Colleen McCullough, the Australian author of 1977 bestseller, The Thorn Birds, which served as the basis for one of the most popular TV miniseries ever, died today on Australia’s Norfolk Island. The novelist had suffered poor health in recent years. She was 77. McCullough was born in New South Wales in 1937 and worked as a neuroscientist before writing the first of her 25 books, Tim. Published in 1974, it was later made into a feature starring Mel Gibson and Piper Laurie.
But she became best known internationally for her second novel, The Thorn Birds. Set primarily on the Cleary family’s Drogheda sheep farm in the Australian outback, the epic traces three generations over 40+ years and centers on the forbidden love between a young woman and an ambitious Catholic priest. Paperback rights to the novel were sold at auction for $1.9M — a record at the time in the U.S. It went on to sell 30 million copies, making it the highest-selling Australian book ever.
Interest in the novel was further spurred on by the wildly successful 1983 ABC miniseries. Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward, Bryan Brown and Barbara Stanwyck starred in the saga that, in its day, became the second most-viewed miniseries in the U.S. behind Roots. It won four Golden Globes and six Primetime Emmys. In 1996, CBS aired a follow-up, The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years, with Chamberlain reprising his role as Father Ralph de Bricassart. McCullough’s last book, Bittersweet, came out in 2013. Publisher Harper Collins Australia tweeted the below this morning: