Archive for Sunday, November 16, 2008

Nuclear reaction: Cast, crew of ‘The Day After’ reunite for 25th anniversary of film shot in Lawrence, KC

A scene  from "The Day After" shows a nuclear bomb's explosion in Kansas City.

A scene from "The Day After" shows a nuclear bomb's explosion in Kansas City.

November 16, 2008


Twenty-five years ago, terrorism was a footnote, the economy was thriving, and America was overwhelmingly comfortable with its current president.

Still, a sense of fear and impending doom blanketed the nation due to the escalating nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

So when a TV movie aired Nov. 20, 1983, the program became one of the most watched and controversial events of the decade.

ABC's "The Day After" - billed as a "starkly realistic drama of nuclear confrontation and its devastating effect on a group of average American citizens" - was viewed by half the adult population of the U.S. (nearly 100 million viewers), which was the largest audience for a made-for-TV movie up to that time.

It was all the more surprising considering the film was both situated and predominantly shot in Lawrence.

"We tend to think that with the ending of the Cold War, the nuclear danger has receded; if anything, it has grown worse, with atomic weapons no longer under control of stable governments," says "The Day After" director Nicholas Meyer.

"I think it's a good idea to be reminded that until all such weapons have been destroyed, we are hanging by a thread."

Meyer will be among the cast and crew returning to Lawrence as part of a 25-year anniversary screening and reunion to take place at 7 p.m. Thursday at Liberty Hall, 644 Mass.

Also appearing will be "The Day After" producer Robert Papazian, actor Jeff East, local casting director Jack Wright and David Longhurst, who was mayor of Lawrence in 1983.

Oddly enough, the reunion was inspired by someone who has never been to Lawrence before. In fact, he's never stepped foot in America.

"I'm interested in how ordinary people react to significant events, like wars, revolutions and so on," says Kyle Harvey, a researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, who specializes in politics and film of the 1980s.

"Something that kept cropping up in my research was this ever-present perception amongst the public that there was an imminent threat of nuclear war. So I decided to focus on how that played out in the public mind, and what people did about it. ... An obvious case study was 'The Day After,' which is essentially what brings me to Lawrence."

Earlier this year, Harvey started kicking around the idea of organizing an anniversary screening as part of his doctorate project.

"Being a historian, I'm not terribly interested in contemporary things," he says. "But a lot of people do see the contemporary significance of the film. The theme of my project is to find out how this resonates in Lawrence."

Scope and power

When principal photography for "The Day After" began Aug. 16, 1982, it became immediately clear to the residents of Lawrence they were going to experience a cinematic production unlike any the town had encountered before. A small army of cast, crew, vehicles and equipment set up camp, transforming sites such as downtown and the Kansas University campus into scorched, devastated blast zones populated by wounded survivors.

Among the principal cast was Jeff East, a Kansas City native who already had a dozen films to his credit. (He is probably best known for his early Disney roles as Huckleberry Finn and as the young Clark Kent in 1978's "Superman.")

"They were looking for people who were real. They didn't want stars. They wanted good actors who really looked like they were Kansans," East remembers.

The actor had moved to Los Angeles when he was 14 to pursue his career, so "The Day After" provided him the rare professional chance to return to his roots.

East describes his character in the film, Bruce, as a good-old Kansas boy on the eve of getting married who is rather carefree and unconcerned about the political unrest happening in front of his eyes.

"I was the typical guy who lives his life in denial. ... He doesn't take life all that seriously," he says. "Then all this serious (expletive) hits the fan."

The actor recalls developing a great working camaraderie with director Meyer and striking up a friendship with co-star Steve Guttenberg, who he took golfing at his parents' country club in K.C.

But equally important to East's working relationships was the sense that he was involved in something important.

"I wanted to be part of a statement that we need to stop the Cold War," says East, who moved back to Kansas City in 2004 to help his family with a commercial real estate company.

"I was married to a lady whose father was the head of the Northrop Corporation - they were a big defense contractor. There was all these politics going on. My parents were big Republicans who were friends with the Doles. I was trying to be quiet and keep it under my hat, but I really was an anti-nuclear person."

East says when the film finally aired, he was blown away by the scope and power of the project, which was nominated for 12 Emmy Awards and won two.

"The most memorable scene is the shot of Jason Robards when he goes out to look at the devastation in Kansas City," East says. "That's a pretty amazing piece of film. That struck a chord with me. It scared me a little bit."

East also received some unlikely feedback from a particular viewer.

"I ended up getting a really nice letter from my father-in-law congratulating me being a part of history and stepping in to possibly help end the Cold War," he recalls.

Political fallout

"The Day After" didn't have quite that same sense of cultural gravitas in Australia, according to Harvey.

