'Burden' takes well to the small screen


HOLLYWOOD -- This town went on a feeding frenzy to obtain the movie rights to Chicago lawyer Scott Turow's phenomenal first novel "Presumed Innocent."

"It began a sort of Hollywood mania," Mr. Turow recalled. "It was one weekend's madness." And the big-budget film version, which starred Harrison Ford, Raul Julia and Brian Dennehy, subsequently became one of the critical and commercial hits of 1990.

But Mr. Turow seems perfectly content that "The Burden of Proof," his best-selling 1990 follow-up to "Presumed," has gone the miniseries route. The four-hour mystery airs Sunday and Monday on ABC.

In fact, Mr. Turow said he saw the handwriting on the wall after watching "Presumed Innocent." He said he quickly realized that Hollywood couldn't make a movie out of "Burden" without compromising the story or his characters.

"This is not a critical comment on 'Presumed Innocent' at all," Mr. Turow said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "But it was the first time I realized what it meant to have something filmed in terms of frankly what gets left out. At that point, I realized that to take this book, which was in manuscript about 30 percent longer [than "Presumed Innocent"], and try to package it in the usual 90- to 100-minute film, was simply not doable in any form."

After discussing the options with his film and literary agents, Mr. Turow said, "We all really began to recognize that TV might be the right venue for this."

Mr. Turow admitted, though, that his decision was also based on the fact he had no firm feature offers.

" 'Burden of Proof' in either venue had some obvious problems," Mr. Turow said. "The biggest one being that a bald-headed 50-year-old man is not this town's idea of a main character."

The character is Sandy Stern, a defense attorney, who "Presumed" fans will remember was Rusty Sabich's attorney. Hector Elizondo stars as Stern.

In "Burden," Stern's life is shattered when his wife commits suicide for no apparent reason. At the same time, he is confronted with a growing legal case against his powerful brother-in-law, Dixon Hartnell (Brian Dennehy), a leading DTC commodities broker who is under federal investigation by a team of U.S. attorneys .

One man who saw the potential of "Burden of Proof," which spent 11 weeks nestled atop the New York Times best-seller list, was producer-director Mike Robe, who directed the 1991 ABC miniseries "Son of the Morning Star," based on Evan Connell's acclaimed book on George Custer.

"I am a Scott Turow fan," Mr. Robe said. "Scott is prone to do a very convoluted and complicated mystery. It has a number of characters that really needed development in order to weave through the story."

So Mr. Robe flew to Chicago to meet and spend a day with Mr. Turow to discuss the possibility of a miniseries.

"I tried to pinpoint the advantages of extra length and screenplay," he said. "I thought this story of a man who discovers great complications in his family life and what he can do to deal with them -- those kind of themes are well-served by TV."

Mr. Turow, Mr. Robe said, was one of the nicest people he has ever worked with, as well as one of the shrewdest.

"You don't have the prosecuting experience and be anybody's fool," Mr. Robe said. "Before we met, he didn't know who I was and asked to look at a little bit of film I had done. I think I sent him eight hours of tape. This was just about two days before I met him." By the time Mr. Robe arrived in Chicago, Mr. Turow had watched it all.

Mr. Robe made certain Mr. Turow was involved in casting and every aspect of the production. "I felt a personal obligation to do Scott Turow's book as faithfully as we could for TV," he said. "I really wanted to bring Scott in as partner in what we were doing."

The two also conferred on casting. Mr. Robe said Raul Julia, who played a far more romanticized Stern in "Presumed," was never a consideration for the miniseries. "He wasn't available," Mr. Robe said. "He was booked for two features. So we were able to take a fresh take on the casting. We concentrated on the roles of Sandy Stern and Dixon Hartnell first, and I will tell you that Hector and Brian were our first choices. Happily, we were able to persuade them."

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