It might have taken three decades to turn America’s most famous family feud into a miniseries, but it’s been worth the effort for veteran TV and film producer Leslie Greif, whose Hatfields & McCoys broke basic cable ratings records in its Memorial Day debut. The three-part story about the infamous post-Civil War clash starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton ranked as the top three most-watched entertainment telecasts of all time on ad-supported cable, with the conclusion drawing a record 14.3 million viewers. The mini’s success even earned Greif a congratulatory call from Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, which co-owns History Channel parent A&E Networks.
It’s a fitting conclusion for a passion project that no one seemed interested in. Greif, a history buff, first got the idea for Hatfields & McCoys when he started in the TV business in the early 1980s. Broadcast television was attracting huge audiences with event miniseries like Roots and Shogun, and he thought a miniseries about the well-known rivalry would be the perfect calling card to break into the business. “It is a revenge story,” Greif explains. “I thought it had all the great drama, on top of it being a true story. I thought it would make for riveting television.”
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There was some initial interest – one of the hottest writers at the time, Bill Kerby [The Rose], came onboard to write the mini, which was set up at CBS. But after languishing at the network for a while, it ended up in turnaround. For the next three decades, the project bounced around. Despite attracting top talent – Burt Lancaster was attached to star at one point, with Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck also showing strong interest through the years — the mini never got to a green light.
“I presented it to any network that would consider doing it – there wasn’t a network executive that hadn’t heard my passion, my pledge, my pleas,” Greif says. It got to a point where he would sit down with network brass for a meeting, and they would start off by asking, “Please, don’t bring up the Hatfields & McCoys again.” Greif thought he had exhausted every perceivable option when three years ago he read that History was looking to enter original programming. He took his Hatfields & McCoys pitch to the channel’s president Nancy Dubuc. “In one meeting, she said yes,” Greif says, calling Dubuc “the visionary broadcaster of our generation.”
Costner was then approached to star. “He called me and said he would do it on one condition: ‘Do not change a word in the script.’ So we didn’t cut one thing.” The project was originally shopped “as a feature on TV” and a two-part miniseries. Because of Costner’s request, it was expanded to a three-part event, which History aired on three consecutive nights. And despite airing decades after the heyday of event miniseries, Greif feels Hatfields & McCoys was able to recapture the magic of those big telecasts of yesteryear. “It has become an event, with people watching together and talking about it,” Greif says.
Despite his Hatfields & McCoys idea getting shut down early on, Greif did make his producing debut with an event miniseries, 1986’s Sins starring Joan Collins and Timothy Dalton. He gradually expanded into features, scripted series, including the long-running Walker, Texas Ranger, which he co-created and executive produced, and TV documentaries, including 2007’s Brando. And when the longform arena started to shrink as broadcast and some cable networks abandoned the genre, Greif focused a lot of his efforts in the fast-growing reality field, where he has produced a number of series, including cable hit Gene Simmons: Family Jewels on History sibling A&E.
Now Greif, an Emmy nominee for Brando, faces the possibility of a second Emmy nomination for Hatfields & McCoys. And Emmy voters always have the appetite for vintage stories: Another blockbuster Western miniseries, AMC’s Broken Trail, ended up winning the best miniseries Emmy in 2007.
“It would be a huge honor,” Greif says of a possible nomination. While he stresses that if he’s lucky enough to get a nom, he knows the competition in the category would be “stellar”. But he would also like to see all nominees on similar footing, noting that the best lightweight boxer doesn’t stand a chance against a heavyweight one. “Doing a two-hour TV movie is not the same as a six-hour miniseries or a 12-hour limited series,” he points out. “The writing, directing, the scope, the attitude and the money are very different.”
The longform field is a lot more crowded than it was in 2007 when Broken Trail won because last year, the TV Academy merged the best original movie and best miniseries categories. While he stresses that he’d be lucky to get a nom in the top longform category, Greif also would like to see all nominees on similar footing, noting that the best lightweight boxer doesn’t stand a chance against a heavyweight one. In addition to TV movies having to compete with miniseries, some programs that air as regular series also have qualified for the best movie/miniseries category, avoiding more fierce competition in the best series categories. Recent cases include the first season of Downton Abbey last year and American Horror Story this year.
Whatever happens at this year’s Emmys, Greif says there’s no question that Hatfields & McCoys has completed its journey — it won’t go the way of other successful miniseries, such as USA’s The Starter Wife, which spawned a regular series. “There will be no season two,” Greif says. “This is the fork of the story. “
(Photo of Kevin Costner, Leslie Greif and Bill Paxton by Getty Immages)