"It was shown on TV in 1984. But it wasn't the huge controversy that it was in the States. A lot of people I talked to here (in Australia) haven't heard about it," says the 25-year-old Harvey, who only saw the film for the first time a few years ago.

However, Harvey says the nuclear issue was a hot-button cause on his continent. This took the form of a movement against Australian uranium mining, with the perception being that these mines were contributing to the arms buildup among the superpowers.

Back in the U.S., the airing of "The Day After" generated significant political fallout.

"'The Day After' changed Ronald Reagan's mind about the feasibility of a winnable nuclear war," Meyer says.

"Both in his memoir, also in 'Dutch,' Edmund Morris' Reagan biography, and in my personal conversations with Morris, who hung around the Reagan White House for years while gathering material for the book, I learned how rocked Reagan was by the film and how, as a result, he went to Reykjavik (in 1986) and signed the intermediate range weapons treaty with (Mikhail) Gorbachev - to the consternation of fellow conservatives."

Meyer, a former Oscar nominee for screenwriting, still considers the making of the film as the most worthwhile experience in which he was ever involved.

Residents of Lawrence will be offered the opportunity to speak about their experiences with making the film or reactions to watching it. Harvey will be conducting interviews in the upper lobby of the Eldridge Hotel, 701 Mass., between Nov. 21 through 24. Participants are encouraged to contact him at 841-0314 or

Harvey mentions he recently taught a class at Macquarie titled "The World Since 1945."

He adds, "'The Day After' is a big part of that world."


sourpuss 9 years, 7 months ago

I wish I could go to the reunion. I was in the film as an extra when I was a really little kid. I still have the stuffed animal I was given on set. I remember seeing John Lithgow walk by. It was HOT and it was a long day of shooting. I remember very clearly that the director announced in the Field House shot NOT to look at the camera if the red light was on, because that means the film was rolling. Well, the red light was on the camera, so I couldn't tell if it was on unless I looked at the camera, but if I looked at it and the red light was on, whoa! So I basically developed a complex about looking at the camera. In fact, I never looked anywhere near the camera. I later saw the movie and it gave me nightmares.

BigPrune 9 years, 7 months ago

The movie was originally supposed to be a mini-series but the network cut it down to one night. I know this because I know someone who was given the original script. But seriously speaking here, the movie typecast Kansans as backward hicks who drove old Ford Pintos, Mavericks or junky farm trucks. If you ever rent the movie, the automobiles were 10 years older than the movie was when it was made. We also ride around in buggies pulled by horses. The "freeway" was K-10 Highway - I always thought it funny they referred to K-10 or I-70 as a freeway, not the vernacular of people in the Midwest.

RogueThrill 9 years, 7 months ago

I watched this film as a 6 year old and, consequently, spent the next 6 years of my life completely terrified. I burned a hole in my library card. If you liked The Day After I highly recommend "Children of the Dust" and "Alas, Babylon". Children of the Dust is supposed to me an early teens book so it's factually inaccurate about the after effects, but it's got a Sophie's Choice thing going on that makes it terrifying and touching at the same time. Well, I suppose something positive is that Steve Gutenberg has something to do. He's not exactly basking in Hollywood success lately. Hope he made enough money on Three Men and a Baby.

KsTwister 9 years, 7 months ago

Even with the rubble all over the streets look good!!?? How can that be. A movie with a message to make people think about changing the future is better than no message at all. Enjoy your reunion, I think its great if you can, I know a few who would have loved to see the directors and actors and extras again.

Christine Anderson 9 years, 7 months ago

I was a freshman at KU when this movie came out. I was always too scared to see it back then. At some point in the past 25 years, I've caught snipets of it. I was not that impressed. Now as a forty-something, I'm much more fearful of terrorism, including the possiblity of terrorists using nukes. I think the threat is still there, but it's changed hands.Actually, there are things I fear even more than terrorism. Such as the uncertainty of my autistic child's future, and my crappy genetic deck of cards stacked high, which includes heart disease at early ages, breast cancer in early 40's, etc, etc.Guess as an 18 yr. old, I didn't have much to worry about, period. Now, I can find plenty of things that scare me more than what was depicted in "The Day After". Oh, that it could be 1983 again.

