By Michael A. Lipton
January 29, 1996 12:00 PM

IT WAS ALWAYS SOMETHING. IF IT wasn’t the 500 sheep plaintively bleating, drowning out dialogue during the 10-week shoot last summer of The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years in Queensland, Australia, then it was the big black stallion noisily defecating during a key scene. If it wasn’t the stallion, it was torrential rain just as the actors were playing a drought scene. And if it wasn’t the rain, it was Colleen McCullough, upon whose bestselling novel the original 1983 Thorn Birds miniseries was based, blasting this followup as tripe, though she had neither read the script nor visited the set.

Call it the Curse of Colleen. Shooting on The Missing Years—the four-hour drama, airing Feb. 11 and 13, that CBS is hoping will equal the impact of the 10-hour original (still the second-most-watched miniseries ever, after 1977’s Roots)—was anything but smooth. “It was a logistical nightmare,” says associate producer Jeffrey Hayes. “We created a problem for ourselves by going for this location, but the setting and epic quality of the show demanded it.”

The original Thorn Birds, broadcast on ABC and shot in Southern California’s Simi Valley, spanned 42 years in the lives of Father Ralph de Bricassart (played by Richard Chamberlain), an idealistic Australian country priest, and Meggie Cleary (Rachel Ward), a spirited sheep rancher with whom he had a brief, secret affair early in his career.

The Missing Years—Chamberlain coyly calls it a “midquel”—focuses on the years 1943 to about ’46, a period untouched by the first miniseries. It has Father Ralph, now an archbishop in his 40s (played by Chamberlain, looking remarkably trim and fit at 60), returning Down Under to help Meggie (now played by L.A. Law alumna Amanda Donohoe, 33) cope with a severe drought that is killing off her flocks. (Rachel Ward was Meggie in 1983. She and her real-life husband, Bryan Brown, whom she met when he played Luke O’Neill, her brutish husband, in the first miniseries, chose not to reprise their roles for The Missing Years.)

The plot of this new show comes as news to McCullough, 57, currently on a 16-city tour of the U.S. to promote her latest novel, Caesar’s Women. “The first TV series was terrible, and I figure this one will be ghastly. I didn’t write any of it,” she says. “What on earth could they find to write about, since I covered all that I did and killed everybody off anyway?”

Her latest comments are mild compared to the ones she made to the Australian press while Missing Years was shooting. Then she complained bitterly that she had received only $40,000 for the rights to the series. “I said that by the time I had paid U.S. taxes on $40,000, I’d clear enough to afford proctological surgery for anal insult,” she says now. “After I bitched, the next day [the producers] upped it to $100,000.I was grateful for that, although it’s not what they paid Richard Chamberlain, who I’m sure got 9 zillion fortunes.”

Chamberlain (whose salary CBS would not disclose) is unsympathetic. “I’m sorry,” he said, a bit abruptly, on the Missing Years set shortly after McCullough’s original remarks, “but nobody has ever forced Colleen McCullough, a strong and intelligent woman, into anything. She didn’t like the first miniseries, which I thought was brilliant. So naturally she’s going to be upset about this one, on which she hasn’t been consulted at all.”

Yet even as cast and crew deflected McCullough’s scorn, the Curse of Colleen continued to plague the production. Zach English, a 13-year-old New Jerseyan who plays Ralph and Meggie’s love child Dane, recalls filming a scene by a billabong (an Australian term for a watering hole) when suddenly, he says, “a whirlwind—a willy-willy is what the Australians call it—tore down a tent with the directors’ chairs, and everything went into the billabong.” Another time, he had to straddle a sheep for a scene. “It took off,” English says, “and started slamming me into fences.”

Then there was that unscripted rainstorm, which raged for three days. “We were all in the dining room of the mansion [a $750,000 set built for the production],” says Australian actor Simon Westaway, 37, who plays Luke this time out, “and I said my line to Richard: ‘So what are you going to do, Ralph, pray for rain?’ At that moment, there was a clap of thunder and lightning, and the heavens absolutely opened up. Richard tried to keep a straight face, but the rest of us were all ready to fall apart laughing.” The rain was so loud that the sound had to be redubbed once the skies cleared.

Donohoe still shudders recalling “the galloping machine, a StairMaster for horses” used in closeups of Meggie riding hell-for-leather. The horse, with Donohoe in the saddle, would be made to stand on an enclosed treadmill, which would then speed up to the animal’s natural gallop. “It’s supposed to be safer because the horse is in a more controlled situation,” says Donohoe, “but that has got to be one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life.”

Offsetting the calamities was camaraderie, much of it sparked by the genial Chamberlain, who, after one 17-hour day on the set, mixed martinis for cast and crew. He remained Mr. Average Guy even when, during a break in filming, he was invited to Australia’s Brisbane International Film Festival. “We’re walking into this theater,” recalls fellow limo passenger Olivia Burnett, 17, who plays Luke and Meggie’s daughter Justine, “with the press snapping away, and Richard was just smiling, eating from this huge bag of Kentucky Fried Chicken.” And is the King of the Miniseries what she would call a giving actor? Burnett laughs: “I got a French fry.”

MICHAEL A. LIPTON

DENNIS PASSA in Queensland, SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDING in Los Angeles and ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA, ANNE LONGLEY and NANCY JO SALES in New York City

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