Kellie Martin, then
By Beverley Arbuckle Galia
In this season of springtime, when our focus is on new life, hope and rebirth, let me tell you a story about the rebirth of a television show.
Lauren Lee Smith, now
It’s a tale about the love of a diehard, ever-growing group of fans for a novel written over three decades ago. From that novel came a short-lived television series which left CBS after only 21 episodes, but has been seen in reruns continuously ever since. This is a tale about the miracles love can work, about that which is good and beautiful in this world, briefly embodied by a television show both high in quality and eloquent in its depiction of the human spirit.
Christy first came to life as a novel, written by Catherine Marshall in 1967. It depicts a year in the life of a young woman coming of age at the beginning of the 19th century – a time that was just as turbulent as our own, when traditional mores and ethics were being challenged by far-sweeping events.
Nineteen year-old Christy Huddleston decides to leave a sheltered life of luxury in 1912 Asheville to serve as a teacher in a remote mission schoolhouse in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Young and naïve but optimistic, she finds herself in the midst of overwhelming poverty, ignorance and superstition, yet also surrounded by great beauty, faith and love.
Even as Christy wrestles against seemingly impossible odds to make a difference in her schoolchildren’s lives, she is emotionally torn between the attentions of two very different men: Reverend David Grantland, a young, outspoken and idealistic minister from Boston, and Dr. Neil MacNeill, a man with a painful past, born and raised in Cutter Gap, now a physician working hard to establish the benefits of 20th century medicine in a place where folklore and herbalism prevail.
Christy’s journey to a deep faith in God and a mature love for one of her suitors is at the core of Catherine Marshall’s beautiful story. And the fictitious young woman’s legendary devotion to her mountain students is mirrored by the devotion millions of readers have had for this story of hope, love, perseverance and courage.
Fast-forward to Easter Sunday, 1994. CBS aired the pilot movie Christy to a record television viewing audience. At the urging of then-CBS President Jeff Sagansky (for whom the novel was a family favorite), Emmy-winning writer and producer Patricia Green, along with Executive Producers Barney Rosenzweig, Ken Wales and a stellar cast including Kellie Martin, Tyne Daly, Tess Harper, Stewart Finlay-McLennan, Randall Batinkoff, Levar Burton and such distinguished guest starts as Judy Collins and Richard Kiley brought Christy to life.
Filmed entirely on location in Tennessee, the show had just completed its 1995 season finale when the axe fell. CBS management changed and the new execs decided that Christy, despite critical acclaim, was not the kind of programming they wanted. The series ended abruptly with a stunning cliffhanger episode that left viewers clamoring for more. CBS was deluged with angry letters, faxes, phone calls and e-mails. Seldom has a network received so much mail in support of a series. But the network turned a deaf ear.
The fans persisted, writing to other networks praising Christy, and urging them to continue with the story. They organized, using the internet and forming an on-line presence with heavily trafficked websites, a newsgroup, and an e-mail list discussion group where hundreds of fans coordinated their efforts across the United States and Canada to bring Christy back to television. They ranged from attorneys to homemakers, from high school students to college professors, all with one thing in common: a love for Christy. That a series with less than two dozen episodes could generate such unflagging interest year after year is a phenomenon virtually unheard of in the industry. Despite this, it seemed that it would take a miracle to bring Christy back to life.
German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, "faith will find what it is seeking." Christy’s fans had faith that their hard work lobbying television executives would eventually bring about the rebirth of Christy. They found former CBS President Jeff Sagansky now at the head of PAX Television Network, a company dedicated to family and value-based programming. He believed Christy might still have a future on TV. At the same time, one particular fan of the story, actor and producer John Schneider (pictured), co-founder of Canan FilmWorks, broached the idea of returning Christy to television and brought with him the rights he’d obtained, along with the support of the Marshall/LeSourd Family.
Who says miracles don’t happen anymore? With the support of PAX-TV, a production team was formed to create three new full-length feature films. At the helm is Executive Producer, Tom Blomquist. As the former Supervising Producer and one of the award-winning writers from the original CBS series, Christy couldn’t be in better or more caring hands.
And what does Blomquist have to say about this resurrection of Christy?
