North and South (1985)

It’s fair to say that television isn’t sparse when it comes to historical period dramas. Whether it’s Bridgerton, The Crown, Belgravia or even Downton Abbey, they’re each easily accessible and ingrained in popular culture. Not to be lost in the passage of time is an expansive mini-series that sets the benchmark for them all–1985’s North and South. It may be unfamiliar to some as it’s only accessible to watch on physical media, but to fans of the series, it’s no surprise that four decades after its release it hasn’t aged a day.

North and South is based on the books of the same name by author, John Jakes, who wrote a trilogy of books released in the 1980’s. The story follows two military families – one from the North and one from the South – through various stages of the American Civil War.

The first book in particular proved a hit, and ABC commissioned award-winning producer David L. Wolper (best known for producing films including L.A. Confidential and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) to bring the story from the page to the screen. He had previously worked on Roots and The Thorn Birds in what was becoming a golden age of television.

Wolper would produce back-to-back 12-hour mini-series — North and South in 1985 and North and South: Book II that was released the following year in 1986 — depicting the life of two friends as they struggle to maintain their friendship through wartime. Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) and George Hazard (James Read) would fight on opposite sides, the former for his family name and the latter to preserve the Union of the United States.

Production for the series took two years at a cost of $25 million, involving 8,700 pieces of wardrobe, 940 scenes and a 540-page teleplay. The series boasts an all-star cast, as joining Swayze and Read on the call sheet included: Lesley-Anne Down, Wendy Kilbourne, Philip Casnoff, Terri Garber, Kirstie Alley, and Jean Simmons. If that wasn’t enough, the show also littered the cast with A-list guest stars, from Gene Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor to Johnny Cash and James Stewart.

The series launched many of its unknown cast to stardom. Patrick Swayze became a matinee idol a year later in Dirty Dancing before 1990s Ghost, while Jonathan Frakes went onto Star Trek fame. David Carradine would be the title character in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and Philip Casnoff would play Frank Sinatra in a 90’s mini-series that would see him nominated for several notable awards.

 

North and South (1985)

 

Casnoff played main antagonist, Elkanah Bent in the series. Now aged 72, he still has fond memories of appearing in North and South: “It was a wonderful job” he recalls.

“I’m from the North. I’m from an extremely left-wing, liberal family. So to be playing the son of a bitch racist Southern guy was interesting. I often got approached by fans who happened to be African American, who said they loved me as the bad guy. In fact, the first time I met Morgan Freeman in 1987, it turned out I had moved into his building. At the time, he wasn’t a huge movie star but he was a big theatre presence in New York, and he came up to me and said how much he loved my work in North and South.”

“It was great to be working with such an ensemble of people. There were some parties going on that I wasn’t really interested in, but I know there are stories about Patrick (Swayze), may he rest in peace. Sometimes he did sleep in! Sometimes we did have to knock loudly on his door to get him up, but I also spent a few evenings drinking wine with him and staying up until sunset and having good conversations with him. It was great having a meaty chunk of work to do.”

“Patrick, I knew as we had done a pilot together many years before called The Renegades. I knew about his dance background… Patrick was a character. He didn’t approach acting the same way that I did. He took it as a very improvisational thing, but I mean look – he popped on screen.”

“I remember the big sword fight that I had with Patrick, which took two days to shoot in very, very hot steamy weather. I remember Patrick saying “okay Phil, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this and we’re going to make it real, we’re just going to let it happen”. I went to Patrick and said “no Patrick we’re not going to let it happen, we’re going to rehearse it and if it takes 10 hours we’re going to rehearse it before we shoot it because we’re going to get everything right.” So, we had different points of view, but we met in the middle and I think that we had a good working relationship.

Casnoff was also the only member of the main cast to share scenes with both Gene Kelly, who’s immortalised in Singin’ in the Rain and Elizabeth Taylor who famously appeared as Cleopatra in the film of the same name alongside Richard Burton, who she would later marry.

 

North and South (1985)

 

“I was a huge Gene Kelly fan” Casnoff says. “I was thrilled to be working with Gene, but I willed myself not to be intimidated by anybody that I was working with, especially given the character I was playing.”

“Working with Liz Taylor was extraordinary too. She showed me her diamond ring that she was wearing for the part and she told me that she was supposed to be wearing the $175,000 insurance copy. The real ring was supposed to be in the safe and she said: ‘no, this is the real ring!’, she was great.”

North and South was touted as the Gone with the Wind of television when it was released, given its gigantic scope. For a Gone with the Wind quality series, producer David L. Wolper wanted a soundtrack to match – turning to Oscar winning composed Bill Conti who had found fame in producing soundtracks to Rocky, For Your Eyes Only and The Right Stuff.

Conti reminisces: “I sat with the producer and the director looking at the film, spotting throughout the piece where the music was going start and where it was going to end. It took days. I didn’t realise that this was not a movie but a series, and we agreed that there was going to be three hours of original music. I turned to David and I said: “oh by the way, how long until this goes out on the air?” and he said: “in three weeks!”

“So, bearing in mind I’ve only got three weeks, David tells me “I want the score to be like Gone with the Wind”. Max Steiner was the composer of the music. I mean, there’s a thousand people connected to the movie, but I only care about Max Steiner he wrote this glorious, sweeping theme that played throughout. That was the first order of business for me, to achieve something like that.”

Conti’s main soundtrack and leitmotifs throughout the series earned him an Emmy nomination for his work, with the score becoming as iconic as the performances on screen. In total, North and South: Books I and II were nominated for a combined 10 Emmy’s, winning Outstanding Achievement in Costuming for a Miniseries or Special in 1986.

North and South did return to television screens in 1994 for a third series titled North and South: Heaven and Hell, depicting events after the American Civil War for the Main and Hazard families. However, the impact of the series could be compared with The Godfather, with the first two instalments being timeless classics, and the final act made years later primarily for money and with several key players not returning.

In the case of North and South, Swayze was now a movie star and couldn’t reach an agreement to return, with his character subsequently being killed off. As Casnoff reminisced, Heaven and Hell “was a surprise, it came out of nowhere.”

Whether you want to assess North and South as The Godfather or the Gone with the Wind of television, it’s worthy of every accolade.