David Albertson 9 years, 7 months ago

I'm just glad Bush is on his way out. We'd be headed for another cold war with Russia if he had another 4 years. Ignorance and paranoia fueled the whole thing. We need smart, compassionate leaders, especially right now. Thank God OBAMA will be the next president. Maybe the US isn't a country of idiots. Maybe they're (conservatives) just a well organized minority. I sure hope so. (I can't wait to see the responses to this post)

David Albertson 9 years, 7 months ago

Jaywalker, when did I say anything about Democrat or Republican? I'm sorry that you had to inject partisanship. On the other hand you are correct. The citizens WERE ignorant and paranoid, but only because their leaders lead them in that direction. I simply said that we need a smart compassionate leader that will steer us through this extremely complicated situation and that I'm glad we chose the most intelligent candidate we've seen in decades. Cowboy foreign policy has hurt us, surely you are smart enough to admit that. Or are you?

jaywalker 9 years, 7 months ago

Sorry, barstop, but the Cold War went on for decades and began under the administration of a Democrat President, not that it would have mattered. Ignorance and paranoia was prevalent with the citizens, not with those in power. It was an ideological fight between capitalism and communism, between proxy wars, revolutions, and furthering an arms race. Bush having 'another four years' wouldn't have anything to do with it. And as it stands, there's a good chance that a similar 'Cold War' is on the horizon with Russia, and it certainly won't matter who our Prez is, such global battles are never about one leader. As to your 'conservatives are idiots' drivel, well, that's just as intelligent as the garbage you led with.

notajayhawk 9 years, 7 months ago

ASBESTOS (Anonymous) says: "And America was not in love with the President, for his tenure was just starting."Um - Ronald Reagan was in office for nearly 3 years at the time the movie aired."That is however true. I never thought I would live to see 30. I thought we were gonna be hit by Nukes from the USSR. Lots of my contemporaries thought the same at the time."And yet, here we are.Want another shot at how the economy was doing?

Michael Throop 9 years, 7 months ago

"I'm just glad Bush is on his way out. We'd be headed for another cold war with Russia if he had another 4 years." The utopian liberals can't leave the guy alone. Geeze. He's LEAVING..very soon, your superstar will be crowned in about two months!There..I remember KMBC announced that mental health professionals were available via a hotline where people could call and cry about the end of the world they were watching on live TV..uh, no.It's a movie.Oh.

notajayhawk 9 years, 7 months ago

bartstop (Anonymous) says: "Cowboy foreign policy has hurt us, surely you are smart enough to admit that. Or are you?"Well, except for that pesky little detail that "cowboy foreign policy" was responsible for the end of the cold war. Surely you are smart enough to admit that? What? No?

notajayhawk 9 years, 7 months ago

Does anyone else remember the controversy over this film? That there were groups threatening boycotts of advertisers? (I used to have the videotape of the original broadcast, I wish I could find it, somehow I think if I reviewed it the companies who advertised during the movie are probably still doing fine - especially with 100 million people watching that night.)

ASBESTOS 9 years, 7 months ago

"Twenty-five years ago, terrorism was a footnote, the economy was thriving, and America was overwhelmingly comfortable with its current president."WHAT?!!?!? The economy was "not thriving", to say it was was revisionist history. 1983-84 were some pretty lean years. I remember lining up for jobs flipping hamburgers. WHO WROTE this mess???And America was not in love with the President, for his tenure was just starting."Still, a sense of fear and impending doom blanketed the nation due to the escalating nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union."That is however true. I never thought I would live to see 30. I thought we were gonna be hit by Nukes from the USSR. Lots of my contemporaries thought the same at the time.

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 9 years, 7 months ago

I remember driving across the bridge and seeing the "encampment" below... and a college roommate adorned with some nasty radiation burns.,;-)

igby 9 years, 7 months ago

I think being on the 99th floor of the World Trade Center as it was starting too fall would be a much better film. We now know that it doesn't take a nuke to change the world.

leadstone 9 years, 7 months ago

Long live Michael Ray. Best wishes, hope you get to feeling better. Thankx for being a part of this film and my life.

labmonkey 9 years, 7 months ago

I watched Terminator 3 the other night, and when looking at the extra features on the DVD, it said put into your computer's DVD rom for more features. Suuuurrrre, that just what skynet wants me to do. I wonder if Norton protects you from your computer becomming self-aware...

Frank A Janzen 9 years, 7 months ago

I was working in refugee relief in Somalia when this movie was made and when it came out. It was immediately available on pirate video in Somalia, but I didn't see it until many months later in a movie theater in Frankfurt, Germany. My friends in Lawrence were in the movie. By the way, a recent piece, I think it was on NPR, mentioned that the point of The Day After was that nuclear war did not mean just the destruction from the blast, but the terrible fate of everyone else left at the mercy of the nuclear fallout, as was shown grafically in this movie.KUDOS to Lawrence, and this reunion. I wish I could be there.

gbaker 9 years, 7 months ago

I skipped out of LHS that day to be an extra. I was made up to be burned and layed in the rubble in front of Exile records and tapes. I was later caught by Mr. Parks and spent a couple mornings in detention.

Dayle Gregg Hodges 9 years, 7 months ago

My 5 yr, old daughter and I were extras on this film, and it was a fun experience for both of us. The finished film didn't have any effect on me at the time, but on 9/11/01 when I was going to class at KU I looked up in the sky and saw 5 contrails of jets that had turned around over the stadium to head back to KCI. That was like deja vu........and it scared me.

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