NEW YORK – Just nine months after Pope John Paul II’s death, ABC and CBS are premiering epic made-for-TV movies about the life of the beloved world leader.
ABC goes first, with "Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II" airing Thursday at 8 p.m. EST. The movie stars unknown German actor Thomas Kretschmann as John Paul, who had more in common with the late Karol Wojtyla than meets the eye.
"Thomas physically resembles John Paul and he also is a person who had real-life experience with growing up in a totalitarian state," says executive producer and co-writer Judd Parkin. "We loved him for the part immediately."
In ABC’s movie, Kretschmann plays John Paul from his early 20s all the way through his papacy. "Have No Fear" starts with John Paul standing at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall in 2000, and then flashes back to important parts of his life, most notably the devastating loss of his mother, brother and father before he reached the age of 20.
"Initially, we looked at just doing his papacy. But in investigating his life, we realized that he was quite extraordinary," says Quinn Taylor, senior vice president of movies and mini-series at ABC. "He had a full life before he became pope. He was in love with the theater. He was in love with a woman. He was a very vibrant, attractive young man. And he [was able to touch] billions of people because he was one of them."
CBS’ mini-series, simply titled "Pope John Paul II," is the more star-studded affair. Playing Wojty-la are Oscar-winner Jon Voight (as the Pope) and former heartthrob Cary Elwes ("as a young priest"). The film co-stars James Cromwell as the Archbishop Sapieha, who taught young John Paul to defy oppression.
CBS’s film airs Sunday, Dec. 4, from 9 to 11 p.m. EST and Wednesday, Dec. 7 from 8 to 10 p.m. EST.
The casting of Voight, it turned out, was inspired. According to producer Stephen Davis, the extras in Italy so responded to Voight’s portrayal that many of them cried during shooting.
"They started calling him Papa," Davis says. And Voight learned some Italian and Polish for the role of the intellectual and athletic Catholic leader.
Along the way, the producers of both movies became enthralled with the pontiff’s life, the exploration of which is like taking a crash course in modern European history.
As a young priest under Archbishop Sapieha, Wojtyla learned to oppose totalitarianism in any form. He openly challenged Nazism and the Communism that was forced upon the Polish people once Nazi rule had been swept away.
As Pope, John Paul was known as a man of the people, and an open-minded defender of human rights. Through all of that, he remained the revered leader of the Roman Catholic Church, a difficult line to straddle.
ABC’s movie was shot on location in Rome; the Polish scenes filmed in Lithuania.
"Lithuania and its capital, Vil-nius, match the way Poland looked when John Paul was young," Parkin says. "One of the the houses we used didn’t even have electricity. It truly was like a Polish house in the 1920s. It was all very accurate to the period, which is mainly what drew us there."
CBS’s filmmakers — a combination of U.S., Italian and Polish production companies — boast that they have exclusive access to parts of Rome and the Vatican that ABC’s movie does not have. They also shot in Poland.
According to Davis, Luca Bern-abei, head of the Italian production company Lux Vidae, had connections that "allowed us unique access to both Vatican locations as well as wonderful inside stories in the Pope’s life."
In fact, Davis and Bernabei screened their film in front of John Paul’s old friend and the current Pope, Benedict XVI, in Rome on Nov. 17.
Says Davis: "John Paul transcended his time. I found so much inspiration working on this film."