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The king of fantasy

Robert Halmi brings your dreams and fairy tales to life.

By Gloria Goodale Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 2000



PASADENA, CALIF.

The recent headline of a German TV magazine pretty much says it all: "Robert Halmi ber alles," or in English, "Halmi rules." In his kingdom, the world of long-form television, this Hungarian refugee sets a pace that few have tried to match. In little more than two decades, Halmi's Hallmark Entertainment has produced nearly 200 TV films, miniseries, and motion pictures, including this past season's No. 1 miniseries ("Noah's Ark") and movie ("Alice in Wonderland").

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But the recent ratings and critical flop of his first original production, "Leprechauns" on NBC in November, took a bit of the shine off Halmi's star. His long-term contact at NBC, Lindy DeKoven, an executive vice president at NBC Entertainment and NBC Studios, abruptly left her post in January. Then, NBC's top brass bumped back his new 10-hour miniseries, "The 10th Kingdom" (see review, page 17).

His most-ambitious project to date, with a $40 million budget, seven months of filming, and, most important, another original script, the 10-part fantasy-drama went from a coveted berth in the first week of February, a sweeps-ratings month, to the last.

Critics circled. At CBS, head of entertainment, Les Moonves, took a veiled swipe at Halmi when he said, "We at CBS have never been dominated by one producer who provided bad special effects."

However, Halmi is cool about the critics. "Moonves lowers himself to attack me," he says offhandedly. "With the five Emmys I've received for what he calls 'bad special effects,' I wonder what he thinks good ones are?"

He has such confidence in "The 10th Kingdom" that he already is talking sequel. "Eventually," he says, without a trace of self-doubt, "it could become a weekly series." But he has made the decision to stay away from original scripts for the indefinite future. He says the move is inevitable given the state of commercial TV.

"When the material is original, it's your vision," he says. "I do believe people would like to see it, but between me and the audience are the TV executives. They are scared out of their minds for their jobs. When the big companies took over, the industry became about the bottom line, not satisfying, good programming."

Whatever one makes of the current bumps in Halmi's rush to dominate the field, his past achievements are undisputed. He has singlehandedly revived the miniseries form and redefined "event television" across the broadcast and cable landscape.

"His work has been exceptional," says Warren Littlefield, former president of NBC Entertainment. Noting that Halmi's productions have aired on many networks, he calls Halmi a "great, independent producer."

Halmi's 1999 Peabody Award citation describes him as "perhaps the last of the great network television impresarios."

Regardless of whether you think Halmi managed to erase the memory of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable with "Scarlett," his sequel to "Gone with the Wind" (a not-so-modest prediction he made before it aired), his impact and aspirations can't be ignored.

He says he wants to raise the moral tone of television and return audiences to what he calls real storytelling. "There's a reason these stories have been around for hundreds, even thousands of years," says the man who made miniseries hits from "The Odyssey" to "Gulliver's Travels." Halmi's "Arabian Nights" airs April 30 on ABC. These stories have deep moral lessons, resonate on many levels, and speak to all ages, he adds.

Smarting slightly from the reception accorded his original efforts, Halmi says he will return to his first passion to bring new life to the great literary classics, a goal he has realized often and with enormous financial and critical success.

His productions are a veritable library of classic literature (including "Crime and Punishment" and "Don Quixote," airing on TNT April 9), not to mention world-class budgets and big-name casts. He says changes in the industry have made possible this commitment to grand old stories.

Most striking is a growing reliance on increasingly sophisticated special effects to bring old stories to life - although he points out they don't come cheap in films such as "Merlin," "Animal Farm," and "Gulliver's Travels." The proud father points to the financial wizardry of his namesake, Robert Halmi Jr., as the key to keeping his empire afloat.

International sales have underwritten nearly all his recent hits. "Many of these shows do even better in Europe," Halmi says. In fact, it is the evolution of the computer-generated special-effects industry that has fueled his recent ascent to the throne of long-form TV.

"Many stories, fantastic stories, couldn't be told up until now, as written, because they were fantasies," Halmi says. "Nothing can be written now that I can't film ... and that's a great challenge."

The irony of technology leading children back to great books is not lost on Halmi. He maintains that learning about these tales through TV is better than nothing. And it may actually be working. "Simon & Schuster published 'Gulliver's Travels' after my film," he says. "Within six months, they'd sold more [copies] than in the five years before that."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society