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Sharing Emily's Struggle

April 25, 1993|BETH KLEID | Beth Kleid is a regular contributor to Calendar and TV Times

Emily weighed a mere 1 pound 11 ounces when she was born 15 weeks prematurely, but her sheer strength and tenacity belied her tiny body. With a hand no bigger than an adult's thumb, Emily could grip her mother's finger with such force it was as if she were holding on for dear life.

The real-life story of Emily, the premature daughter of Los Angeles Times reporter Elizabeth Mehren and New York Times writer Fox Butterfield, had an equally powerful grip on the people involved in transforming it into the TV movie "Born Too Soon," Sunday on NBC.

The film, based on Mehren's book of the same title, chronicles Emily's fight to survive, as well as her parents' struggle to cope with the intense emotions and marital tension that Emily's birth at 25 weeks brought into their lives.

When actress Pamela Reed ("Kindergarten Cop"), who plays Mehren, talks about Emily, tears come to her eyes.

"Some things stay with you, and this film will be with me for the rest of my life," she says. "Some roles are hard to get to, this role was not hard to get to, partially because I'm a mother, and partially because this is my great nightmare."

Following Emily's sudden birth, Mehren spent day after day next to her daughter's isolette in the surreal world of a neonatal intensive care unit, unable to hold her first child, unable to even hear her cry because of the breathing tube attached to her tiny body.

The movie's executive producer, Robert Myman, hopes that viewers also will be touched by the film in a personal way.

"I think there are a lot of universal feelings, emotions and issues in the movie," he says.

And those elements are what attracted him to the story. To Myman, "Born Too Soon" stands apart from the more sensationalistic fact-based television movies. "While people seem to be drawn to the more explosive stories, they're just not the stories of their lives," he says.

"This story is--it's real . It's more about what families really go through. Even if it's not this particular tragedy, families go through crises and tough times and they survive."

Writer Susan Baskin, who adapted "Born Too Soon" for television, knows about such crises intimately: Six years ago her own daughter was born prematurely.

Because she was so close to the story, Baskin acknowledges that writing the movie was difficult.

"Initially, I was apprehensive. I didn't know whether or not I wanted to go back into that territory, but because I had gone through that experience I felt a real moral obligation to tell this story ... to do it so that it wouldn't be exploited and it would be handled truthfully."

Baskin found she could easily relate to, and convey, Mehren's feelings. "There's a high degree of verisimilitude in the emotions," she says--shock, guilt, fear, dealing with a new definition of motherhood.

"We all have a very sacred notion of motherhood, and there's nothing to prepare you for this, absolutely nothing."

Reed determined to come to a greater understanding of the experience by spending time in a neonatal unit.

"The character had to come from me, even though Elizabeth's a real person," she explains. "When you're in the unit, you can't help but respond."

The producers filmed "Born Too Soon" in an empty wing of a Vancouver hospital, where they re-created the technical equipment that serves as hope and prison for the smallest "preemies."

Beyond Emily's fight for life, "Born Too Soon" is also the story of a relationship and how Mehren and Butterfield handled the stress that Emily's birth put on their marriage.

While Mehren spent nearly every waking moment next to her daughter's isolette, Butterfield turned to his work.

Actor Michael Moriarty ("Law & Order"), who plays Butterfield, understands the journalist's reaction. "I know who he is. His blind sides seem to be my own," Moriarty says.

"The nightmare of men, at least men like myself and this character, is helplessness. Helplessness is not appealing to men. My door into the role is what I see as things I can personally understand."

He believes that most men can "see themselves" in Butterfield's withdrawal and avoidance techniques, just as he did.

Although it was difficult to make her story so public, Mehren, who consulted on the script, visited the set and makes a cameo appearance in the movie.

"It seemed to me that it was an important service to have this movie made. It's exploring an experience that happens to many, many people and there is virtually nothing available to educate them about it," Mehren says.

"What finer honor can I pay Emily than to have her help others?"

"Born Too Soon" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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