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TV Miniseries: More Than a One-Night Stand, Less Than a Long-Term Relationship

Recall the era when wildly popular miniseries ruled viewers' imaginations

  • Everett Collection

    'Rich Man, Poor Man' (1976)

    It wasn't the first "novel for television," as miniseries were called at the time (that was ABC's QB VII in 1974), but it was the first ratings hit. ABC's story of two German immigrant brothers taking different paths in post-World War II America made a star of Nick Nolte (left, with Susan Blakely and Peter Strauss) and proved there was an audience for limited-run series.

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  • Everett Collection

    'Roots' (1977)

    The landmark ABC miniseries about slavery in America — traced through the generations of author Alex Haley's family — remains one of the touchstones of television history. The story of African Kunta Kinte (Levar Burton, pictured) and his descendants aired for eight straight winter nights, and six of the episodes still rank among the 40 highest-rated TV broadcasts in history.

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  • Everett Collection

    'Jesus of Nazareth' (1977)

    Directed by filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, based on the New Testament, the NBC event angered Christian groups but drew an enormous audience. Newcomer Robert Powell played the title role, fronting a noteworthy cast that included Christopher Plummer, Anthony Quinn, James Earl Jones, Anne Bancroft and Sir Laurence Olivier. In 1987, TV Guide named it the best miniseries of all time.

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  • Everett Collection

    'I, Claudius' (1978)

    The telling of the rise of the Roman Empire had already been a huge hit for the BBC when it captivated PBS viewers. The robes-and-sandals epic helped launch the careers of Brits Patrick Stewart, John Hurt (pictured) and Derek Jacobi, who played the title role.

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  • Everett Collection

    'Shogun' (1980)

    The tale of an English captain (Richard Chamberlain) shipwrecked on Japanese shores and drawn into a feud among 17th-century warlords — and a forbidden romance — delivered on the huge hype that preceded its airing on NBC, scoring big ratings and cementing popularity of the miniseries at the start of a new decade.

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  • Everett Collection

    'Brideshead Revisited' (1982)

    Thirty years before Downton Abbey, this BBC production (aired by PBS stateside) proved the voracious American appetite for tales of vanishing English nobility. Brideshead, which starred a young Jeremy Irons (pictured, near left), eschewed Downton's wistful take on British aristocracy for heavier themes, including addiction, religion and sexuality.

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  • Everett Collection

    'The Thorn Birds' (1983)

    Three years after his star turn in Shogun, Richard Chamberlain established himself as the Main Man of the Miniseries in this ABC serial drama based on Colleen McCullough's novel. He plays the Catholic priest who breaks his vow of celibacy with a much younger woman (Rachel Ward). It was hot. Audiences flocked. Women swooned. In his 2003 memoir Shattered Love, Chamberlain revealed he is gay.

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  • Paramount Television/Everett Collection

    'The Winds of War' (1983)

    War may be hell, but it makes for great miniseries. Several of the best are set during wartime, including this one from ABC, which chronicles the years leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Robert Mitchum (pictured, as Naval Officer Pug Henry) and Ali MacGraw were among the stars. A sequel, War and Remembrance, aired in 1988.

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  • Mark Marmor/Everett Collection

    'V' (1983)

    1983 was the apex in popularity for the network miniseries, with three of the most highly rated — The Thorn Birds, The Winds of War and this science fiction hit — all airing that year. The "V" stands for "Visitors," as in the outer space variety. Now the sets and costumes of this NBC show seem cheesily dated, but the political undertones resonated; it spawned a sequel and two series.

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  • Warner Bros/Everett Collection

    'North and South' (1985)

    ABC's Civil War saga centered on the friendship between a Northern soldier and a Southern soldier who meet at West Point, become best friends, then find themselves on opposite sides of the bloody War Between the States. Patrick Swayze (pictured, with Lesley-Anne Down) as Confederate soldier Orry Main headlined a sprawling cast. Two sequels followed, in 1986 and 1994.

