Just Good Friends, by George
updated 01/23/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/23/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST
Now Hollywood has come once again to Colonial Williamsburg, this time for the 16-week location shooting of George Washington, an eight-hour miniseries scheduled for April on CBS. Last fall hundreds of camera-toting tourists jockeyed for position from behind rope barricades to see scenes such as George (Barry Bostwick) marry Martha (Patty Duke Astin) and then gaze longingly into the eyes of Sally Fairfax (Jaclyn Smith), his real but unrequited love. This day Smith's last-minute primping stirs director Buzz (Brian's Song) Kulik. "Hey, forget about her already—she's ugly, and there's nothing we can do about it," he yells in mock disgust. Smith only laughs. (They're friends, actually; he directed her in last year's high-rated made-for-TV movie Rage of Angels.) When the scene is completed, Smith and Bostwick maneuver through to the crowds and mug briefly for the clamoring sightseers. "She's so pretty," sighs an awed teenager. "And so skinny," says the girl's mother. Smith, in a flowing floral taffeta gown, inadvertently turns her back on a young man in T-shirt and jeans, just as he has her in focus. "Damn!" he says. "Every time I get close to her, I get her backside. That's definitely not her best side."
Another day earlier the cast is assembled in the ballroom of the Governor's Palace, an antique-filled reconstruction of the lavish 18th-century home of Virginia's first two governors, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. In the midst of rehearsal, power is momentarily lost. The lights fade out. "Is it something we said?" cracks David (The Winds of War) Dukes, 38, who plays George William Fairfax, Washington's best friend and Sally's husband. Between takes, Bostwick, the hero of that midnight movie classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, puts down his own camera ("I always take pictures of everyone on the set") to oblige a swarm of screaming schoolgirls ("We love you, Barry") by posing for snapshots, then wanders off to study his lines. Outside, Astin, 37, uses a handy iron railing to do stretching exercises. "It's the Martha Washington workout program," she jokes. Smith, meanwhile, only has eyes for blond, blue-eyed Gaston Anthony Richmond, her "sweet, beautiful" 22-month-old son (and only child). Sweeping him into the folds of her ankle-length gown, Jackie coos, "Hello, Love Bunny." Gaston (named for Jackie's maternal grandfather) emits a growl. "Oh, no, it's the lion!" she screams, recoiling in mock horror. "Ma-ma," he says, rushing into his mother's outstretched arms. She hugs him, purrs, "I love you, Gaston," then disappears to finish a scene. As she turns, the click-click-click of cameras ripples through the snarled crowd of tourists watching from outside the palace's gates. "Look, honey," says a middle-aged man, gently elbowing his wife. "It's the little gal from Charlie's Angels."
The little gal has clearly made her mark in Williamsburg. "She's a real nice girl, so easy to talk to," says Mary Wiseman, a Colonial Williamsburg employee who landed a job as an extra and taught Smith 18th-century fan language. (Tapping a closed fan on your chin, for example, means "kiss me.") "She's been very special to us here." Smith, who turned 37 last October, is hoping that her role as the coquettish Fairfax ("It's a totally different direction for me") will help chisel away at the slick Charlie's Angels image that stalks her. TV films like Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Rage of Angels earned her respectable reviews, but three years after the Angels' demise, she remains a creature of TV features. "I think Jackie has been underestimated as an actress because she's so pretty," says Bostwick, who once guested on Charlie's Angels. "I think people will get an appreciation of her acting ability through this project."
The bigger question, perhaps, is whether lust-loving prime-time viewers will be titillated by eight hours of George Washington, a man considered by many to be a great but dull President and by others as the guy for whom those great February sales are named. Predictably, optimism abounds. "I think there is a search for our heritage," says executive producer David (Police Story) Gerber, 52. "We don't have the emotionalism of Roots. We're not whipping or beating up on anybody." Says Dukes: "Let's hope it's a revolutionary Dynasty."
The General Motors-sponsored miniseries was shot on location in Alexandria, Mount Vernon, Philadelphia and Valley Forge, as well as Colonial Williamsburg. Based on James Thomas Flexner's four-volume Pulitzer Prize biography, George Washington, the film chronicles George's life (warts and all) from age 11, when his father died, to age 50, just after the French and Indian War. He will make mistakes as a military leader. He will fumble in romance. (He reportedly proposed to 20 women. Yes, we all know where Washington slept; now perhaps we will find out if anybody was with him.) And the story will tackle his lifelong—and probably unconsummated—obsession with Sally Fairfax (page 25). "We're not exploiting it," says Gerber. "But the passion was there. They were suffering. It was almost like a classic Wuthering Heights." Adds Dukes: "I say phooey on people who want to keep him as a grand hero. People with warts and bad aspects to their characters can still do wonderful things." Bostwick, 38, doesn't want to play him as just another pretty monument. "You see him being awkward, shy, demanding, fiery—a real human being."
