The Day After

The Day After

Courtesy of Getty Images
Kyle Aletter and Jason Robards

Kyle Aletter and Jason Robards

Courtesy of Getty Images
Steve Guttenberg

Steve Guttenberg

Courtesy of Getty Images
Steve Guttenberg

Steve Guttenberg

Courtesy of Getty Images
The Day After

The Day After

Courtesy of Getty Images
Fill 1
Fill 1
September 13, 2023

Forty Years After

By bringing the horrifying reality of a nuclear war's aftermath to the screen in 1983, The Day After changed history. Four decades later, director Nicholas Meyer and others reflect on the enduring legacy of the highest-rated television movie ever.

Here's what primetime entertainment looked like in the early 1980s: the trophy TV was a 300-pound, hand-carved, mahogany "console" the size of a shipping crate, and most of the content viewed on that massive cathode-ray box was churned out by just three networks. Each strived to boost ratings by airing sensational made-for-TV movies that largely followed a formula: secure a big budget, cast stars (frequently against type) and focus on social ills. Subjects ranged from domestic abuse (Farrah Fawcett in The Burning Bed, NBC) and incest (Ted Danson in Something About Amelia, ABC), to housewife hookers (Jamie Lee Curtis in Money on the Side, ABC) and teen alcoholism (Scott Baio in The Boy Who Drank Too Much, CBS).

Of all these so-called "television events," the one that continues to resonate is The Day After (TDA), a grim story about the fallout from a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Produced by ABC, the film aired on November 20, 1983. The glut of free publicity preceding the broadcast (Newsweek ran the cover line "TV's Nuclear Nightmare" above a mushroom cloud), combined with that year's Cold War echoes (the Soviets shot down a commercial Boeing 747, killing all 269 aboard; soon after, a NATO war exercise called Able Archer 83 primed Russian missile silos), generated the kind of buzz that network execs dream about. Water-cooler talk and op-ed screeds were rife.

Even with that media hype and fortuitous timing, the size of the film's viewership was shocking and unprecedented. When ABC received the overnights on Monday, the numbers looked like typos: 46 rating, 62 percent share. This wasn't a TV movie — it was the Super Bowl. Nielsen pegged the audience at more than 100 million, making TDA the highest-rated television movie in American broadcast history.

Jeopardy! contestants take note: that record still stands. And given TV's increasing fragmentation, it probably always will. To put those eyeballs in context, keep in mind that the U.S. population at the time was only 234 million. Which is why, like the Moon landing and the JFK assassination, many Boomers remember everything about that Sunday night forty years ago when TDA first hit the airwaves, their memories as vivid and fresh as if they'd seen the film yesterday.

That's true for TDA's director, Nicholas Meyer. When the movie first aired, he was at his Laurel Canyon home, perched on the edge of a sofa with his girlfriend. He recalls that the upholstery was red, and his two "largish mutts'' were splayed on the floor, oblivious to the tension in the room. Meyer's most indelible memory from that chilly November evening, though, is this: during the final reel, he turned to his girlfriend and said, "Let's be honest. If you weren't dating me, would you be sitting through this? Because this is really freaking me out." She didn't respond, which only ramped up his anxiety. "I realized she was too numbed by what she was watching to answer."

That angst is still inside him, like a shattered bone that refuses to heal. "I rewatched the film two years ago and found it as upsetting as the first time. Given present circumstances, possibly more so," he says. "When I rewatch my stuff, I often focus on my recollection of making the film, good and bad, or the things I fucked up. But not with TDA. Every time I've seen it — and I'm never eager to — I lose myself in the awfulness."

