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The Thorn Birds

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The Hollywood cast and crew of 160 stood on a hilltop on Kauai, Hawaii’s “Garden Island,” as nondenominational Rev. William Kaina bestowed a traditional blessing on their project. “May you be free from jealousy and danger and help to look after each other,” intoned the minister, dipping bunched ti leaves into a wooden bowl of salt water (“it purifies”) and sprinkling the assembled masses. Production heads and actors wore maile-leaf leis “to give strength and courage and leadership.” Even props and cameras received a gentle baptism. On cue, as the ceremony wrapped, clouds parted and a rainbow appeared. Cracked an onlooker to the art director, “Nice job with the sky.”

It was an appropriately epic beginning for the Hawaiian location filming of The Thorn Birds, ABC’s $21 million, nine-hour miniseries (due next spring) based on author Colleen McCullough’s 1977 best-seller about lust on the Australian frontier. A muddy Kauai sugar plantation will double for Queensland, Australia, circa 1935. The lust will be supplied by Richard Chamberlain, 47, as Father Ralph, the Catholic priest torn between God and the flesh; Rachel (Sharky’s Machine) Ward, 24, as Meggie, the woman who has loved him since childhood; and Breaker Morant’s rugged Bryan Brown, 35, as Luke, Meggie’s cuckolded lug of a husband. “People think Luke’s a bastard for abandoning her to work in the cane fields, but you’ve got to remember, she never loved him,” said Brown. “That seems to be a pretty big point which people skip over rather lightly.”

During the 10-day shoot, Ward and Brown skipped lightly between their roles and real life, holding hands and smooching on and off camera. “He’s a lot of laughs,” said Ward. “Rachel is totally around the bend,” quipped Brown. “Relationships are formed on location, love affairs flare up and die,” said producer Stan Margulies, commenting generally on Hollywood tradition. “It’s like being on a cruise—only you can’t get off the bloody boat.”

Chamberlain found a spare moment to get on a boat—a small sailing catamaran—but for the most part stayed immersed in Father Ralph’s pending love scene with Meggie and confrontation with Luke. “Until I get past this part in Ralph’s life, I won’t want to go out and play,” said Chamberlain. “Ralph serves God and the church through an image of himself as a perfect priest. After his affair with Meggie, he goes back to Rome torn apart. He is like an open wound, but he has found a genuine humility. The story is about achieving greatness through great pain. It is not about happiness.” Nonetheless, Chamberlain was not above a little between-takes sacrilege, jokingly requesting a propeller for his scarlet biretta, or lifting up his black soutane in the muggy heat to reveal a pair of tan corduroy running shorts. After muffing a scene repeatedly (“Sorry, I’ll get it right next time—I promise!”), he sat under an umbrella during an interrupting rain squall and rehashed a crucial line as it will never be heard on TV: “If you can’t give her a decent life, if you can’t take care of her, if you can’t give her a little nooky…”

Taste aside, the producers’ concern with verisimilitude alone would have nixed the quote. To advise Chamberlain on ritual and raiment, director Daryl (Payday) Duke engaged Father Terry Sweeney, a Los Angeles Jesuit. “I sensed Richard is a person on his own quest,” says Father Sweeney. “There is an intensity to his questions—about God and people and what love means to a priest and being in love with a woman—that was refreshing and moving.” At a considerably more secular level, the producers hired four-time world sheepshearing champion Charles Swaim of Drakesville, Iowa, to teach Brown and other actors how to clip with conviction.

But the pride of the production is Drogheda, the $2.5 million replica of a turn-of-the-century Australian sheep station built 30 miles north of Los Angeles, where the series filmed before and after moving to Hawaii. It comes complete with a “Georgian vernacular” main house, corrals, shearing shed, 30 cattle, 80 horses, 1,500 sheep and a kangaroo named Sydney, who hopped so hard during his big moment on camera that he fainted.

Director Duke says the rest of his cast fared better. He thought Chamberlain and Brown were naturals for their leading roles. Barbara Stanwyck, Christopher Plummer, Philip Anglim and Jean Simmons, in supporting roles, round out a strong cast. Duke notes that Ward was “very so-so” in her first audition, but later came back to win the role over Jane (East of Eden) Seymour. “She had a youthfulness and ingenuousness that we liked, something exciting and fresh,” says Duke. “She had that edge and we had to go with her.” Ward admits she’s still nervous: “I always think I do shitty work.” But Brown, perhaps, has the biggest worry. “My mother’s a staunch Catholic and here I am calling a priest a ‘flaming poof,’ ” he frets. “She’ll excommunicate me—and turn off the TV.”