Gerber lobbied hard to convince network executives that a quality mini-series "in which people use feathered pens" could be made. It's a pricey gamble—costing about 20 million George Washingtons, in fact. The cast numbers in excess of 10,000 (including extras), who required some 1,000 Revolutionary-style wigs. In Williamsburg picky officials required, among other things, script review and the presence of staff curators (to move valuable antiques) before they okayed filming. It has not always been a peaceful coexistence. Inside the palace, "we turned the lights on, and they started screaming, 'Oh, no, the wood's going to melt,' " reports one crew member. Still, compared with the invasion of security forces for the May summit, the locals (960 were hired as extras) seemed pleased with the Hollywood hotshots. "These people are great," said one extra. "That summit was a pain. We found out what martial law was all about."
In welcome contrast to those stuffed shirts, the miniseries is flooded with cleavage. "Bust lines were an obvious point of recognition in the 18th century," says one wardrobe assistant. But there will be no battle of the network bodices. "We're not going to throw Jackie into the river in a T-shirt," says Gerber. There will, however, be glaring absences in the story. Washington will not chop down a cherry tree (it never happened), will not flip a silver dollar across the Potomac ("If he did, he'd have been on the other side to catch it," says Gerber), and Martha will not take out splinter insurance against George's wooden choppers (he had ivory teeth). Says Bostwick: "I'm sure we'll get letters complaining, 'How could you leave out that famous scene where he gets fitted for his wooden teeth?' "
Not surprisingly, the actors knew little about their characters. Bostwick, who conferred with historians at Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg, now says, "There is more to Washington than that bodiless portrait we all saw hanging behind the teacher in our second-grade classroom." Astin's childhood memory of Martha was of "a lady in funny hats, with lots of chins and eyes I wasn't too sure about." Still, "she cared what happened to the people she loved" and harbored insecurities about her weight and about George's love. (It's not clear in which order.) "I think she wondered—'Does he really love me?' " says Astin. "I don't mean sex, I mean passion, the electricity between two people."
In the shade of beech trees in the sprawling gardens of the Governor's Palace, Smith, a blue robe draped over her gown to ward off a chill, gazes at her son, a vision in blue corduroy, as he nibbles on the metal legs of a folding seat. "He's into everything," she says. A Southern belle herself, the green-eyed daughter of a Houston dentist seems typecast as the "vivacious, flirtatious" Fairfax. "My husband [British cinematographer Anthony Richmond] says I'm a coquette," she laughs. "I've never thought of myself as a flirt, but I have been told I am." Playing Fairfax has proved easier than playing Jacqueline Kennedy. "She's so well known," Smith says of Kennedy. "People do not know Sally Fairfax, so I can go a little wild in my imagination." She does not physically resemble Fairfax (of whom Joan Rivers might charitably say, "Woof") and bolsters her bodice with pads to resemble more closely the rounder, more voluptuous 18th-century woman. "I can only hope to capture her essence," she says.
Smith researched Fairfax by reading Flexner's books, studied with a dialectician ("You drop your r's") and easily mastered such unromantic-sounding period dances as Mr. Issac's Maggot. Of George and Sally she says, "I think it was an extremely touching relationship, but their destiny was governed by their situation. They were people of honor." Smith found herself drawn to the "gentleness and utter femininity" of that era. "I think women had it together in a way we don't have today. They could keep the romance up and not be too forward. That is the beauty of romance—when it happens naturally."
She should know. Romance happened naturally for her at least three times. But after failed altar trips with actors Roger Davis and Dennis Cole, her marriage in 1981 to Richmond "is going to work. I kept having these husbands who didn't work out," she says. "For a girl who kept talking about how she believed in marriage, people must have thought I was cuckoo." Gaston's birth in March 1982 (she was 35) has changed her life and her priorities. "I used to worry about silly things," she says. "There's just no time for that now." Obviously smitten with motherhood, she takes her son (and his British nanny) everywhere. "I couldn't work without him. I waited a long time to have him. Because of that and how lucky I am, you don't want to be away, you don't want to miss anything." She feels no guilt over uprooting him ("I think it makes him more adaptable to life") but works overtime to keep from spoiling him. "He knows I'm a softie," she confesses. Though her husband reminds her "not to overdo it," Smith insists, "He's not gonna miss a thing, this boy."
Bored with his plastic airplane and the folding seat, Gaston has found his way onto his mother's lap. "God, Gaston, you're a breath of fresh air," she says, holding him tightly. "Nothing has ever compared to this period of my life. I was happy before, but elements were missing. I would say I'm complete now."
Later Smith carries her son down the crushed-shell path from the Palace's garden to her trailer. The few lingering sightseers snap away (she forbids the media mother-son photo access). A woman only half jokingly complains to a stranger about her starstruck husband, whose tongue is dangling somewhere around his knees. "I've been trying to get him to Williamsburg for two years," she says. "Now she walks by, and I can't get him to leave."