The film unspools slowly. For Gen Zs weaned on Marvel fare, it's like watching ice melt. In the first fifty minutes, the scene is set — in Lawrence, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri — and the major characters are introduced. Jason Robards, Steve Guttenberg, John Lithgow and JoBeth Williams emote decency and folksy charm. Then comes the awfulness: a Russian nuke explodes somewhere in the Midwest. There's no indication of who pushed the button first: the Americans or the Soviets. That's beside the point. What difference would it make? There's no counterpoint either, no graphic depiction of an American ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) incinerating Moscow. Because that's beside the point, too. People knew about "M.A.D." (mutually assured destruction) from the six o'clock news. In any case, viewers can tolerate only so much nuclear carnage.

The only thing the audience sees is this slice of the American heartland reduced to rubble and ashes. The fire-and-fury montage is over in four minutes. A spectacular mushroom cloud erupts, trees bend, buildings rip apart at the seams and people and animals are instantly vaporized, reduced to apparitions — X-rays frozen in time. The Robards character, stunned and incredulous, says it looked "like the sun exploded." The second hour mostly showcases the horrors of radiation poisoning: hair falls out, skin melts, everybody dies.

The critical response was overwhelmingly positive. In addition to Newsweek, TDA received flattering cover stories from Time, U.S. News & World Report and TV Guide, which included this laurel in its review: "Rarely has there been a TV movie so uncompromising in its intensity." The following year, ABC's monster hit was nominated for twelve Emmys and won two, both in technical categories: sound editing and special visual effects.

Meyer almost passed on TDA. For starters, the script by Edward Hume (Barnaby Jones, The Streets of San Francisco) clocked in at three hours — a long slog. Then there was the subject matter: nuclear holocaust. Another tough sell. On top of that, he didn't need to do TV. Unlike today's auteurs, who actively seek out TV deals, film directors in the '80s seldom crossed over to the networks unless the phone had stopped ringing. That wasn't the case here. A young writer-director with an impressive track record (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Time After Time), he had just revitalized a major franchise with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which earned $97 million worldwide and set a record for its first-day box-office gross. Nick Meyer, in short, was bankable.

The anti-nuke message of Hume's script, however, prodded his conscience. The son of post-Roosevelt-era Democrats, he was a staunch liberal who had protested the Vietnam war and "marched in the streets" for civil rights. Advocating for the elimination of nuclear stockpiles was a default setting on his moral compass. He remembered duck-and-cover drills in grade school during the height of the Cold War, and the dog tag he was required to wear just in case a Soviet ICBM wiped New York off the map. A self-described "imaginative, or paranoid kid," he was convinced that every plane in the sky carried a nuclear payload. This childhood trauma later prompted him to sign anti-nuke petitions and write letters to Congress. But was he prepared to jeopardize a lucrative film career to make a political statement? He wasn't so sure.

He needed a nudge. Oddly, it came from his psychoanalyst. Slumped in an overstuffed chair, Meyer explained why he shouldn't take the job. After considering his patient's meticulously constructed argument, the doctor looked up from his notebook and said, "I think this is where we find out who you really are." That sly provocation was exactly what Meyer needed. "I might have wound up doing it anyway," he says, "because that's just the way I'm wired, but I sure didn't want to."

He wasn't alone. Nobody at ABC wanted to make TDA. Every department in the network's film division had serious concerns, ranging from the budget (bloated, even if the script were chopped down to size), to the heavy lift of selling ads, to placating Standards & Practices (ABC had the most liberal in-house censors of the "Big Three" networks, but charred corpses were pushing it). Also, there was genuine fear that Ronald Reagan's hawkish White House would demand cuts, and military cooperation was sorely needed to keep the project afloat.

All those concerns would turn out to be warranted.

One person did want to make the movie, however: Brandon Stoddard, the president of ABC Motion Pictures. He'd already scored a string of hits for the network including Rich Man, Poor Man; The Thorn Birds; The Winds of War and the most popular miniseries ever, Alex Haley's Roots. His instinct for projects that won both critical and commercial acclaim had earned him a TV film budget of $55 million, a prime table at the Polo Lounge and a shiny Jaguar with vanity plates that read "40 SHARE." Stoddard had industry clout, creative freedom and support from the ABC hierarchy. If he wanted to make a movie about the Soviets and Americans blowing each other up, the company would write the checks, hope for the best and wait for his next blockbuster.

