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Twice-Told Reagan Story

Television: Two miniseries, one with Nancy Reagan's cooperation, will chronicle the lives of the former president and first lady.

April 28, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly a decade after Ronald and Nancy Reagan left the White House, television is ready to tell their story, with two competing projects in the works.

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan agreed last week to cooperate with the producers of a TV miniseries that would chronicle her life and relationship with Ronald Reagan.

Separately, the team behind the recent musical version of "Cinderella" that starred Whitney Houston has announced its own plans for an unauthorized miniseries about the Reagans to air on ABC, based on a book by first-lady historian and former Nancy Reagan speech writer Carl Anthony.

Mark Sennet, who met the Reagans when he followed them in 1976 and 1980 as a Time-Life photographer--and who has since produced such miniseries as "Switched at Birth"--is one of the producers on the authorized version, having spent months courting Nancy Reagan to participate.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 29, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 9 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong date--Former White House aide Michael Deaver left the Reagan administration in 1985 and was convicted of perjury two years later. The dates were wrong in a story Tuesday regarding a TV miniseries about Nancy and Ronald Reagan.

"It's really their love story . . . against this great political backdrop," Sennet said.

Michael Deaver, the former Reagan White House deputy chief of staff and image-maker who left the administration after a perjury conviction in 1986, acted as a go-between in the negotiations and will serve as a consultant on the project. Now vice chairman of the public relations firm Edelman Worldwide, Deaver recently lent his television savvy to producing the 1996 Republican National Convention.

"One of the great stories that hasn't been told is the relationship between the two of them and the importance of that to his presidency," Deaver said.

Producers of the unauthorized version, meanwhile, are promising "an unvarnished look" at Reagan's presidency and his wife's role in it.

Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who are also developing a miniseries about the life of Judy Garland, said they hoped to provide an unflinching portrait of the Reagans that will view the 1980s through the family and its history.

"Doing something like this unauthorized is more liberating," Meron said. "It's better that you don't have your hands tied."

Zadan added that the pair didn't approach the Reagans for their approval and were only vaguely aware of the other project when they made their announcement. He suggested that such direct involvement might interfere with presenting "a truthful, objective version" of events, while stressing that their production would not be exploitative, showing both flattering and unflattering aspects of the Reagans' lives.

For his part, Sennet promised the authorized miniseries was "not going to pull any punches" but said Nancy Reagan's collaboration would provide greater insight into the couple. Deaver indicated that a key selling point for the former first lady was the assurance she would have input in the process.

"You can get just so much from a book," Sennet said. "I want it from them. . . . I think that's more valuable than a book from a speech writer."

The Zadan and Meron project, which is being produced with Columbia TriStar Television, will likely air next season during a major rating sweeps period in February or May. The producers said they are working quickly on the script and are still in the preliminary stages of discussing candidates to play the Reagans.

The Reagan-approved project has not yet been sold to a network. Sennet noted that he couldn't begin those conversations until he had officially secured Nancy Reagan's permission.

Even with the other miniseries moving forward, Judy Ranan, executive vice president at Citadel Entertainment, which is producing with Sennet, expressed confidence a network will be interested in the authorized version.

"We feel that because we have her rights, we really have a leg up in telling her story, and she wants to see it told," Ranan said.

Both sides acknowledged that the existence of a competing miniseries might have an impact on their timetable, increasing the urgency in making a network deal on the authorized account.

"It might be an incentive to move faster," Deaver noted.

If both projects do get produced, it would not be the first time more than one network has broadcast a movie about the same subject matter. The most memorable example occurred five years ago, when the story of "Long Island Lolita" Amy Fisher spawned three movies that all aired within a week of each other on ABC, CBS and NBC. In 1994, CBS and Fox each ran a production about the murder case involving the Menendez brothers.

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