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Retro : Patriot Frames : FOURTH OF JULY WEEK IS FULL OF SETTLERS, SEEKERS AND TALL TALES

July 04, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you like your heroes rough and rugged and TV fare historical and patriotic, the small screen is the place to be this Fourth of July week.

Beginning Tuesday, TNT serves up the 24-part 1978-79 miniseries "Centennial," based on James Michener's mammoth bestseller about the settlement and development of the Rocky Mountain area from 1795 to the 1970s.

It's unlikely that "Centennial" could have been made today. Audiences are too fragmented to watch a 24-hour epic. And the cost would be prohibitive. The price tag then was a whopping $20 million.

But "Centennial" was just what audiences were clamoring for when it premiered Oct. 1, 1978, on NBC. Thanks to "Roots" and "Rich Man, Poor Man," TV viewers couldn't get enough of miniseries.

The maxi-miniseries literally starred a cast of thousands, including Robert Conrad, Richard Chamberlain, Raymond Burr, Barbara Carrera, Sally Kellerman, Gregory Harrison, Stephanie Zimbalist, Chad Everett, Mark Harmon, Dennis Weaver, Timothy Dalton, Brian Keith, Lynn Redgrave, A Martinez, David Janssen, Robert Vaughn, Sharon Gless. Michener also introduced the series.

NBC aired "Centennial" over a four-month period on Sundays and Saturdays at various times. It was repeated in September/October of 1980.

The sweeping saga of "Centennial" evolved from the arrival of the first white men to make stakes on the Rockies land--a French trapper named Pasquinel (Conrad) and a Scottish trader, Alexander McKeag (Chamberlain). The area would eventually become the town of Centennial, Colo. As the story begins, settlers cared for the land and tried to live a peaceful coexistence with the Pawnee and Cheyenne Indians. Among the early settlers were town founder Mennonite Levi Zandt (Harrison) and Englishman Oliver Secombe (Dalton), who transformed the land into cattle country.

The land and its inhabitants lost their innocence as more and more people arrived at Centennial. Particularly unscrupulous were the Wendall family--Mervin (Anthony Zerbe), Philip (Doug McKeon), Maude (Lois Nettleton) and Morgan (Robert Vaughn). And then there was Col. Frank Zimmerman (Richard Crenna), who believed the only good men were white men and decided all Native Americans should be killed or forced off the land.

Following "Centennial" on Tuesday and Wednesday is another historical miniseries, "The Seekers"--the sequel to the popular "The Bastard" and "The Rebels." All three epics were based on John Jakes' best-selling novels.

"The Seekers," which originally aired in 1979, stars Andrew Stevens as American revolutionary hero Philip Kent, who explores the Northwest Territory with his two sons. The all-star cast includes Randolph Mantooth, Edie Adams, Neville Brand, Delta Burke, John Carradine, Rosey Grier, George Hamilton, Ed Harris, Brian Keith, Ross Martin, Vic Morrow, Barbara Rush, Stuart Whitman and Gary Merrill.

The Disney Channel also celebrates the Fourth with programming focusing on Americana, including Disney's classic "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier," which first aired in 1955. Fess Parker became an overnight sensation as the legendary Tennessee backwoodsman with the coonskin cap. A pre-"Bevelry Hillbillies" Buddy Ebsen plays Davy's friend George Russell.

The 1957 tale "Johnny Tremain" stars Hal Stalmaster as the apprentice silversmith who became a spy and eventually a soldier during the Revolutionary War.

Disney is also showing three installments of Shelley Duvall's 1986 series "Tall Tales and Legends" featuring the stories of John Henry (with Tom Hulce), Johnny Appleseed (Martin Short) and Annie Oakley (Jamie Lee Curtis).

"Centennial" airs Tuesday-Friday at 9 a.m. and continues July 12-16 at 9 a.m. on TNT; "The Seekers" airs Tuesday-Wednesday at 1 p.m. on TNT; "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier" airs Sunday at 7 p.m. and Monday at 4 a.m.; "Johnny Tremain" airs Sunday at noon and Monday at 2:30 a.m.; "Tall Tales and Legends: Annie Oakley airs Sunday at 2 p.m.; Johnny Appleseed at 3 p.m. and John Henry at 6 p.m. The Disney Channel.

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