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Full Speed Ahead for 2 Menendez Movies : Television: Despite one mistrial, CBS and Fox proceed with projects. Networks cite the public's ongoing interest of the high-profile crime and trial.

January 20, 1994|STEVEN HERBERT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although a mistrial has been declared in the Erik Menendez murder case and jury deliberations are continuing in the trial of his brother Lyle, both CBS and Fox are proceeding with projects based on the sensationalized Beverly Hills killings of their parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez.

"It is incumbent on us to be very circumspect about what we say and where we put the emphasis," said Zev Braun, producer of a four-hour miniseries for CBS, targeted to air during the May ratings sweeps. "We're dealing with the facts--what (the Menendez brothers) say, and what others say."

Like the juries, Braun said that the public will be in a position of deciding the truth. "If Lyle is found guilty of (first-degree murder or second-degree murder), our miniseries will reflect the more definitive point of view of that jury and that of the nation," he said. "Where there is contradictory testimony, we will examine both sides."

Fox's two-hour movie, with the working title "Honor Thy Father and Mother--The True Story of the Menendez Family," also aims to place the audience in the position of a jury. It will reflect the different feelings people have about the brothers, said Gary Hoffman, Fox's senior vice president for movies and miniseries.

Based on the book "Blood Brothers" by Times reporter John Johnson and former Times reporter Ron Soble, the movie has "an ending that is totally appropriate," Hoffman said.

"When we were developing the script, we knew the boys killed their parents. That's not the issue," Hoffman said. "The issue is what are they going to be found guilty of. When we constructed the script, we kept that in mind. The fact that we have one deadlocked jury at this time does not affect our ending."

Fox will announce its casting and airdate this week, with filming to begin "shortly," Hoffman said.

The Menendez projects are coming at a time when some networks are claiming they are reducing their reliance on true-crime stories as inspirations for made-for-TV movies. ABC and NBC also developed scripts on the Menendezes, but rejected them.

CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky scoffed at claims that the Menendezes are examples of what he called "the story of the '90s--the breakup of the family and its effect on children, particularly those with low self-esteem, those abused sexually or otherwise. This is (a project) I thought was important and had incredible story dynamics," Sagansky said.

Fox was attracted to the project, Hoffman said, because it is one of the "very few on-going stories in the United States, where every family has an argument over the breakfast table and at dinner time. It is one of the most emotional ongoing stories."

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CBS' miniseries is based on a 1990 Vanity Fair article by Dominick Dunne, also a contributor to the project. In addition, producer Braun has acquired the rights to the story of Judalon Smyth, the former lover of Beverly Hills psychologist Jerome Oziel, whom Erik admitted the shootings to.

It will star Edward James Olmos as Jose, Beverly D'Angelo as Kitty, Damien Chapa as Lyle, Travis Fine as Erik and Margaret Whitton as Leslie Abramson, Erik's high-profile lead defense attorney. The production is in its third week, with filming expected to conclude the first week in March.

Braun is hardly a Johnny-come-lately to this project. He suspected the brothers were the culprits before they were arrested. He initiated conversations with CBS and TriStar Television about a miniseries in late 1989, but was told to wait until if and when the Menendezes were arrested. After the brothers' arrest in March, 1990, Braun started working on the project later in the month.

Karen Lamm, a friend of Kitty Menendez, brought information to Braun hoping to get him to make a movie. Lamm was paid and will receive co-executive producer credit but she is not involved in the miniseries' day-to-day production, Braun said.

Meanwhile, NBC and ABC executives said their respective networks dropped their versions of the Menendez story for a variety of reasons ranging from scripts they weren't satisfied with to philosophical changes about the direction of made-for-TV movies.

NBC had optioned a book by Bob Rand, who had written an article on the killings for the Miami Herald, and even developed a screenplay, but passed on it "several weeks ago," according to Lindy DeKoven, the network's senior vice president of miniseries and motion pictures for television.

"We didn't feel we had a good enough story," DeKoven said.

At ABC, a "very quick draft" was prepared.

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"I looked at it and said, 'That was it. We're not going to pursue it,' " said Judd Parkin, senior vice president of motion pictures for television and miniseries. Parkin said his own personal ambivalence about the case also contributed to his decision.

Two other producers also pitched projects to ABC, he said.

"We're simply at a point where that's not where I perceive TV movies to be," Parkin said. "There have been diminishing returns in these race situations. It doesn't lead to good movie making. You're totally at the mercy of your competitors."

ABC and NBC's decisions on the Menendez project mark a reversal from a year ago when all three networks aired movies on Amy Fisher, the Long Island teen-ager whose shooting of the wife of her lover resulted in three made-for-TV movies. All three drew high ratings, including the ABC and CBS versions, which were broadcast simultaneously.

Parkin called the ratings success for the Fisher movies "a notable exception," caused by the aberration of all three networks doing movies on her.

"There's no sure-fire guarantee that when you rush something (based on a true story) on the air, it will necessarily get a good (rating)," Parkin said. "There's about a 50% success rate. It's going to be harder and harder to find (a story) that all three networks jump at."

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