TDA was inspired by The China Syndrome, the 1979 disaster thriller about an accident at a nuclear power plant. Stoddard was determined to duplicate that film's success at ABC. If a story about a measly core meltdown in a Los Angeles suburb could snag four Oscars and gross $52 million, he thought, imagine how many people would tune in to watch a ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie about the Soviets and Americans starting a nuclear war.

Robert Papazian, the producer who brought Meyer aboard, remembers his first meeting with the ABC brass, and how confident Stoddard was about the idea. "I was in a conference room filled with about forty people, including publicity, marketing and programming execs," he says. "We were told that because the script was so controversial, it had to be kept under wraps to prevent any public or government backlash. Everything was 'top secret' until we had an answer print [the first version of a film, combining sound and picture]. I looked at Brandon and said, 'This could be bigger than Roots.' He smiled and replied, 'Bigger, my boy, bigger.' And he was absolutely right."

All film projects have complications, but TDA had more than most. The one that provoked the fiercest debate was Hume's doorstop of a script. ABC's plan was to shoot every page, then chop it in two and broadcast the movie on consecutive nights. The bean-counters saw this as the only way to prevent the network from taking a bath. The alternative — selling just one night of ads — would be a fiscal disaster. Meyer balked: "Nobody's going to tune in for part two of Armageddon! Cut an hour and hit everyone between the eyes on Sunday night." Stoddard agreed, and ABC reluctantly folded.

The Reagan administration wasn't enthusiastic about the script either. In addition to suggesting cuts, the White House insisted a new scene be added that emphasized the Soviets had fired the first missile. Meyer and Papazian refused to be cowed by Oval Office neocons. Indeed, one of the reasons Meyer decided to make the film was that he thought it might turn public opinion against Reagan, denying him a second term. He described TDA as "more of a public service announcement than a movie" and wouldn't budge. Stoddard, much to the network's displeasure, backed Meyer again: no rewrites. The upshot was that ABC was denied all the military freebies filmmakers depended on to tamp down production costs and ensure cinematic verisimilitude through pricey items like military aircraft, vehicles and other hardware.

Filmed on location in Lawrence, Kansas (some interior scenes were shot at an abandoned hospital in L.A.), the production smacks of authenticity. That had a lot to do with Meyer's insistence on hiring local talent. Of the eighty-odd speaking parts, only fifteen were cast in Los Angeles. The rest were filled by non-actors selected at cattle calls in Kansas City and Lawrence. "I cast a lot of friends, relatives and students," explains Jack Wright, the University of Kansas theater director whom Meyer tapped to be his local talent scout. "We also placed ads in the newspaper to get the 1,500 extras Nick needed. Everybody was excited about the anti-nuclear message, but it wasn't like, 'Gee, we're making a movie! Isn't this great?' These people were very sober and serious. It was more like, 'Boy, this is something that could really happen. So we better do a good job.'"

Meyer needed all those extras to show what a thermonuclear explosion might look like. The most dramatic moment arrives in the penultimate scene, a stark tableau the crew called "the big shot." Filmed at the University of Kansas's imposing Allen Fieldhouse (capacity: 16,300), this post-nuke triage spectacle is one long, epic crane shot, as slow as it is engrossing. By the time the camera reaches the arena's rafters, the entire frame is flooded with a sea of cots, blankets and crumpled bodies (stuffed dummies were used to fill the cheap seats). The wardrobe directive on the call sheet that day reads like an invite for a Halloween party: "Wear dirty, old, torn clothing — ragged! Old rags or scarves should be worn as bandages." Nobody got rich. Background actors received five dollars a day and a peanut butter sandwich. A line of dialogue paid seventy-five bucks.

