It’s no mystery to the cast of The Thorn Birds why the 1983 miniseries was — and remains — the second-highest-rated miniseries ever (after Roots). “The attraction of doing, or thinking of doing, something forbidden appealed to the audience,” Piper Laurie, who played Anne Mueller, tells Closer. “It was powerful!”
The 10-hour drama, based on Colleen McCullough’s best-selling novel, followed a half-century in the life of the Cleary family in Australia: sheep rancher and matriarch Mary (Barbara Stanwyck), her lust for conflicted priest Ralph De Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain), and his forbidden love for Mary’s niece Meggie (Rachel Ward).
With its family drama, scorching love scenes, and sprawling scale, The Thorn Birds “really was a watercooler show,” Sydney Penny, who played young Meggie, tells Closer. “I didn’t appreciate how big it was at the time until I was watching the Emmys and I saw all these people I knew who were nominated. I guess we did pretty well!”
The passion between Father Ralph and Meggie kept viewers tuning in, but Richard recalls filming their scorching scenes was difficult: “There’s a microphone hidden in the armpit… and you’re trying not to smear her lipstick!”
The real love story, however, happened when the cameras were off. British model-turned-actress Rachel and down-to-earth Australian Bryan Brown, who played Meggie’s husband, Luke O’Neill, fell in love, married and had three children! “Jean [Simmons] was totally in cahoots with me,” Rachel recalls. “She kept going, ‘Oh God, he’s so hot. Don’t let him go!'” Everyone on set realized they were falling for each other. “I’ve never seen two people more in love,” says Richard, adding Bryan even helped Rachel calm her nerves. “She seemed to get happier and happier and her work got better and better.”
It wasn’t all sunshine and sheepskins on set. McCullough called the miniseries “instant vomit,” and Barbara fought with producer Stan Margulies when he cut some of her lines. Still, Sydney recalls Barbara “had a terrific sense of humor.” She told the production assistants to put the name “Missy,” her nickname, on her chair after they misspelled Stanwyck twice!
And nobody was tougher on the actors than themselves. Richard broke his hand when he smacked a camera in frustration over his own performance — he called playing Ralph “more difficult than Shogun.” Rachel suffered from insecurity for years after she received negative reviews (The New York Times called her “miscast”). “I felt terribly like I’d disappointed,” she says. “I felt that despite me it was a success.” But years later, her grown daughter watched the series and reassured her, saying, ‘Mom, you were fabulous,'” Rachel recalls. “That was, for me, the most important response that I could’ve ever had.”
Richard returned in 1996 to star in a sequel, The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years, but neither Bryan nor Rachel joined the cast. The show wasn’t a hit. Then McCullough revisited her book — which had brought her a $1.9 million advance, landing her on the cover of Time magazine. She spent 15 years turning it into a 2009 stage musical. Sadly, the reviews also were harsh. But the original is just as beloved as it ever was (and it’s available on DVD). “The Thorn Birds [has] longevity,” Bryan says. “It doesn’t matter where you are. People still come up and go, ‘Hey, loved that show!'”
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