Cult Film

updated 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

CONSIDER THIS," SAYS TIM DALY, STAR of the NBC sitcom Wings, who for more than a month has inhabited the character of cult leader David Koresh. "I went to work that Monday morning portraying a living person. I took a lunch break, and I went to work that afternoon playing a dead man."

On the Tulsa set of In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco, a TV movie airing May 23 on NBC, the cast and crew keep using the word "surreal" when recalling the morning of April 19. That's when several dozen of them took turns huddling around a television in the trailer that served as the production's informal command center. There they watched as 86 men, women and children—people many of them were portraying—perished as flames engulfed the Waco compound of Koresh's Branch Davidian cult. Because the movie was on such a tight schedule (production was set to end May 1), Daly had to go before the cameras just minutes after the fiery compound collapsed and, as Koresh, deliver a monologue in which he demanded that Davidian cult members pledge to kill for him. "I had to put up some sort of barrier to block out the sadness of all the deaths," he says. "Especially," he adds softly, "the children's."

Ambush in Waco may be as close as TV can get to producing a truly "instant" docudrama. (While the Waco story was filming, NBC was also preparing a drama about Hurricane Andrew and one about New York City's Feb. 26 World Trade Center bombing, both airing the same week as Ambush in Waco.) On March 1, one day after the bungled raid on the compound by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms—in which four federal agents and an unknown number of Branch Davidians were killed—executive producer Kenneth (In the Line of Duty: The FBI Murders) Kaufman received a phone call from NBC executives. They asked him to begin work immediately on the movie. The network wanted the film for the May ratings sweeps, just 11½ weeks away. That meant pulling it together in six weeks less than the usual shooting schedule. Within 24 hours a full production team was in place, headed by director Dick (The Betty Broderick Story) Lowry. Two days later, Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist Wendell Rawls and production designer Guy Barnes were on the scene in Waco, doing research and scouting locations. "For a while there," says Kaufman, "we were both journalists and movie-makers at the same time." (Ambush in Waco ends with the Feb. 28 ATF assault; the fatal conflagration is dealt with in a somber postscript.)

Are Kaufman—and NBC—merely exploiting a tragedy for ratings points and profit? The producer, not surprisingly, doesn't think so. "We're making a movie, and we hope to tell an interesting story," he says, adding, "What about Prime Time Live or 48 Hours or Nightline? They all had something on Waco. Do they make a profit? Are their motives so much more pure than those of a TV movie?"

The film may be a "quickie" in one sense, but no one can accuse Daly of not doing his homework. The 37-year-old actor—who looked amazingly like the 33-year-old Koresh even before the makeup department added hair extensions and aviator glasses—has spent hours watching videotapes of Koresh, talking to former members of the cult and poring over the Bible. "I've come to understand," Daly says, "that Koresh was so facile with Scripture that he could pick it out of the air, quote it out of context and try to prove that black is white." Daly found a passage in Psalm 127 that says "Children are an heritage of the Lord and the fruit of the womb is His reward." He then worked that quote into a scene in which Koresh seduces his 11-year-old sister-in-law. "In my mind," Daly says, "this could be his justification."

There wasn't much sympathy for Koresh and his cult members on the set. "What I hate," says Dan Lauria (Fred Savage's father on The Wonder Years), who plays an ATF agent in Ambush in Waco, "is that they do it in the name of God. Give God a break!" Meanwhile actor Richard McGonagle, portraying an ATF commander, could only shake; his head and observe grimly, "This is like living in a parallel universe." Indeed, accuracy was so prized that, in the second week of filming. Rawls interrupted director Lowry during a take and pointed out that in a sequence showing an ATF agent on the roof of the compound, bullets were being sprayed in the wrong direction. The scene was reshot. "We have a sense," says Kaufman, "that the eyes of the world are watching us here."

Certainly the ears of a large part of Oklahoma could hear the near constant din coming from the set, as gunfire echoed and grenades exploded. But what reverberated more meaningfully for many in the cast was the emotional aftermath of the Waco fire. Daly, for one, will be happy not to look back. He wanted to get home to L.A., and to his wife, Amy, and two children. "I'm going to be a lot happier this summer, and one great dad," he says. "Emotionally, this has been very difficult."

It was also very spooky. Chip Radaelli, the movie's art director, says that at the end of each day he contemplated the "compound" sitting astride the landscape that looks so similar to Waco's, right down to the cows grazing lazily in the foreground. "It is strange to have this in existence," he says, "when the real one is no longer there."

SHELLEY LEVITT
BOB STEWART in Tulsa

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