A TV star in defense of whales

Peter Strauss sounds just a bit nervous as he talks on the phone from his home in California. More nervous than I have seen or heard him in personal appearances in the past.

This Emmy Award-winning star of the ground-breaking miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man," the acclaimed innovative drama special "The Jericho Mile," and the coming miniseries blockbuster about Romans and Jews in the Holy Land, "Masada," seems to be concerned because the time is rapidly approaching for the airing of his new drama special: "A Whale For The Killing" (ABC, Sunday, 8- 11 a.m., check local listings) and it is still not completely edited, not ready for previewing by critics.

He is functioning not only as the star of this dramatization about a trapped whale, but he is also coproducer, a position he'll probably hold in most of his future TV work, since he now ranks as one of TV's few TV-made stars, and can just about dictate his own terms.

However, in the case of "Masada," which was filmed in Israel a year ago and will be released in a few months, he "merely" plays the role of what he jokingly (and lovingly, as a Jew himself) calls "super-Jew, the leader of the Jewish zealots." Recently in a press conference with TV critics, he said: "I am Jewish but not a religous Jew. I found myself emotionally involved with the experience [of making Masada]. I learned an extraordinary amount about my own religion and I suppose I assimilated an element of Judaism that I would never have learned in a classroom or from literature. It has made me more aware of my religion. The whole experience was a very Jewish experience . . . there was a lot of kvetchingm out there in the desert. But it was for me basically a very cerebral experience."

How about the making of "A Whale for the Killing" -- was that a cerebral experience, too?

He laughs, now, loosening up just a bit. "Cerebral . . . but also very emotional. Even though I try not to get too emotionally involved in the subject matter of the films I make. After all, it would take too much out of you. . . .

"You know this script is based upon a book by Farley Mowat based upon a true story which occurred in 1967 about a whale in Newfoundland that became trapped in a pond off the sea on the south coast. The feeling was that the whale was doomed because it simply could not get out of the pond unless it had another high tide like the one that brought it in. And there was not one due for a few months.

"So for a few days everyone was enchanted with the behavior of the whale. But, then, the crowd turned ugly and they began using the whale for sport, for target practice. Mowat, who was planning to build a house in this town because for him it represented the last vestige of civilization and peace in mankind, found himself embroiled in a huge controversy, trying to protect the whale. The more he did to bring attention to it, including going to newspapers and government officials, the more angry the local people became at all the attention. They considered themselves a small independent town and they resented the fact that so much attention was being paid to what they considered an unimportant, doomed fish.

"Now, normally that would not be the makings of a very interesting picture for a family. But I believe it has turned out to be a marvelous family film because in our version I have two children and a wife, and I play an ordinary man who is forced to confront this issue and follow what he believes are his very truest emotions and beliefs. The effect on his family of standing up for what he believes is basically what the picture is about."

Has Peter Strauss himself gotten involved with the international fight to save the endangered whales?

"I have always been involved with the nature around me. We shot a large amount of footage of whales in Hawaii and Newfoundland so I've come to know a lot about whales -- their movement and beauty and grace. I am surpised at how little we know about whales. And I am shocked at the realization that by the time we know more, we may not have them any more. I realize that something must be done. Maybe this film can help."

Has producing his own TV films taught Peter Strauss anything?

He laughs, perhaps just a bit sadly. "This whale picture was an exhausting and frustrating experience, very complicated to make. It taught me what exemplifies the best and worst of television. The worst being that too many people were making statements about what they thought the film was about and all of them were getting equal time."

In the network, that is? Peter prefers not to get involved in personalities.

The best, then?

"Well, it proves that you can take a subject that needs to be talked about and build a fine, valid drama around it. I look for truth in material. I couldn't do a lot of what I see being done on television these days because I don't find any truth in it.

"I believe in the nobility of man. I found it in Jericho, in Masada. I found it in this picture.

"In a way, 'Whale' was the hardest for me because I tried to play an ordinary man. He is all of us, in a sense.

"I didn't want to play an extraordinary hero. So we made him an architect who commutes to New York, with two kids -- a young husband who makes a decent living and suddenly ends up in a strange town. He takes a voyage to discover himself in a way. And all of a sudden he is in the position of confronting violence, and he is not sure whether he should be involved at all.

"And when the tragedy occurs, everybody among our viewers should be curious as to how this man is going to deal with the tragedy. It is his growth, everybody's growth. . . ."

Peter Strauss's growth, too? Does doing films with this kind of subject matter represent a growing commitment on the part of Peter Strauss the man, as well as Peter Strauss the actor?

He is silent for a moment. "I am a man. I hope I am growing."

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