NEW YORK – Mark Burnett was taken aback by the scale of what his wife, actress Roma Downey, had in mind when she suggested over tea one morning four years ago that they make a television miniseries based on the Bible.
"Momentarily, I think he thought I'd lost my mind," Downey recalled. "He went out on his bicycle and he prayed on it and he came back and said, 'You know what, I think it's a good idea. I think we should do it together.' We shook hands and haven't looked back."
The series debuts on History Sunday at 8 p.m. EST, the first of five two-hour chunks that will air each weekend. The finale airs on Easter Sunday.
Different stories in the Bible have been Hollywood fodder for years. Burnett, the prolific producer behind "Survivor" and "The Voice," said no one had tried to tie it all together and use modern computer graphics to bring images like Moses parting the Red Sea to life on screen.
Instead of being all-encompassing, they tried to concentrate on stories in depth and on characters who would emotionally engage the audience. The first episode illustrates the wisdom of that approach: it flounders at the start with a discussion about the world's creation but becomes more gripping when the emphasis turns to the lives of Abraham and Moses.
Burnett said he believes there's a growing "Biblical illiteracy" among young people.
"It's like saying you never heard of Macbeth or King Lear," he said. "In school, you have to know a certain amount of Shakespeare, but no Bible. So there's got to be a way to look at it from a pure literature point of view. If it wasn't for the Bible, arguably Shakespeare wouldn't have written those stories."
Downey, the former star of "Touched By an Angel," said she wanted to be part of something that would glorify God.
After pitching their idea to several networks, Burnett and Downey found a fit with Nancy Dubuc, History's president and general manager. She likes the challenge of ideas that seem unwieldy. History made the 2010 miniseries "America the Story of Us," which was a big hit, and 2012's "Mankind the Story of All of Us," which wasn't. Last spring's miniseries on the Hatfields and McCoys was an eye-opening success.
Burnett and Downey have been building anticipation for "The Bible" by previewing it at churches and for religious leaders. Rick Warren, Joel Osteen and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, have all endorsed the work.
"The faith community is going to sample it, unquestionably," Dubuc said. "Whether they stay or go remains with the TV gods. Our job has been to present this as an epic tale of adventure."
History's own campaign is not targeting a religious audience, emphasizing some of the dramatic scenes to suggest that audiences won't be preached to. The screening that Downey and Burnett have sweated the most was when their teenage children showed it to some friends.
"We knew that we could make it heartfelt," Downey said. "We knew we could make it faithful. But we wanted to be sure that we could make it cool."
Downey spent nearly half of 2012 in Morocco supervising filming, beginning in the cold of February and ending in the blistering heat of July. "We wanted it to be gritty and authentic," she said. "We didn't want it to look like somebody had just stepped out of the dry cleaners."
Her husband flew back and forth to the United States, where he would work on his other programs. Downey said she initially had no intention of appearing onscreen, but stepped in when they had trouble casting an actress for an older Mary, mother of Jesus.
Except for Downey, few of the actors involved are well known in the United States. Portuguese TV star Diogo Morgado portrays Jesus Christ, and many of the other lead actors are based in Britain.
The television airing of "The Bible" on History is only the beginning for this project. Lifetime will air a repeat each week after a new episode appears on History. It will air internationally, and a DVD package will go on sale this spring. The series' scripts are bound together into a book. Producers will make a theatrical release movie of a portion of the story, and are looking at showing it in stadiums this fall. Burnett and Downey have also reached a deal to make parts of the film available as part of a religious education curriculum for churches.
"More people will watch this than any of our other series combined over the next three decades," Burnett said.
Even better, their marriage survived the grueling process intact — even stronger, Downey said.
"Nobody has taken on the broad vision from Genesis to Revelation, and I think we probably realized at midpoint why no one had done it before," she said. "It was maddeningly complicated and extraordinarily hard work. We approached it humbly, but we were exhilarated by it."
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org or on Twitter (at)dbauder.