Three years ago, producer Mark Wolper sat down his 16-year-old son to show him his grandfather’s greatest television accomplishment. David L. Wolper was the executive producer of the 1977 mini-series “Roots,” one of the most watched and honored productions in TV history.
Despite the production’s significance, the teenager had no interest in watching the eight-part production based on the book by Alex Haley.
“He said it looked funny. It was paced weird,” Wolper says. “With me physically holding him down to watch it, he said a wise thing. He said that he completely understood what was so important about the production. But, he said ‘It is kind of like your music. It doesn’t speak to me.’”
That gave Wolper the courage to overcome the fears he had of walking in his father’s massive shadow and taking on remaking one of the most heralded TV programs.
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The original “Roots” was nominated for 37 Emmy Awards, picking up nine to go along with Golden Globe and Peabody honors. Approximately 140 million viewers (more than half the United States population at the time) watched the production.
History’s new version of “Roots,” an eight-hour mini-series, tells the story of Haley’s family starting with the capture of young African warrior, Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) and continues through multiple generations. The cast also includes Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Anika Noni Rose, T.I., Matthew Goode, Mekhi Phifer and James Purefoy.
Wolper knew that if he was going to remake “Roots,” everything from set designs to story to casting had to be the best possible.
In the new version, the writers expand on Haley’s original novel, using the historical and anthropological information that has come out in the past 40 years. Wolper points out that a lot of the research was sparked by the popularity of the original miniseries.
“It’s not that Alex got anything wrong,” Wolper says. “It’s that we just know so much more now.”
Every detail was examined. argued and debated by 15 experts. The production process has taken Wolper away from his family for the past two years. Although it was a burden emotionally and financially, he never hesitated to work to get the highest quality.
Some of the concerns were huge. When it was impossible to find the kind of ship that transported the slaves, one was built from scratch.
Casting was a hit and miss process. Some actors, such as Fishburne, who plays Haley, were eager to be part of the new series. There were others who wanted nothing to do with the remake.
The production crew spent six months, traveling to 10 countries, to find the right actor to play Kunta Kinte. Wolper laughs and says they saw Malachi Kirby three or four days into the casting process. But they decided that if they found someone that good in a few days, there would have to be someone better.
There wasn’t, and the young Brit got the role.
Wolper and the rest of the cast and crew have watched how Kirby would sit away from the others during meals. Crouched on the floor, he would eat with his hands. Kirby refused to be covered with towels or blankets during the filming on the slave ship. The shivering he does on camera is him really reacting to the frigid cold. It was all part of the his decision to do as little acting as possible.
“I felt a huge wave of responsibility to the project and the people. I did not want to perform and the environment allowed me to just respond to every moment,” Kirby says.
The ship has a confined space where as many as 200 slaves lay on the floor. The makeup team created various looks to show the health issues that often ended lives.
The space was so compact that Kirby found it hard to get enough oxygen. Despite the physical demands of the role, Kirby was determined to understand the experience. When others would leave for lunch or a break, he remained in the small space.
“That was the least I could do,” Kirby says. “As bad as it was when everyone was there, it was even worse when I was by myself. It was very insightful and very physical.”
When you are chained together, there is no acting. You just have to find a way to work together on a floor where they added water and felt like it was covered in grease.
Malachi Kirby, who plays Kunta Kinte
Kirby’s been a professional actor since he was 19, appearing in “EastEnders” and “Doctor Who.” No character has been as physically demanding as Kunta Kinte.
He says that his body was not happy with him during the filming.
“To say I got injured is an understatement. It got to point where it was comical,” Kirby says. “I am not accident prone, but a mixture of environment and being tired toward the latter half of the shoot and I was having a new injuries every day.”
Kirby saw the original “Roots” three years ago. After being cast as Kunta Kinte, he didn’t look at the production again because he wanted to make his portrayal of the young warrior different from LeVar Burton’s in the first production. Kirby was careful on the set because Burton is one of the producers.
The actors finally chatted two months into filming, but by that point Kirby had established how he was going to play the role. Burton offered a few general acting tips and supported the work Kirby was doing.
Wolper doesn’t expect his version of “Roots” will be the last. He believes the story needs to be told to a new generation every few decades to remind them of the importance of the story.
He was 16 when his father’s TV masterpiece aired. No one knew at the time the magnitude of the project.
ABC was so concerned about the public reaction to the original miniseries, the entire run was aired in one week outside the important ratings period. David L. Wolper never visited the set because Haley’s book had not been released so no one knew what to expect.
The younger Wolper hasn’t yet gotten his son’s reaction to the new “Roots.”
- 9 p.m. four consecutive nights beginning Monday, May 30, History