused for expecting a fawning tale, a whitewashed rendering of the controversial entertainer's life story.

Judging from interviews with the filmmakers and a reading of the script, however, what viewers will see when the five-hour "Sinatra" airs on CBS in November is a straightforward attempt to address some of the more controversial incidents that have dogged his reputation and to show its subject's weaknesses and vulnerabilities along with his phenomenal success.

The TV movie spans 1920 to 1974 in the life of "Ol' Blue Eyes" and spends considerable time examining his relationship with mob boss Sam Giancana and the shadow that association cast over his friendship with President John F. Kennedy. It also shows Sinatra, the renowned ladies' man, stumbling in his first marriage to his teen-age sweetheart Nancy, in his tempestuous but doomed love affair with Ava Gardner, in his short-lived marriage to Mia Farrow, and in several notable liasions in between.

"Reading the script at various stages was painful for him," Tina Sinatra said of her father. "Now it's done and he's going to have to face it."

One scene depicts the 52-year-old Sinatra dismissing the 21-year-old Farrow from his life after her work schedule interfered with his by telling his attorney, Mickey Rudin: "It's over with her. Take care of it." Then he walks away as calmly as if he'd just ordered lunch, according to the script's stage directions.

Another scene, set in 1950 at a time when his career had stalled, his marriage was falling apart and his nights were spent carousing with his buddies, depicts a drunken, despondent Sinatra appearing to attempt suicide.

"I'm satisfied we got to the truth," says the film's writer, William Mastrosimone. "There are so many things the public doesn't know about him. When you see these things (portrayed in the movie) you're going to say, 'Why did he ever let his story be done?' That's the remarkable thing: It's not particularly flattering to him."

"Sinatra" has had a turbulent history. Nearly eight years in the making, it was originally written as a 10-hour miniseries, then revised to eight hours and finally shortened to five. Mastrosimone, a playwright and screenwriter ("Extremities," "The Woolgatherer," "Tamer of Horses," "Nanawatai"), was the third writer approached about the picture. Scripts by the first two had not met with the approval of Sinatra or Warner Bros., the studio footing the $18.5-million production bill. Mastrosimone undertook the project with some hesitation.

"When I first heard Tina was involved with it, I thought, 'Sinatra's in the driver's seat here so it's got to be a whitewash,' " he said. "But the truth of it is, Tina is a very straight-shooter. Professionally she had nothing to gain from doing a whitewash. CBS knew and Tina knew that the only thing that would succeed was something that was truly honest, because it was going to be doubly scrutinized by the media and the public. . . . What they wanted was what the world doesn't know about Frank Sinatra. What they wanted was what was going on in Frank's head."

Sinatra, 77, declined to be interviewed about the project, but Tina said that her father chose to make a movie of his life rather than write a book because he believed his life as a singer lent itself more naturally to a cinematic portrayal, rather than a literary one. The movie features his original recordings throughout--lip-synced by 37-year-old Philip Casnoff, who plays the title role.

Ultimately, said Tina Sinatra, 44, her father wanted to see the movie made "to set the record straight. . . . There had been inaccuracies and innuendoes constantly restated and history and time made them seem like truth."

Sorting the factual from the mythical was Mastrosimone's most arduous task. To get to the truth, he read biographies and articles about Sinatra, waded through transcripts of FBI wiretaps investigating Sinatra's mob connections, listened to all of Sinatra's music and talked with the man himself.

"I approached this right from the beginning with the belief that Frank Sinatra was a folk hero," Mastrosimone said. "In the (Trenton, N.J.) neighborhood where I was born, people absolutely worshiped Frank. They had his picture right next to their kids. He knows the heart of the common person and that's the deep connection. The people themselves have voted him as their icon because he seems to know the secrets in their hearts."

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