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  • Harpo Productions/Everett Collection

    'The Women of Brewster Place' (1989)

    The ensemble for this ABC miniseries about friendships among a group of African American women included Cicely Tyson, Olivia Cole and Jackee Harry. But the big draw was Oprah Winfrey (pictured), who produced and starred in one of her rare TV acting turns. The production spawned a short-lived series, Brewster Place, which also starred Winfrey.

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  • Everett Collection

    'Lonesome Dove' (1989)

    The epic CBS Western was based on Larry McMurtry's book about ranchers moving cattle across the American West of the 1870s. Dove may have been the last of the great network miniseries. Robert Duvall (pictured, with Tommy Lee Jones) has called Texas Ranger Gus McCrae his favorite role. The stellar cast also included Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Chris Cooper and Anjelica Huston.

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  • HBO/Everett Collection

    'The Corner' (2000)

    Writer David Simon drew on his experience covering the crime beat for the Baltimore Sun to craft HBO's gritty look at the city's drug trade, as seen through the eyes of a drug-ravaged family living on a corner at its nexus. T.K. Carter and Khandi Alexander (pictured) were among the stars. Simon would go on to create the more-heralded The Wire, but that show's themes, style and setting were born on The Corner.

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  • Everett Collection

    'Band of Brothers' (2001)

    Executive-produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, the gripping HBO WWII miniseries tracked the soldiers of Easy Company from their training for the D-Day invasion to the end of the war. Damian Lewis (pictured) — now starring in Homeland — led an ensemble cast. Brothers won a slew of Emmys and established the pay-cable network as the new king of the miniseries format.

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  • Frank Ockenfels/Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

    'Battlestar Galactica' (2003)

    The original Battlestar ran as a series for just one season on ABC during the late 1970s, post-Star Wars sci-fi boom, so eyebrows were raised 20 years later when SyFy rebooted the tale of intergalactic warfare as a three-hour miniseries. (Pictured, cast members Jamie Bamber and Katee Sackhoff.) The gamble paid off. It became SyFy's highest rated show and led to a new BSG series that ran four seasons to critical and fan acclaim.

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  • HBO/Everett Collection

    'Angels in America' (2003)

    HBO's six-hour adaptation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the rise of the AIDS epidemic in Reagan-era America starred Meryl Streep and Al Pacino (pictured), as well as Emma Thompson. Directed by Mike Nichols, Angels was the year's highest-rated cable event and won 11 Emmy Awards.

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  • Kent Eanes/HBO/Everett Collection

    'John Adams' (2008)

    Paul Giamatti played the second U.S. president (and first VP) in HBO's seven-part miniseries based on the best-selling biography by David McCullough. Tom Hanks was executive producer, and Giamatti and Laura Linney (who played Abigail Adams) took home two of the show's record 13 Emmys. Brit Tom Wilkinson, pictured with Giamatti, won an Emmy for his turn as Benjamin Franklin.

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  • Kevin Costner in Hatfields and McCoys
    Kevin Lynch/History/AP

    'Hatfields & McCoys' (2012)

    With the TV networks largely out of the miniseries game, more cable networks are trying the format. The History Channel became the latest, nabbing Kevin Costner (pictured) and Bill Paxton to play the combative patriarchs of the legendary warring clans of the title. It was History's first scripted drama. Super ratings — the three episodes rank as the highest-rated entertainment broadcasts in basic cable history — proved the miniseries is as hard to bury as a bitter family feud.

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Living History: More than three decades since it first aired, the ABC miniseries Roots remains one of the most popular television programs of all time. Based on author Alex Haley's historical novel about his own family, the series aired for eight consecutive nights in 1977 (see slide 2, above). In an an interview with AARP Leslie Uggams and Louis Gossett Jr., two stars of Roots, talk about the show's phenomenal impact on the country — and their acting careers. Read