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Showtime's Scope on History


Two years ago, Showtime scored a critical success with its updated version of the venerable '50s drama, "Twelve Angry Men." Now the cable network has dusted off another old warhorse from that decade, "Inherit the Wind," which reteams two of the "Angry Men" stars: Oscar winners Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott.

A smash on Broadway in 1956, the Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence play dramatizes the infamous 1925 Scopes monkey trial in which Dayton, Tenn., high school teacher John Thomas Scopes was accused of violating a state law banning the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution.

The American Civil Liberties Union brought in famed criminal lawyer and agnostic Clarence Darrow to be Scopes' attorney. The World's Christian Fundamentals Assn. obtained the services of William Jennings Bryan, a thrice-defeated Democratic presidential candidate and well-known anti-evolutionist to assist the prosecution. The trial ended in Scopes' conviction; Bryan died in his sleep five days later.

In the Showtime adaptation, Scott stars as the Bryancharacter, Matthew Harrison Brady, and Lemmon is the Darrowesque Henry Drummond. Beau Bridges is on hand as E.K. Hornbeck, the reporter who, in real life, was Baltimore Sun editor H.L. Menken; Piper Laurie plays Brady's wife, Sarah; Tom Everett Scott is the schoolteacher, Betram Cates; Lane Smith portrays the town's fire and brimstone preacher, the Rev. Brown.

The question, though, is whether or not contemporary viewers can be drawn back to a chestnut like "Inherit the Wind."

Even Daniel Petrie Sr. acknowledged that, when he was first approached about directing the film, he thought of it as an "old clinker."

"It didn't have any relevance to what's happening in the world today," recalls the 78-year-old Petrie during a break from the shooting on a Valencia sound stage.

"It was written as a metaphor of McCarthyism and the [communist] witch hunt of that time," says Petrie ("A Raisin in the Sun," "The Bramble Bush"). "That era had passed."

Petrie changed his mind, though, after reading an editorial on the Scopes trial by the New York Times' Frank Rich, which set the case in historical perspective. "The fundamentalist, religious right debate is still very much there," says the director. "That was a wonderful revelation for me, because now you feel that you are not only doing a terrific yarn, but it has a certain kind of significance."

"Inherit the Wind" also has long proven to be a star vehicle, offering actors juicy roles they can sink their teeth into. Both Paul Muni and Ed Begley won Tonys for their portrayals on Broadway; Stanley Kramer's 1960 film version starred Fredric March as Brady and Spencer Tracy as Drummond, while a 1988 NBC movie cast Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas as the dueling attorneys.

Lemmon and Scott had their own ideas about how the attorneys should be played. And others in the cast and crew found themselves a bit awestruck watching the two acting legends work together in a particularly pivotal scene in which Drummond cross-examines Brady on the witness stand about the validity of the Bible.

Lemmon, though, was having trouble with his lines, laughing at his fumbles. On the next take, Lemmon gets the speech right but accidentally calls Scott's character "Mr. Bryan." A few more takes and Lemmon is letter-perfect. Lunch is finally called.

"We've been friends for a long time," says the 71-year-old Scott of Lemmon. Though Scott moves a little slower these days, his piercing blue eyes and gravelly voice are as intense as when he played "Patton" nearly 30 years ago.

"As far as working together, we manage to hit it off quite well," he says during a lunch in his trailer. "He's a different kind of actor than I am. If Jack makes a mistake, he laughs and releases his tension in that manner. If I make a mistake, I get angry. I can't release my tension except for saying four-letter words and stuff like that. We still manage to mesh pretty well."

The actor played Drummond three years ago in a Broadway revival, so taking on Brady was a "big head twist."

"It is an experience I never had before," he says of the character switch. But, he adds, the weeks of rehearsals with Lemmon and Petrie helped him bridge the gap and "go over to the other side."

Sucking on a Tootsie Pop in his trailer, the 74-year-old Lemmon explains that not only are Brady and Drummond friends, they both have an ego "the size of Central Park."

"Drummond loved words," he says. "Whereas Brady loved words, too, his love was just to orate. Drummond loved to speak to a jury, to make his points with beautiful words, and they are beautiful words. God the writing is just--wow. You can take the speeches that Drummond has and go in a courtroom today with the same case and say that speech and it would hold up."

As to whether or not Darrow's harsh and heated cross-examination actually caused Bryan's fatal heart attack--a piece of the real story "Inherit the Wind" incorporates--Lemmon believes that it did. "I don't think there is any question," Lemmon says. "He cracked him, and his heart couldn't take it."

"Inherit the Wind" airs at 8 p.m. Saturday on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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