Ellen Anthony-Moore was ten when she was cast as one of the minor characters. With two parents who worked in theater, she knew something about acting. Not that it mattered. She just played herself: a cute, boisterous kid with blonde hair who ran around in Levi's and flannel shirts. She had a handful of lines, a crush on costar Steve Guttenberg (both confessed they had "nukemares" at night) and an early interest in the anti-war movement. Today she recognizes the film's importance, describing her city's participation as "a gift to the world." She adds, however, that making it exacted a significant toll. "When you see a street in your hometown blown up and your grocery store being ransacked, you think, That's my street ... that's my grocery store. "

Even as a child, she knew about the devastating power of nuclear weapons. "I understood what was going on. I had to be around dead animals, I had to talk about things that were very sad. That's a dark place to go at such a formative age. It was somber work."

Even though it's forty years later, some things haven't changed, including her anxiety about nukes and mushroom clouds. She's middle-aged now, an English professor living in Manhattan. She also has a son, a young man who's studying to be an actor, but she's never watched TDA with him. Strong emotions still linger. "On 9/11, when people were storming the grocery stores, I had flashbacks to one of the scenes in TDA," she recalls. "I'll always be haunted by that film."

Much of that distress has to do with the film's terrifying mushroom cloud. This wasn't the usual Trinity test B-roll from Los Alamos. Splicing in that grainy, black-and-white footage would have been too jarring. Meyer needed a cloud that looked real and seamless. With CGI still in its infancy, the cloud had to be a practical effect, captured in-camera. Robert Blalack, who cofounded Industrial Light & Magic and helped conceive the glowing lightsaber illusion for 1977's Star Wars, was the guy who figured it out. He tested various combinations of explosives and pyrotechnics, but all of them fell short.

The break came when Blalack saw a woman pour cream into a clear glass cup containing tea. As the cream hit the bottom, it exploded outward and formed a perfect mushroom cloud. To scale up the visual, he filmed gallons of cream being dumped into a commercial aquarium full of Earl Grey. When the film was projected upside-down, Meyer had his doomsday cloud and, the following year, Blalack had his Emmy (Outstanding Individual Achievement — Special Visual Effects).

TDA was embroiled in disputes and conflict. They started just ten days into the shoot, when Meyer threatened to quit over the censors' demands, and they continued long after the film wrapped. Two incidents stand out. The first happened on the corporate end. The network gave Stoddard an ultimatum: either make the script more palatable for advertisers, viewers and the White House, or the film would be canceled. He ignored the warning and threatened to resign if the film didn't make it to air. Again, the network gave in. Then, during post-production, Meyer vanished for three months. A severe depression, triggered by the mounting discord, made him contemplate suicide. "I crawled into bed and wanted to be dead," he recalls. Papazian puts it this way: "There was a creative disagreement between Nick, the network and myself."

After a rough cut was screened at ABC, the room was silent. Some executives were stunned, others were weeping. Papazian interpreted that as a thumbs-up from the toughest critics the film would encounter. "Then it was time to piss on it," Meyer says. "The censors wanted their cuts. Some may have been justified, but most of them were pulling punches." Whether it was the smoldering carcasses in the fields or the ghoulish victims in the tent city scenes, the zombie vibe was deemed excessive and anathema to advertisers.

In solidarity with his director, editor William Paul Dornisch (Star Trek II), declined to make the changes and was fired. In retaliation, Meyer gave a loose-lipped interview to a Chicago syndicated columnist: "I needed to rattle the network cage. I hinted darkly there was dissension in the ranks." The reverse-PR ploy worked. After much grumbling, ABC eventually backed down and TDA was scheduled for sweeps week. "A lot of stuff I insisted on keeping was restored," Meyer says. "Not everything, but a lot. So I got out of bed and rejoined the movie."

