Country music icon Dolly Parton just could not handle watching NBC's film about her childhood when it was premiered at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood last December.
The movie, Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors, which she executive-produced and narrated, featured some heartbreaking moments from her youth, such as the death of her newborn sister and her resulting crisis of faith. It was so personal that she told her producing partner and former agent Sam Haskell: "I cannot watch this movie with other people."
So Haskell arranged for a private screening for Parton and her sister, Stella Mae Parton, who had a cameo in the movie.
"We were sitting at Warner Bros., crying our eyes out," Parton says. "It was very emotional. Then, when I did watch it on TV, I watched it by myself at home. My husband said, 'I can't watch it with you.' He said he cried his eyes out. It was an emotional experience for everybody."
Apparently, America felt the same way. The film (written by Pamela K. Long, who also served as an executive producer) was the first of a four-movie development deal with NBC based on songs and stories from Parton's life; it drew nearly 16 million viewers to its first airing in early December, making it the top-rated broadcast TV movie in more than six years.
The network re-aired it on Christmas Day. The DVD was released in May, and there's talk of a sequel.
Haskell, also an executive producer on the telefilm, thinks he knows why it resonated. "The country is in a bit of a crisis of faith, of social values," he says. "[Viewers are] looking for something to hold on to, something about family, about faith, about coming together for the common good."
In fact, Haskell and Parton believe faith-based family programming is largely missing from television — something they hope to change. "People are looking for an alternative," Haskell says. "Dolly and I have hit upon something that has turned some heads."
The next movie will be based on Parton's song "Jolene," with its famous line, "I'm begging you, please don't take my man." While the song was based on a bank teller who caught the eye of Parton's husband early in their marriage, the movie — written and executive-produced by John Sacret Young (China Beach, The West Wing) — will be a contemporary, "scandalous" story, says Haskell, who is also an executive producer with Parton.
"My husband was flirting with this girl," Parton says, "but needless to say, I kept him. We had a 50th anniversary in May." Haskell and Parton are also developing a movie based on her song "The Seeker," which they believe might make a strong TV series. The story is about a man with Christ-like qualities who runs from his gift, traveling to different towns. He ends up helping himself by helping others.
"It'll be like Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel, but much more contemporary," Haskell says. "And we're going to involve a lot of Dolly's music. She's got a library of thousands of songs, and I want to use as much of her music as we can."
Likewise, Parton has no shortage of ideas for TV projects. "I'm inspired by the same things — and for the same reasons — that have always inspired me," she says.
"I love the art. I love the freedom to be able to work. We've got so many things in our pocket. I'll never run out of stories. I'm old enough to have a few of 'em."