Year in telepix

Empire Falls

The character-driven pleasures of HBO’s “Empire Falls” came about partly through the active role played by Paul Newman, who saw in the irascible Max, the layabout father of the hard-working diner operator played by Ed Harris, the kind of role he likes to sink his teeth into.

Newman called Richard Russo, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and told him “no one would be better as Max,” says Russo, who went on to script the two-part, 197-minute miniseries. Newman also helped bring in the cast, which includes his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, plus Harris, Aidan Quinn, Helen Hunt, Robin Wright Penn and Dennis Farina.

“He would just call people up,” says producer Scott Steindorff, who had acquired the rights to the novel. He and Newman decided from the outset that whittling the 500-page story to feature length was out. “You would lose so much. We decided the best way to keep it long was to do it with HBO,” says Steindorff.

Active in features (“The Human Stain”) and series television (“Las Vegas”), Steindorff rates HBO as an excellent place to return to the book-based fare he favors. “The studios are not taking many chances on middle-range movies, and the market has become so international that novels with subject matter that is very American may not translate as well.”

“(HBO execs) Colin Callender and Carri Putnam are very literate, and they take chances. ”

— Amy Dawes

Their Eyes Were Watching God

For her fifth ABC telepic under the Oprah Winfrey Presents banner, the talkshow mogul wanted to make sure she got Halle Berry to star as Janie Starks in the adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

Berry had worked with Winfrey and producing partner Kate Forte for 1998’s “The Wedding,” before Oscar buzz for Berry’s role in “Monster’s Ball” began raising her Hollywood stock. Oprah made sure to call the actress the morning after her victory to offer her part.

“She never wants to put pressure on people. She never, ever makes those kinds of phone calls,” says Forte, Harpo Films president. “But there was something about Halle and that role that Oprah thought would be perfect.”

The instinct paid off: The 2004 movie broke ratings records, averaging 24.6 million viewers, and bringing ABC its largest audience in the timeslot in nearly five years, outside of sports and the Oscars telecast.

— J.R. Griffin

The 4400

“The 4400” is about 4,400 people who may have been sent back by a future generation to save humanity.

They certainly saved the summer for the USA Network, scoring an average 6.2 million viewers through a five-episode run, and notching the biggest first-night audience ever for a basic cable series.

Timing may have helped — in mid-2004, schedules were saturated with reality programming, before shows such as “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” rejuvenated drama.

“We were ahead of the curve,” says co-creator Scott Peters. “Now, it’s really encouraging to see those ensemble dramas doing so well.” Along with support from the cabler, Peters attributes the series’ success to tapping into universal themes. “It’s loosely inspired by 9/11 in that it’s about when a single, unprecedented event happens,” he says. “How do we deal with that?”

The mini has since spawned a full series, returning to USA this month.

— J.R. Griffin

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