Shooting TV's Monumental Chiefs, Charlton Heston and Forces Disturb the Peace of a Sleepy Southern Town
It isn't the sort of production that would be welcomed in just any Southern town. After all, the CBS miniseries Chiefs, which airs this week, packs as much scandal as several weeks' worth of Dallas. Following the lives of three successive police chiefs in the fictional Deep South town of Delano, the multi-generational mystery includes such protagonists as a vicious lawmaker who cavorts with the Ku Klux Klan and a homosexual recluse who murders young men. But none of that bothers the denizens of Chester, S.C. (pop. 6,853) where the $9 million-plus production was shot this summer. They couldn't do enough for the camera-wielding carpetbaggers who transformed their fair city into a backdrop for racist mayhem and murder. Explained one native, "People haven't thought about the story. They've thought about the excitement."
The warmth of Chester's welcome undoubtedly had much to do with the Chiefs' brand-name cast, which includes Charlton Heston, Keith Carradine, Brad Davis, Billy Dee Williams, Wayne Rogers, Stephen Collins, Paul Sorvino, Victoria (The Winds of War) Tennant and Tess (Tender Mercies) Harper. Perhaps the prime draw was Heston, who hasn't done a TV drama since a 1968 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Elizabeth the Queen. The king of the silver-screen spectacle plays a banker with the wisdom of Moses and the moral strength of Ben Hur—a role Heston found attractive because "I'm a sucker for any part where I get to put on rubber wrinkles and age 40 years." "Charleston," as some Chesterites called him, also fell for the part because of director Jerry (Shogun) London, who was highly recommended by Richard Chamberlain.
From the start, Chiefs sent Chester into a tizzy. Heston and colleagues arrived for a two-month shoot in late May, and the town promptly erupted into an orgy of adulation. Civic leaders held a "Salute to Chiefs" banquet at Chester High. Locals flocked to open-call auditions, and 51 folks got parts, including two policemen. Even the telephone company got in on the act: It dispatched a photographer to capture the action for next year's phone-book cover.
Chesterites staked out Chiefs locations and loaded scrapbooks with shots of the stars. One female fan caught up with a car in which Billy Dee Williams was riding, hurled herself head first into his open window and had to be hauled out by her ankles. "The women were after me," says Billy Dee, who plays the town's first black chief, "but then, I'm a big attraction for women everywhere." Other admirers were more subtle—depositing cakes and pies in Wayne Rogers' rented house and presenting Keith Carradine with a homemade potato bin.
For its starring role, Chester received a make-over. In the downtown area, which covers 32 blocks, storefronts were transformed into Delano's facades: Mary's Cake Box became the Delano Bakery, and the senior citizens' center was converted to an old-style dime store. Since Chiefs' story is set in the 1920s, 1940s and 1960s, Chester underwent three distinct face-lifts. The first was the most dramatic: New York-based set designer Charlie Bennett (who was so taken with the "architectural gem" of a town that he bought a house there) gave it a pre-Depression air by ordering the main drag and its tributaries overlaid with 17 tons of red dirt, disguising the lampposts as telegraph poles and removing 128 parking meters.
To commemorate the invasion, local merchants stocked an arsenal of memorabilia. Black's Drugstore offered plastic mugs, bumper stickers, T-shirts declaring Chester "the Hollywood of the South," and paperbacks of the 1981 book, a first novel for which Highgate Pictures paid $120,000 to Atlantan Stuart Woods. "I guess we have made Mr. Stuart Woods pretty wealthy," one Black's clerk said expansively.
Author Woods wasn't the only one who profited from the venture: Chester Mayor William Cranford reckoned that his town netted about $3 million from Chiefs. Sales at McDonald's soared, he said (thanks in part to the scores of tourists drawn by the production), and some citizens reaped as much as $1,000 a month by renting their residences to Highgate production people.
The Hollywood contingent underwent its own adjustment. Conversation among them centered on the rigors of rural life, with its chiggers and sushi-free cuisine. Several principals found the isolation unnerving. "I had a Thoreau-like cabin in the woods, and I'd park the car and run to the door," reports Paul Sorvino, who plays Chiefs' corrupt county sheriff. "I can handle eight guys swinging chains better than a little badger looking at me wrong."
Brad Davis, who delivers a memorable performance as Sonny Butts, a sly drunk of a police chief, had his own log cabin and "a little problem with my leisure time" that he solved by "calling L.A. a lot during the first week." Heston staved off boredom by frequenting the local movie theater (sneaking in under cover of darkness) and playing tennis with Rogers. Harper and Tennant poked through flea markets. Carradine practiced his bagpipe, pumped iron at Chester's only gym and communed with wife Sandra Will and son Cade, 1. Collins took in some minor-league baseball games, Williams made forays to local fish fries, and the ensemble made appearances at a raft of benefits, including a fund raiser for Chester's library.
Nothing personal, Chester, but the production was completed a week ahead of schedule. The working-day pace was anything but leisurely. Much of the actors' energy was consumed in perfecting their Piedmont accents (something Heston never achieved) and bringing life to unsavory characters like Chief Butts. "At first," says Brad Davis, "I had a big wave of 'I can't play this part because he's so unredeemable.' He's a bigot—an angry, hostile, sick person who was a battered child. I was used to the audience being on my side."
As mass murderer Foxy Funderburke, Keith Carradine is the most dastardly of these characters. He approached his role with glee, drawing hearty boos from bystanders during a scene in which he invited a hitchhiking corpse-to-be to his cabin for a glass of lemonade. "I'm always looking for a way to shatter the public's image of me," he says. "You have to take chances if you're going to be an actor, and I'm doing that with Foxy. I'm either going to do well or fall on my ass with this part."
By the end of the shoot, Carradine was spending two hours in makeup each morning to achieve the proper wizened effect. Under all that latex, he says, was his father, actor John, now 77. "I thought of him when I was playing Foxy as an old man, I thought about the way he moves, about the way he holds his body."
No matter how Carradine and the others are received in Chiefs, the mini-series has at least one segment of the viewers locked up. The inhabitants of Chester are juggling invitations for the Chiefs parties that are coinciding with this week's broadcast, and video-cassette recorders are selling briskly at the Seed and Feed. Says R.C. McKeown, the store's co-owner, "Everybody wants to watch the show the first time and then back up and see their friends."
The question for Mayor Cranford will be how to keep his constituents down on the farm after they've seen Chiefs. No problem, he says: "From now on, we're going to have a Chiefs festival every year."
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