'I'll Fly Away' gets one last flight in movie on PBS TURNED ON IN L.A.--FALL PREVIEW

July 29, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles--Producer John Falsey says it's all about "providing dignified closure to a remarkable series."

Falsey is referring to "I'll Fly Away" and the unprecedented decision by PBS to make a $1.8 million two-hour movie that will end the series, which ran for two seasons on NBC.

The movie starts production next week in Atlanta and will air Oct. 11 on public television stations across the country, including WMPT (Channel 22) and WETA (Channel 26). PBS will follow the original movie with reruns of all 39 episodes of the series shown on a weekly basis.

Falsey and actors Sam Waterston and Regina Taylor, who were both nominated for Emmys as a result of their work this year in "I'll Fly Away," sat down yesterday to talk about the show's death on NBC and its new life on PBS in coming months.

There was sadness about the NBC cancellation. But there was also a sense of how important the new PBS movie would be to many of the 10 million "I'll Fly Away" fans.

Because of the movie, viewers who have developed a deep affection for the series about civil rights and the South in the 1950s and '60s, will at least find some resolution, thanks to PBS.

"I certainly wish we were all sitting here trying to figure out why it was so successful," Waterston said. "But we're not.

"There are so many factors when a network show is canceled that it's hard to figure out who did what to whom.

"It's certainly true that the subject matter was not Pablum . . . and maybe it was too much for some.

"It's certainly true that it was moved all around on the schedule. It's also certainly true that there is . . . a kind of future-shock market that all of television is competing in today, where [ratings] results have to be instantaneous. . . . They can't leave shows alone any more and let them grow.

"But there's another side," Waterston said. "We got it on for two years. This is the kind of dream material that you look your whole life for. . . . And we got to do it for two years. We did something we all have the right to be justly proud of. . . . And now we get to make the film for public television."

The film has been written and will be produced by Falsey and his partner, Joshua Brand, the creators of CBS' "Northern Exposure." It will be set in the present day with Lilly Harper (Taylor), now 60 years old, relating her experiences in the civil rights movement to her 12-year-old grandson.

During the film, Lilly ultimately returns to Bryland, the town "I'll Fly Away" was set in, to discover the fate of her employer, Forrest Bedford (Waterston) and his family.

"In that sense," Falsey said, "it's both a beginning and an end to the series."

"It's very emotional and does put a closure on the show," Taylor said.

Waterston said he has regrets about the cancellation.

"You know, the main source of regret to me about the show is that the story of the civil rights movement certainly was not over in 1962.

"In fact, it was just getting going, and there's a lot more story to tell. . . . And that's too bad, that we won't be able to tell it."

But, again, Waterston looked to the bright side.

"There's something else that should be mentioned," Waterston said. "It was an extraordinary thing that viewers did, and I think it is responsible for us being on public television. They spoke up, wrote letters and made a noise when they heard talk of cancellation by NBC.

"And there is a very direct way for all those people who were upset by the cancellation to now put their money where their mouth is. And that is for them to give public television a substantial enough war chest so that PBS could do original, domestic, dramatic material, which would be a nice change."

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