"I believe in my heart that Christy was destined to be born again. This show only ran 21 episodes. It was a creative hit and a fan hit, but it was not a big ratings hit. So, the fact that it’s back is utterly impossible. And the fact that one of the original writers happened to be available at this moment to do this was kind of miraculous."
Returning to Christy are former story editor Philip Gerson, writer Brenda Lilly, and composer Ron Ramin who received an Emmy nomination for his work on the original series.
Several of the original actors also returned, including Mike Hickman who played moonshine-making, shotgun-toting Bird’s-Eye Taylor, Dale Dickey and Andy Stahl who found places in viewers’ hearts as mountain couple Opal and Tom McHone. Bruce McKinnon reprises the popular role of Jeb Spencer, husband of Christy’s dearest friend, Fairlight. Last, but certainly not least, also returning is Australian-born Stewart Finlay-McLennan (pictured) as Dr. Neil MacNeill. Finlay-McLennan enjoyed a substantial fan following of his own after creating the role of Neil MacNeill in the original series, surprising him with a rapidly growing fan club complete with a web site and a host of enthusiastic supporters. They’ll tell you that Finlay-McLennan is the living, breathing image of Catherine Marshall’s doctor – a lightening rod around whom the fans rallied – as determined to see Finlay-McLennan in the role of MacNeill as they were in returning Christy to television.
And what does Cutter Gap’s favorite physician have to say about this rebirth?
"This project has heart. I don’t know what it is about Christy. It’s really bizarre. There’s magic dust around this. People told me I was crazy! I just wasn’t done with MacNeill when the CBS series was cancelled, I know as an actor how few times you get a chance to play a fabulous character. I didn’t want anybody else to play him."
The fans wholeheartedly agreed.
Thanksgiving, 2000 marked the return of Christy to television with the airing of Christy: The Movie. Newcomer Lauren Lee Smith delivered a captivating performance in the title role of Christy, and James Waterston, son of noted actor Sam Waterston, took over the part of Reverend David Grantland., while Oscar-Nominated Diane Ladd portrayed Quaker missionary Alice Henderson.
Since Christy was first published, everyone who has experienced this enduring story has been left with one major, burning question, "Whom does Christy marry?" Is it the earnest young preacher trying so hard to reach his congregation of mountain men and women? Or will it be the enigmatic, dedicated doctor, a man of the mountains himself?
On May 13th (8 p.m. CST/MST 9 p.m. EST/PST) and 14th (7 p.m. CST/MST 8 p.m. EST/PST) the question of Christy’s groom will finally be answered. PAX will air the second and third movies, a two-part series called Christy, Choices of the Heart. Not since "who shot J.R.?" has a storyline been so well guarded and protected. Two different wedding scenes were filmed. Not even the actors themselves, including the "bride-to-be" Lauren Lee Smith, know whom Christy will actually marry. "The cast and crew were completely divided on whom Christy should marry," Smith recalls. "People often changed their minds several times a day, including me, until I gave up trying!"
Under the aegis of the Marshall/LeSourd family with the support of newly discovered manuscript notes from Catherine Marshall herself, we can rest assured that the answer will be well within the themes of the original novel. Blomquist and PAX have made certain the fans can know absolutely everything else there is to learn about the production on Christy’s own website, http://www.christy.tv. The hope endures that Christy doesn’t end with the young schoolteacher’s marriage, however, and the fans have faith that this beloved story will continue.
The future of Christy hinges on the viewer response to Choices of the Heart and the willingness of the PAX network to produce further episodes. If all it took to bring a series to television was faith, Christy would air for years. After all, the fans of this remarkable story certainly have faith in abundance…and who knows, they may just be right.
John Schneider ... PBS Press ... "Cincinnati Pops Holiday"
Kellie Martin ... CBS Press ... Original "Christy"
All others ... Pax TV "Christy" Promotion
To learn more about the Christy Mini-series, the characters and cast, here are a few places to go on the Web:
The Official PAX TV Christy web site http://www.christy.tv
Actress Lauren Lee Smith’s site http://www.laurenleesmith.com
Actor Stewart Finlay-McLennan’s site http://www.SFMcLennan.com
A popular fansite about the doctor & Christy http://www.NeilandChristy.com
ChristyFest 2001 http://come.to/ChristyFest
Join the Christy Email List http://listmaster.iinet.net.au/list/christy