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On View : What Hamner Does Best : 'WALTONS' CREATOR AND THE FAMILY CHANNEL FIND SIMILAR VALUES IN 'SNOWY RIVER' SAGA

August 29, 1993|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Earl Hamner knows something about family values. After all, the producer of "Snowy River: The McGregor Saga," which has just bowed on the Family Channel, was the creator of "The Waltons."

The 19th-Century "Snowy River" story "had a lot to offer," says Hamner's partner, Don Sipes, of the new series. "It was a really good chance to let us do what we wanted and to do a series with family values."

"It's what we wanted to stand for," Hamner concurs. "This show embodies that. It gave us the opportunity to build a family with the values we wanted to see on TV again."

Set in the 1880s, the hourlong, Western romantic-adventure series is set and shot in Australia.

Based on a poem by A.B. (Banjo) Patterson, who wrote "Waltzing Matilda," the series tells the tale of Matt McGregor, who as a youth made a heroic ride--"a daring ride, the kind of ride that no one else would even attempt to do, a terrible descent down a mountain for prize money," Hamner says. The story was told in the Australian feature films "The Man From Snowy River" (1982) and "Return to Snowy River Part II" (1988), neither of which have any association with the new series.

"Snowy River: The McGregor Saga" takes place several years after the famous ride, when McGregor (Andrew Clarke) is a widower with three children (played by Brett Climo, Guy Pearce and Joelene Cmogorac). McGregor now faces the difficulties of being a living legend, battling for precious cattle-grazing land.

"While this is a period Australian Western, we've approached it with modern sensibilities," Hamner says, citing that Wendy Hughes plays McGregor's neighbor, "a successful woman pioneer in what used to be called 'a man's world.' We're treating all of the issues in the show in a modern way."

Like Hamner's "The Waltons," "Snowy River: The McGregor Saga" features a multi-generational family, with each episode telling a story.

With the exception of American Josh Lucas ("Class of '61"), who plays Matt's nephew Luke, "Snowy River" features an all-Australian cast.

Victoria Tennant ("L.A. Story," "All of Me") is featured in five episodes.

Between "The Waltons" and "Snowy River," Hamner worked on several specials and series, notably the long-running "Falcon Crest" (as creator, writer and executive producer) and "Brewster Place." Hamner also took some time out to write a book, "Hollywood Zoo," which, he says, "is an account of my life on "The Waltons" (in which he was also the narrator, the voice of a grown-up John Boy), as well as an autobiography.

(The 1963 Henry Fonda film "Spencer's Mountain," was based on a novel drawn from Hamner's childhood reminiscences.)

After "Falcon Crest," Hamner retired from series television. "I went fishing a lot and got very bored. Don (Sipes) and I did specials and TV movies."

Hamner and Sipes, looking for some "wholesome fun," were approached by the Family Channel with three different series ideas, including a fantasy and a contemporary series.

"We really wanted to work with them," Hamner says. "We finally settled on this, a new look to traditional storytelling. It's got the dramatic foundation and the things we hoped would happen are happening and we feel it's reached a new plateau of storytelling and drama."

Sipes notes that in "Snowy River: The McGregor Saga," characters range in age from children to older adults for a broader--and again family--appeal.

"It's for a broad audience," insists Hamner. "Coming as it does now, in the midst of congressional hearings, we can put this show on with pride. There's no violence and it's not presented in a saccharin way. They have real relationships. The family unit is so important in the show that it will bring them (the audience) back to the series again and again."

After all, it worked with "The Waltons."

"Snowy River: The McGregor Saga" repeats the first episode Sunday at 9 p.m., then moves to its regular time periods, Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 8 p.m., onthe Family Channel.

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