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Dan Curtis, 78; Creator of Epic TV Miniseries `Winds of War,' `War and Remembrance'

Obituaries

March 28, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Dan Curtis, whose battle to make two Emmy-winning World War II miniseries, "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance," lasted years longer than the war the epics were based on, has died. He was 78.

Curtis, who also created the daytime soap opera "Dark Shadows" in the 1960s that became a pop culture touchstone, died Monday of brain cancer at his Brentwood home, said his daughter, Cathy.

The landmark "War" miniseries were produced in the 1980s on a scale never before attempted on television. He served as executive producer, co-writer and director.

When "The Winds of War," a 16-hour, $40-million dramatization of the beginning of World War II, aired in February 1983, it was one of the most-watched miniseries of all time. ABC estimated that 140 million people tuned in to at least part of the series, which starred Robert Mitchum as Navy Capt. Victor "Pug" Henry.

"Wherever I turned, people were talking about it," Curtis told The Times soon after it aired. "No matter what I do the rest of my career, I can't imagine anything coming up to the high that was."

After spending more than four years on "The Winds of War," Curtis was adamantly opposed to adapting a second Herman Wouk novel that picked up the story of the war after Pearl Harbor. He relented when ABC promised a big budget and free rein to truthfully depict the horrors of the Holocaust.

When "War and Remembrance" began airing in 1988, the 30-hour, $104-million production was the biggest, longest and most expensive project in television history.

Writing the script took more than a year, location scouting took two years, and production required 21 months with filming in 10 countries. Curtis compared the editing, which took two years, to being in jail.

"The reality is, this is the end of 10 years of my life," Curtis said when the sequel aired.

"War and Remembrance" did not garner the ratings of its predecessor, but it was watched by about 40 million viewers. Though both miniseries received Emmys, the sequel brought Curtis his own, for outstanding miniseries.

After calling "The Winds of War" "a handsome hunk of pop entertainment," Times television critic Howard Rosenberg declared the sequel "a monumental slab of TV" that was worth the five-year wait.

Still, Curtis openly worried that he would be remembered for "Dark Shadows," his gothic horror daytime soap that ran from 1966-71 on ABC.

The idea for the show -- about an orphaned governess who goes to work for a wealthy family -- came to him in a dream that he shared with his wife when he woke up. She urged him to run with it.

At first, the campy series struggled in the ratings.

"My sister told him, 'make it scarier,' so he brought in the vampire Barnabas Collins, and the ratings took off," Cathy Curtis recalled.

In addition to the charismatic 175-year-old vampire, played by Jonathan Frid, other supernatural elements and characters were added that drew viewers.

A rabid fan base, fueled by cable reruns and video collections, still exists. By mining popular themes found in science fiction and horror literature, Curtis pushed the boundaries of daytime storytelling.

The show also introduced a number of future stars, including Kate Jackson, John Karlen and Roger Davis. Numerous up-and-comers such as Susan Sullivan, Marsha Mason and Harvey Keitel did guest shots.

With features based on the mythology of the show, Curtis segued to the big screen. "House of Dark Shadows" (1970) recast the original story and was more violent than its TV counterpart. In 1991, he tried to revive "Dark Shadows" on prime-time television, but the NBC show lasted only two months.

Daniel Mayer Cherkoss was born Aug. 12, 1927, in Bridgeport, Conn., to Edward, a dentist, and his wife, Mildred. After his mother died when he was 13, his father remarried. He gained a stepbrother, Myron Ballen, who later served three terms in the Connecticut Senate.

At Syracuse University, Curtis earned a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1950 and met Norma Klein, a student whom he married in 1952.

By the time he entered show business as a salesman at NBC, he had simplified his name to Curtis.

In the early 1960s, he formed his own production company and became the owner and executive in charge of the Emmy-winning golf program "CBS Match Play Classic" (1963-73). To be nearer to Hollywood, Curtis moved his family to Beverly Hills in 1972.

For much of the late 1960s and early 1970s, he worked in the horror genre, with small-screen remakes of such classics as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (ABC, 1968) and "Dracula" (CBS, 1973).

He was producer of the ABC movies "The Night Stalker" (1972) and "The Night Strangler" (1973), which introduced Darren McGavin in his signature role of grizzled, has-been crime reporter Carl Kolchak.

Besides his "War" work, Curtis was proudest of two recent TV movies he directed.

Last year, he made "Our Fathers," a dramatized account of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal for Showtime. For NBC, he directed "Saving Milly," based on journalist Morton Kondracke's book about his wife's battle with Parkinson's disease.

The NBC film "touched close to home," his daughter said, because Curtis' wife, Norma, had Alzheimer's disease. She died three weeks ago.

In addition to his daughter Cathy and his stepbrother Myron Ballen, Curtis is survived by daughter Tracy. A daughter, Linda, died in 1975.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at Eden Memorial Park, 11500 Sepulveda Blvd., Mission Hills.

Instead of flowers, the family requests memorial donations be made to Dr. Jeff Cummings' Alzheimer's research, c/o UCLA Alzheimer's Disease Center, 710 Westwood Plaza, Suite 20238, Los Angeles CA 90095.

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