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Retro : Family Channel's Pilgrimage : CABLE NETWORK AIRS THE '77 MINISERIES 'JESUS OF NAZARETH' FOR EASTER WEEK

March 27, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In observance of Easter Week, the Family Channel repeats the acclaimed 1977 miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth." The six-hour, 37-minute epic on the life of Jesus was directed by Franco Zeffirelli, best known to moviegoers for his popular adaptations of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" in 1967 and "Romeo and Juliet" in 1968.

Shot on location in the Holy Land, "Jesus of Nazareth" was an enormous success when NBC originally aired it on Palm Sunday and Easter. The film, which was made for approximately $18 million, drew a 50 share both nights and had a cumulative audience of 90 million.

Literate and inspiring, the miniseries was written by Anthony Burgess, Suso Cecchi D'Amico and Zeffirelli. Much of the success of the drama also was due to the sensitive, mesmerizing performance of British actor Robert Powell in the title role. Before "Jesus," Powell had been featured in Ken Russell's outrageous movies "Tommy" and "Mahler."

The huge supporting cast featured Olivia Hussey as the Virgin Mary, Peter Ustinov as Herod, Michael York as John the Baptist and James Farentino as Simon Peter. Also featured in smaller parts were Claudia Cardinale, Anthony Quinn, James Earl Jones, Donald Pleasence, Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Rod Steiger and Ernest Borgnine.

"Jesus of Nazareth" stirred up controversy even before it aired. In 1974, General Motors bought the U.S. rights to air the Italian and British co-production for about $3 million. Before the miniseries premiere, however, GM withdrew its sponsorship after a campaign by evangelical religious groups objecting to Christ's being portrayed on screen as an ordinary human being. None of the protesters, though, had ever seen the film.

Eventually, Procter & Gamble purchased sponsorship for the premiere showing, though GM retained the rights for subsequent airings on NBC. By the time it premiered, the film had been screened to religious leaders of many faiths who endorsed and praised the drama.

"Jesus of Nazareth" airs Monday-Thursday at 8 p.m. on the Family Channel.

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