Two years ago, Acorn Media released on DVD Backstairs at the White House, a star-studded portrayal of life at the White House through Lillian Rogers Park (Leslie Uggams), a real-life maid at the White House, who wrote a book about her decades of experiences upon which this miniseries was based. In it, Victor Buono plays President William Howard Taft, Robert Vaughn plays President Woodrow Wilson, George Kennedy plays President Warren G. Harding, Harry Morgan plays Harry S. Truman.
Among first ladies, there was Kim Hunter as Ellen Wilson, Eileen Heckart as Eleanor Roosevelt (along with John Anderson as FDR), Celeste Holm as Florence Harding, Estelle Parsons as Bess Truman, and Barbara Barrie as Mamie Eisenhower (with Andrew Duggan as Dwight D. Eisenhower). Plus, Leslie Nielsen as chief usher Ike Hoover, Robert Hooks as doorman and presidential barber Mays, Louis Gossett, Jr. as houseman Levi Mercer, and Olivia Cole as Lillian’s mother, Maggie, who also worked as a maid in the White House when Lillian was a little girl, leading to her first time in the White House, encountering Taft. Because of my unceasing love of presidential history, it has been a treasured title in my DVD collection ever since its release.
Now, Universal (or NBCUniversal, or ComcastUniversal, or UniversalShamalamadingdong; whatever it is this week) has licensed to Acorn Media The Kent Chronicles, made up of three miniseries: The Bastard, The Rebels, and The Seekers, all based on the novels by John Jakes, who’s also famous for his epic Civil War series, North and South.
All three miniseries focus on American Philip Kent (Andrew Stevens as the younger Philip in The Bastard and The Rebels, and Martin Milner as the older Philip in The Seekers), who starts out as Philip Charboneau in France, illegitimate son of a former actress mother and an English duke. Philip is put down for his station in life by those who would appear to be lower than him, but he doesn’t believe in the notion of a social order, that royals and rich people are above him. He and his mother go to Kentland in England to collect what his father promised, that of some of his wealth, but his father’s current, spoiled, rotting-soul family puts a near-violent stop to that. The only character important enough to mention by name in this sequence is the young Marquis de Lafayette, who Philip saves from savagery by some backwards boys and who is grateful for Philip’s help, enough that they become friends, no matter that Philip is poor and he is rich.
But life in France is a dead end for Philip, and so he sails to America on a ship captained by Caleb (Harry Morgan), which shows that Harry Morgan will not change his accent for anything. He is who he is, though it’s understandable since Caleb has sailed to America so many times and finds it incredible every time. Of course he’d speak like he always has in the new world. It’s not only the development of a new nation, but how else are viewers supposed to recognize him?
That’s the case with the rest of the surprise cast. They’re introduced at the beginning, just like the cast of Backstairs at the White House is, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but when they appear, they give one pause. Tom Bosley as Benjamin Franklin? William Shatner as Paul Revere? Raymond Burr as the narrator? William Daniels is not so much a surprise, playing Samuel Adams first. John de Lancie has a short role as the sneering Lt. Stark, making Q on Star Trek: The Next Generation look like a friend. But you see, de Lancie is indeed talented outside of the Star Trek universe, though this was long before.
Olivia Hussey as Alicia takes up most of the screen time in The Bastard, mainly in body. It’s impossible not to look at her. Without the war to come, without the debate about breaking off from Britain and forming a new nation, this would just be your average soap opera, if not for all these actors who are all so game in these roles. And that’s not all.
Moving on to The Rebels, it gets better. Jim Backus plays John Hancock, Joan Blondell plays Mrs. Brumple, Philip’s housekeeper and caretaker of his infant son after his wife’s death (the wife is played by Kim Cattrall. They all have to start somewhere, and she sure did). Peter Graves plays George Washington, not bringing much to the role beyond his trademark assessment of a situation. And, William Daniels is back again, this time as John Adams, different from his John Adams in the musical 1776. He’s good at showing different layers of the man in separate performances. As I’ve just found out, he also played Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, in the miniseries The Adams Chronicles, which was also released by Acorn Media on DVD in 2008.
By now in this review, you’ve sensed the emphasis on the actors over anything else. That’s pretty much what’s on offer over everything else. It’s the stars you come for, not the history, even though there’s a lot of that too. It’s remarkable to me that I took this long without mentioning Don Johnson, who stands alongside Andrew Stevens in The Rebels, as Judson Fletcher, self-destructive ladies man, usually to his detriment, especially in the way of a duel that he fortunately survives. Fletcher is the captain of the Virginia Militia, set to fight for independence, and he strikes up a friendship with Philip.
The Seekers gives way to the next generation, including Randolph Mantooth as Philip’s son Abraham, who does not wish to fight as his father has. Martin Milner is amusingly miscast. It’s hard to imagine the young Philip Kent becoming this man, no matter that Milner continues the limp that Stevens’ Philip had in The Rebels. For more surprises, you can’t beat a young Delta Burke as Elizabeth Fletcher Kent, Brian Keith of Family Affair as Elijah Weatherby, George Hamilton as Lt. Hamilton Stovall, and John Carradine as Avery Mills.
Most of the time spent watching this is about looking at Tom Bosley, and Peter Graves, and William Daniels, and comparing their performances of these great historical figures to other performances, such as Howard da Silva as Benjamin Franklin in 1776, Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin and David Morse as George Washington in the HBO miniseries John Adams, and Daniels’ two John Adams in 1776 and The Rebels. The search is on for what each actor emphasizes in their roles, if they might have studied anything about these men before they played them. Graves is just wearing a wig and talking like he always does. The uniform merely makes him taller, not the stature of playing Washington.
Outside of gawking at these actors, The Bastard moves most swiftly in showing Philip Charboneau becoming Philip Kent. The Rebels is more ponderous, and The Seekers, while the lesser of the three, is good enough just to see Delta Burke and what the next generation of Kents endures. It’s no wonder that Martin Milner (“Adam-12”) and Randolph Mantooth (“Emergency!”) appear together, since the executive producer is R.A. Cinader, who created Adam-12 and Emergency! and worked with Jack Webb on both.
Only the third disc containing The Seekers has extras, with a brief biography of author John Jakes and a two-minute trailer. Nothing else could match the sheer novelty of all the actors in this set. It makes me wonder what other American miniseries Acorn Media might be interested in the future. Although I can’t think of any myself, I hope they’re just like these three, but more absorbing like Backstairs at the White House. Acorn Media’s got something good going on here.