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Showtime’s 2003 ‘The Reagans’ Oral History: How Republican Backlash Almost Killed the TV Movie

The Reagans 2003 Showtime Miniseries
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video/Showtime

When James Brolin was first approached by producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan to play Ronald Reagan in their 2003 miniseries “The Reagans,” he said he wasn’t interested.

“Neil and Craig are old friends and I immediately said to them, ‘I guess everybody else turned it down,” Brolin recalls. “But they said, ‘No, we think you’re the guy.’ I wouldn’t even read it. I thought me playing Reagan was absurd.”

Zadan, who passed away in 2018, and Meron eventually convinced Brolin to read the first 20 pages of the script. “It just tickled me,” Brolin says. “I went, ‘Wow, this isn’t just saying some lines. There’s something more to this.’”

There certainly was. What Brolin nor anyone involved with the project could have predicted at the time was the political storm that “The Reagans” would create. The CBS series was still filming Reagan loyalists and GOP pundits attacked the miniseries as liberal propaganda after the New York Times got ahold of the script and reported that both Ronald and Nancy were being portrayed under a very harsh light.

CBS felt the heat. Chairman Les Moonves caved and agreed to ship the property to Viacom’s prestige cabler, Showtime.

As Showtime airs Matt Tyrnauer’s new docu-series “The Reagans” and the country’s political divide is more ruptured then it’s ever been in modern times, Variety takes a look back at the making of the scripted “Reagans,” the controversy and what Barbra Streisand had – or didn’t have – to do with it.

“The Reagans” date back to a late 1990s ABC adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof” with Victor Garber starring as Tevye and Andrea Martin as Golda. When that project didn’t get off the ground, Meron and Zadan told ABC they were also developing a miniseries called “Nancy R,” a four-hour miniseries about Nancy Reagan adapted from Carl Sferrazza Anthony’s book “First Ladies: Volume II.” It was the first biographical project Meron and Zadan were tackling without the subject’s authorization or cooperation as they had with previous TV movies about The Beach Boys, The Three Stooges and lesbian military officer Margaret Cammermeyer.

Co-executive producer Dave Mace: We kind of wanted to do to a respectful version of Nancy’s life. That was always the intention with that. It was never like, “Let’s slam Nancy or the Reagans.”

Meron: “I remember I was a quote of the week in Time magazine. It was about the announcement of the miniseries and the quote was, “Everybody’s been talking about the first female president, but we already did, and that was Nancy Reagan.”

But “Nancy R” never got off the ground. Instead, Bella Bajaria, then CBS’s head of movies and miniseries, scooped it up for the Eye and expanded its scope to the Reagans’ love story and his two terms in office. The network announced that it would air during crucial November sweeps.

Meron: What we wanted to do was humanize them. What we wanted to present was human portrait of them and not the myth. We didn’t present the myth. Even though I certainly don’t agree with the politics of the Reagans 100 percent and I was never a fan of the Reagans, what I am a fan of is solidity of that relationship. It was something to be admired. I did come to respect, Nancy, who was pro-choice, who held the AIDS babies. I did come to respect what she was trying to do how she was trying to protect her husband from within the administration and his cabinet. I have no hatred at all. The only thing I hated and still to this day is the administration’s lack of attention on HIV and AIDS.

Along with Brolin, Judy Davis was cast as Nancy. Just two years before, Davis won an Emmy for her work as Judy Garland in “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.” The four-hour miniseries for ABC was produced by Meron and Zadan and helmed by “The Reagans” director Robert Allan Ackerman. With CBS and Meron and Zadan’s home studio, Sony, signed off on the script, filming began in Montreal after they had to move from Toronto due to the SARS outbreak.

Meron: We had everything annotated because we knew it had to be vetted. Everything was cleared by lawyer after lawyer. Especially a movie like this, it doesn’t go through just one set of lawyers.

Brolin: “I would hear a lot from [CBS chairman] Les Moonves. He kept emailing me, “Oh, my god I can’t believe what a good choice we’re all made here.” Every day I would go to work with a little more confidence because of his confidence in me.

But the political backlash hit the fan during the final days of filming when the New York Times published a story on Oct. 3, 2003 with the headline “Grumbling Trickles Down From Reagan Biopic; Some See Peril to Presidential Legacy From TV Movie Coming Next Month.” The Times noted that the script does credit Reagan as a “gifted politician” and a “moral man” who ended the Cold War. But the script apparently didn’t highlight the country’s economic recovery and the “creation of wealth” during Reagan’s two terms in office administration. Nancy, the story said, was made out to be a “control addict” who had way more influence over the White House than anyone could have imagined. She was also seen popping pills and making crucial decisions based on what her astrologer said. Michael Reagan, he president’s son with Jane Wyman, told the Times, “Hollywood has been hijacked by the liberal left.”

