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ABC finds its heroes

Alphabet's 9/11 mini under way in Toronto

ABC is taking the wraps off its 9/11 commission report miniseries, tapping Harvey Keitel to star and David L. Cunningham (“To End All Wars”) to direct the Marc Platt-produced project.

Lensing has begun in Toronto on what’s expected to be a three-month shoot for the as-yet-untitled six-hour miniseries, which is budgeted at $30 million-$40 million and expected to air during the upcoming season. Cyrus Nowrasteh (“Into the West”) wrote the script.

ABC longform topper Quinn Taylor, who’s overseeing production for the Alphabet, said the mini will not “be about the day of the attacks. This is about how we got there.”

NBC and ABC both decided last fall to develop miniseries based on the 9/11 Commission report (Daily Variety, Oct. 28).

The Peacock made several announcements and brought in Imagine Entertainment to produce. But just weeks before production was skedded to begin, the network pulled the plug, in large part because of financial concerns stemming from the net’s nearly $1 billion decline at the May upfronts (Daily Variety, June 28).

By contrast, ABC, while confirming development of the project, steadfastly declined to talk about its miniseries — until Wednesday, when Taylor laid out details.

Exec said Keitel will play FBI agent John O’Neill, a passionate terror fighter who was the leading expert on Al-Qaeda at the time of the 9/11 attacks. He perished when the first airplane hit the World Trade Center.

Platt said Keitel (“Be Cool”) has already “immersed himself in the story of John O’Neill” and that it was somehow appropriate the thesp was cast in the role.

“They’re both sort of quintessential New Yorkers,” he said.

Other casting includes Patricia Heaton as the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, who clashed with O’Neill; Amy Madigan (“Carnivale”) as a top CIA analyst; Shaun Toub (“Crash”) as the FBI informant who helped bring down the “blind sheikh” behind the first WTC attack; and Stephen Root (“NewsRadio”) as White House terrorism guru Richard Clarke.

Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Keane will be an adviser to the project, as will former ABC News anchor John Miller (who now heads L.A.’s antiterror unit). Miller’s book “The Cell” has also been optioned for use in the script.

ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson said the net will treat the 9/11 mini differently than a regular longform project, comparing it to seminal ABC pic “The Day After.”

“That was such an important movie for a lot of people, and it wasn’t about entertainment,” he said. “It was about putting out a message, and this falls into the vein of things you do because you think they can be valuable.”

Platt said his miniseries will not be a Hollywood-style overdramatization of the events leading to 9/11.

Stranger than fiction

“If you read the report, sadly, it reads like fiction,” he said. “It’s riveting and compelling just based on the facts. One need not bring anything more to it. The events speak for themselves.”

Night one of the mini will open on Sept. 11, 2001, with scenes showing the terrorists boarding the four doomed airliners used in the attacks and O’Neill getting ready to begin his job as head of security for the WTC.

As soon as the crew of the first plane is taken hostage, the action will flash back to the 1993 bombing of the WTC. Rest of the first two hours will explore the investigation into that attack.

Night two explores two U.S. embassy bombings, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole and a plot to disrupt millennium celebrations. Final night deals with the planning for the 9/11 attacks.

O’Neill story key

O’Neill’s story will be a key component of the mini, with Taylor calling the role played by Keitel “the John Wayne” of the movie.

But nearly 180 other characters will be introduced, though producers have specifically chosen not to cast Osama bin Laden, President Clinton or President Bush.

Cunningham is no stranger to ABC, having recently helmed the net’s six-hour limited series “Little House on the Prairie.”

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