Hollywood powerbrokers bring Bible to life in new TV miniseries

Published: Friday, March 1 2013 10:45 a.m. MST

A woman is about to be stoned and Jesus (Diogo Morcaldo) confronts Simon (Paul Marc Davis) and the Pharisees in "The Bible."

Joe Alblas, © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.

For actress Roma Downey and producer Mark Burnett, all roads led to Morocco.

During their respective careers, the wife-and-husband duo has been successful by any objective measure: Downey is best known as the lead actress in the iconic CBS drama “Touched by an Angel,” and Burnett produces reality TV hits like “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “Shark Tank” and “The Voice.”

They’ve parlayed their accrued know-how into “The Bible,” a 10-hour History Channel miniseries for which they’re both executive producers. When the first of five episodes aired March 3, approximately 14.8 million Americans tuned in — easily outdistancing ratings stalwarts like CBS' "60 Minutes" (11.9 million viewers) and NBC's Dateline (6.1 million).

"The Bible" miniseries was filmed entirely on location in Morocco.

“All the other things we’ve done — all the experience and the wisdom and the gifts that we’ve picked up along the way — have brought us to this moment,” Downey told the Deseret News during a recent phone interview that also included her husband. “We made ‘The Bible’ to glorify God, and it will go out across the globe and it will touch people’s lives — people we may never meet, in places we may never visit.”

A broad appeal

Downey and Burnett — both 52 years old, and married since 2007 — started making plans in 2009 for what would eventually become “The Bible.” In no uncertain terms, their love of biblical teachings made them want to create something that could resonate with as many people as possible.

If the reaction from conservative television and radio personality Glenn Beck’s demographically diverse family is any indication, then “The Bible” stands a good chance of accomplishing exactly what Downey and Burnett set out to do four years ago.

“Last weekend I watched the first four hours with the whole family — with my 24-year-old daughter all the way down to my 6-year-old daughter,” Beck told the Deseret News in a phone interview. “Every single person in the family loved it for a different reason. … My in-laws who are Catholic watched it with us; most of my family is LDS; my 21-year-old daughter is non-denominational, and her husband is more of an agnostic. And we all found our own way to (loving) it. “It is the story of us all — in Western civilization, this is the story of how it started.”

When the Deseret News queried Burnett about the potential of “The Bible” to be a unifying force for all Christians, the producer grew very emotional.

“Across all denominations of Christianity, we have been supported,” Burnett said. “Mormon, Catholic, evangelical, Methodist, Presbyterian — what unites us for Jesus and faith and the Bible is greater than the differences that may at times divide us. Really, that’s so important.”

Downey later added that “The Bible” miniseries wasn’t created with only Christians in mind — but that it also aims to make a positive impression with non-believers. “We wanted to tell these stories,” Downey said, “in a way that would emotionally connect, be exciting and feel epic in scope on the one hand but still have the intimacy and the emotional connection on the other hand.”

Hurdles to biblical adaptations

Ever since the advent of motion picture technology, Hollywood has been dramatizing the Bible. One of the all-time giants of Bible film adaptations was the director Cecil B. DeMille, with credits like “The Ten Commandments” (1923), “The King of Kings” (1927), “Samson and Delilah” (1949) and the 1956 re-make of “The Ten Commandments.”

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