A funny thing happened to Aristotle Onassis on the way to television miniseries fame - he grew a foot taller.
The short, barrel-shaped Greek shipping tycoon has turned into tall, dark and handsome Raul Julia in the two-part miniseries, Onassis: The Richest Man In The World, to air on ABC Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. on Ch. 4.This is no documentary- it's the life of Onassis, Judith Kranz-style, with an overlay of lifestyles of the rich and famous. There's a minimum of information about how he made the money and maximum on how he spent it.
When he isn't spending, he's seducing --a kiss on the neck (the Venus Butterfly of "L.A. Law"?) and his conquest was complete. And you thought it was his money.
The best part of the film may be the opening segments in 1922 when the young Aristo is growing into adulthood as the son of a Greek tobacco merchant (Anthony Quinn) in Turkey. It's always fun to watch Quinn, who really is playing the father of the Onassis-style character he played 10 years ago in "The Greek Tycoon."
The family survives the Turkish purge of Greeks because of the protection offered by a Turkish officer whom young Aristo allows to become his lover. The family returns to Athens, father and son have a falling out and Aristo takes off for Buenos Aires, where he makes his first fortune in shady tobacco dealings.
Through the early years, the young Aristo is played by Elias Koteas, but before he leaves Argentina he turns into Julia, a gifted actor who is wasted in the role.
Back in Greece, Onassis decides to marry Tina, the daughter of Greek shipping czar Stavros Livanos (Anthony Zerbe, equally wasted). Tina defies pop to marry Aristo, they have two kids and he neglects her in favor of business, both shipping and the monkey variety.
The script includes dialogue that the viewer can predict before the actors say it, which also gives an idea of the pace. Early in part two Tina complains to Onassis about their marriage.
"I've given you everything you wanted," he says.
"But nothing of value," she replies.
Obviously she hasn't priced the goods at Cartier's lately.
Aristo's real love is opera star Maria Callas (Jane Seymour), whom he seduces without difficulty. As an odd aside, when they go to bed her hair gets messed up and his remains neat as if it were spray-painted, which may have socio-sexual significance.
American audiences will be most interested in how the Kennedys are portrayed. President John F. Kennedy comes across something of a wimp, Bob Kennedy is a pretty good guy, Ted Kennedy does the marriage brokering.
That leaves Jacqueline, portrayed by Francesca Annis, the English actress who first came to American television attention as Lilly Langtry in the Masterpiece Theater series, "Lilly."
"They came to me to do this part," Annis said in an interview, "and there was very little time to think about things. It was a 'will you-won't you' situation and I thought since we were not look-alikes, it would be a challenge.
"They kept saying we want you because you're a very good actress. Well, I wasn't going to argue about that."
Why did she do it? That was the big question in 1968 when America's widow married the richest man in the world. In the miniseries she has decided to marry Onassis when Robert Kennedy is assassinated and she panics.
Annis expressed the view of the miniseries when she said:
"By the time she agreed to marry Onassis she was pretty distraught. She was afraid her children would be shot in America and she was looking for somewhere else to live. To say she married him for money is a crude analysis."
The bottom line on "Onassis: The Richest Man in the World," is that it is another glitzy romp through expensively decorated bedrooms, intended to give the viewer the illusion of peeking through the porthole of Onassis' yacht to get an inside look at the lifestyles of the richest and most famous.