Many Americans watching Amerika, ABC’s 14½-hour miniseries airing this week, will be debating whether the grim parable about a Soviet-ruled U.S. goes too far to the right or not far enough. But many of the 1,900 citizens of Tecumseh, Nebr., where Amerika was filmed, are leaving the heavy thinking to others. Their major concern: How did they look on-camera? “You don’t know how bad you look until you have pictures taken of yourself,” observes Martha Brinkman, 56, wife of a car dealer. A prototypically American small town (see following pages), Tecumseh was invaded last March by a cast and crew of 200, who used the farm community and 130 of its residents as the setting for the far-out tale of a Soviet takeover. Since then nationwide publicity about the movie, as well as sharp criticism from the Kremlin, has whipped up protest, but patriotic Tecumseh has remained a calm center in the controversy.
Not that Tecumsehites didn’t face any problems; it was simply that the problems were strictly non-ideological. When the “Soviet” tanks first rumbled into town, “it spooked the cows,” says farmer MalVern Schmid, 52. “It gave you the feeling that if a takeover really did happen, there would be turmoil—even among the livestock.” Some of the extras, portraying victims of a totalitarian regime, complained that their costumes were too shabby. “The clothing we wore, Goodwill wouldn’t take,” says Alyce Mitchell, 69.
Still, it wasn’t all bad. The people who were hired as extras were paid $40 a day—welcome money in a town that has been hit by the farm crisis. Mayor Lavern Bartels, 51, estimates that the cast and crew spent “hundreds of thousand of dollars” during filming. The Amerika makers will certainly be missed at Helen’s Cafe on the courthouse square. “I’ve never been tipped a dollar for a cup of coffee,” marvels waitress Alice Roberts, 56.
More than money, Amerika brought a glint of Hollywood to the Nebraska plains. Robert Urich looked long and hard at a Chevy Suburban truck at Don Brinkman’s auto dealership but got a better deal elsewhere. Kris Kristofferson willingly posed for photos in the courthouse until one female fan got hold of him and wouldn’t let go. “She wanted to touch him real bad,” notes county clerk Kathleen Nieveen, 28. “Finally they had to escort her out.”
With approximately 2,000 Amerika T-shirts printed up, Tecumseh is mildly gearing up for a tourism boom. But even if hordes don’t materialize, Tecumsehites will still have their memories. “No matter what people have to say about the miniseries, it’s an honor for a small town,” says Duane Kunzman, 59, publisher of the weekly Tecumseh Chieftain. “It’s sort of like the local basketball team winning the state tournament.”