Meron: When that article came out, that’s when the shit show started. It was fairly frightening to both Craig and myself and to everybody involved to see us attacked on cable news and by right wing conservative people. People were arguing back and forth about a movie that they hadn’t seen yet. It was weird. We thought there would be some controversy because we alluded to the fact that Nancy was making the decisions in the White House while Ronald Reagan’s memory was beginning to fail and she was assuming more and more power. We thought that was a somewhat controversial position to take. But we also felt comfortable making that decision because it was based upon research.

At the time, CBS chairman Les Moonves publicly supported the project, telling the Times, “This was very important to me, to document everything and give a very fair point of view.” Reagan loyalists refused to back down. They pointed to Brolin’s marriage to Barbra Streisand as further proof that the series was some sort of sinister plan by the Hollywood left to destroy Reagan’s legacy. Critics called for a boycott, especially since the president was unable to defend himself because he was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s.

Meron: Craig and I were asked to go on all of the shows, but we made the decision not to engage because first of all, neither one of us are politicians and second, they’re going to put on the opposition, who know how to fight and get real ugly. That’s not what we do. We wanted the movie to speak for itself. So we just avoided all of it. And then whether or not it was true, we always felt our calls were being monitored. It got to that place of paranoia.

Ackerman: CBS started interfering with everything. They were so nervous about it all. We started getting these incredible memos asking for all sorts of cuts and changes. I kept fighting to put things back in, some of which they did and some of which they didn’t. It got to the point where I finally said, ‘I’m outta here. I delivered my cut. I’m not doing another thing.” Craig took over from there. Craig was great. He really fought for everything, but he couldn’t win every battle.

Meron: When they brought Barbra into it, they said that we all got together and plotted this to get back at Reagan for his lack of action during the AIDS crisis. We were like, “What?” Barbara was not involved at all.

Ackerman: Barbra came to Montreal for about two or three days and she hung out for about two days on the set. She sat with me if the monitor. It was funny because as soon as she walked on set, everyone took out their cellphones to call their mothers that Barbra Streisand was there. But, no, she had nothing to do with the movie.

On Oct. 31, Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie demanded CBS allow historians to review “The Reagans” before it aired. If not, he said, a disclaimer should be run with the series that says it’s a work of fiction. He said he was upset by what he had heard in the media about the supposed depiction of the couple as well as the president’s attitude towards the AIDS epidemic. The shooting script included the president saying, “They that live in sin shall die in sin,” when Nancy begged him to do more to fight the AIDS epidemic. While Reagan never said those exact words, he reportedly made remarks about HIV and AIDS being a punishment from God. The line didn’t make it into the final cut.

Meron: We were all outraged. Bella was fighting the good fight but there were powers bigger than any of us.

Mace: The pressure just kept getting bigger and bigger. We thought at one point it would never see the light of day, that it would be buried forever.

Brolin: I was getting calls from people saying, “I’m so sorry what’s happening” and then other people would ask me, “What did you do to it?” And I said, “It was all kind of benign.” I looked at it as if it was a comedy really.

But then Robert Greenblatt entered the picture. The new boss at Showtime asked to take a look at the series, which had been cut from four hours to a three-hour movie. On Nov. 3, Showtime announced it had bought the rights from its sister network and would air “The Reagans” over two nights later in the month. “Although the mini-series features impressive production values and acting performances, and although the producers have sources to verify each scene in the script,” CBS said in statement, “we believe it does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS and its audience.” CBS argued that a free public network like the Eye had different standards than the pay-for cable network.

Meron: Bob saved the film and it was presented pretty much the way we wanted it to be seen.

Mace: We were happy, but there was some disappointment because we knew not as many people were going to see it. It was going to be significantly less than viewers on CBS. But we were also relieved that it wasn’t being cancelled altogether.

Nancy never spoke publicly about “The Reagans.” There were rumors she personally called Sumner Redstone to voice her objections. Others hypothesized that Sumner caved because he needed support of GOP lawmakers for regulatory matters. “The Reagans” went on to earn seven Emmy nominations, including best TV movie and lead acting noms for Brolin and Davis. It took home the gold for hairstyling. Brolin and Davis were also nominated for Golden Globes.

Ackerman: I saw Les at the Globes and we were both walking in and he told me what a great movie he thought I was. So I said, “Then what happened?” He said, “There was too much pressure.” Then I saw him later at a memorial service and he introduced me to his wife and told her I directed “The Reagans.” She said to me, “Oh my God, that was the best.” I said, “Yeah, but he ruined it. He made us cut half of it out.” Les said, “I had no choice. I had no choice.” To this day, we don’t know where that pressure came from.