ABC may have done the right thing, but it paid the price for taking on such a hot-button topic. As Papazian recalls, the network's approach to ads was, "We don't expect to make money on this movie, but there's a limit on how much we can afford to lose." But the ad revenue turned out to be even worse than projected. Much worse. Jerry Falwell's Christian right-wing political organization, the Moral Majority, was a factor. The televangelist threatened that his sizable congregation would boycott any company that purchased ad time during the movie's broadcast. With or without the boycott, the usual suspects were spooked. The joke at ABC's advertising department was that "all the generals had run for the hills": General Motors, General Mills and General Electric. Only three spots sold: Commodore Computers, Minolta and Dollar Rent a Car. Each ran early, before the bodies piled up. After the mushroom-cloud scene, there were no more commercial breaks.

What the movie lacked in ad dollars, though, it more than made up for in Washington influence. Dig deeper into the TV archives, and the true legacy of this film emerges: TDA altered the course of history.

In 1983, the Reagan administration's nuclear policy was clear and unambiguous: nukes were a deterrence, and a nuclear war was winnable. Even if the Soviets did shoot some missiles at America, the president had a plan, something even better than Dr. Strangelove's "Doomsday Machine." That same year, during a nationally televised speech, Reagan proposed the deployment of the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka the "Star Wars" program), a space-based laser shield that would detect and destroy any incoming Russian ICBMs before they reached their target.

About six months later, ABC sent an advance copy of TDA to the White House. Following the screening, Reagan was visibly shaken. He found Meyer's bleak vision both horrific and heartbreaking. It made him question his own long-held convictions regarding national defense policy, particularly the idea that a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was winnable.

Here's part of the October 10, 1983, entry from Reagan's White House diary: "I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running. ... It's very effective and left me very depressed. ... My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent and see there is never a nuclear war."

According to Edmund Morris, who wrote 1999's Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, TDA profoundly affected the president and was a significant factor in persuading Reagan to pursue and sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Their 1986 meeting in Reykjavik led to a groundbreaking deal, the first time the two superpowers had agreed to slash nuclear inventories.

John Mecklin, editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, confirms that the movie had geopolitical implications. "I know that Reagan and Gorbachev were affected by TDA," he says. "That film did have an impact on the nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and Russia, which speaks well of both the filmmakers and ABC."

More viewers than ten Super Bowls and the O.J. Simpson car chase, air kisses from the critics, brilliant VFX that even Christopher Nolan would appreciate and ... changing the hearts and minds of Ronnie and Gorby. That's quite a legacy for a made-for-TV movie. Meyer chuckles at the notion that TDA will make the lede of his Times obit. The next moment, though, he embraces the idea and, in a moment of clarity, asserts, "TDA is the most worthwhile thing that I've ever done in my life. I helped postpone a nuclear annihilation."

Not prevent, thwart or stop. Not even avoid. Postpone. He still worries about The Bomb, and perhaps he should. In 1983, when TDA first aired, the Doomsday Clock — a symbol of the world's vulnerability to manmade catastrophe — was set at three minutes to midnight. Today, the Bulletin 's atomic scientists have studied the current threat to humanity and reset their clock. It's now at ninety seconds to midnight. The experts who make such risk assessments insist that we are living in "a time of unprecedented danger," twice as dangerous compared to when Kremlin officials mistook a NATO exercise for a nuclear attack on Russia.

Despite those twelve Emmy nominations, Meyer claims he didn't set out to make an award-winning film. From preproduction to final cut, the ground rule was: Don't Make a Good Movie. "Because if I did, people would talk about the movie and not the subject matter," he says. "I didn't want beautiful cinematography or a catchy theme song. I didn't want flashy performances either. If you want people to think about nuclear war, you can't provide any escape hatches. The message was: this is what a nuclear war would look like — on a good day."

Meyer fields one last question: is he disappointed that TDA didn't torpedo that second presidential term? The response is quick and unequivocal: "Not at all. I did something more than foil Ronald Reagan's re-election bid. I changed his mind."

The article originally appeared in emmy magazine #10, 2023, under the same title.

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