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‘Son of the Morning Star’ — the Battle of 3 Networks

It began with that hefty synopsis, larger than most — the new Evan S. Connell novel, the massive and most comprehensive study ever of George Armstrong Custer and Crazy Horse

It began with that hefty synopsis, larger than most.

William Morris New York had structured an arrangement with small, independent agents to have a first look at their new books. The new Evan S. Connell novel, the massive and most comprehensive study of George Armstrong Custer and Crazy Horse was to be published. The synopsis, usually four to six pages was 27.

This was a spectacular miniseries. I didn't care that westerns were out of favor, there would be a buyer for this. Not an agency represented book, I told New York I wanted to move quickly and to back it up called the author's agent.

I was directed to the legendary Elizabeth McKee at the revered Harold Matson Company in New York. She immediately revealed that she had a difficult history with our office (a recurring theme), but we shared many stories and became friends before our conversation ended. 

We did, in fact, in the next several months, meet up at my first Algonquin Hotel lunch. A no-nonsense, principled and hard working woman who devoted a century to one company, from file clerk to agent, Elizabeth Mckee was, if nothing else, candid. 

As documented in Publisher's Weekly "Rights" page, she had an offer from CBS. Not a producer or production company, the network had made a direct offer on their own for "in house." It turned out that the wife of the network chief had read an advance copy, was a history buff and urged her husband to buy it.

In the meantime, Steve White at NBC shared my excitement. "I want to buy the book, but I don't want a bidding war. If it makes sense, you will have a deal."

CBS' offer had been brought to Connell, and he was considering it but McKee said he wasn't thrilled. What would thrill him? CBS had offered the author $25 grand as an option. "I suggested doubling it but was compeled to elevate it to $60K (for which I demanded a two year option) against a purchase price of $150K for two hours, with each additional hour at $50K?"

She agreed. I agreed. Now all I needed was a producer to make the deal.

Hal Ross and I had signed former studio chief Thom Mount (pictured at left). He was one of those guys whose interests were wide and diverse. I messengered the coverage and he was prepared when we spoke. He was in. Did we need a company to backstop him? Viacom stepped in.

In the meantime, McKee had given me Connell's phone number in Sausalito and I gave it to Mount. They spoke for several hours, an enthusiastic, rambling conversation, My feedback from McKee was that Mount had won over the author. Our deal was closed.

I had brought him to Tom Tannenbaum, running Viacom, with the idea of the Mount Company finding a television home. 

Mount was not only interested in television and features, but envisioned his company to be much more than a mere "production company" — it would develop magazines and books, a record label, New York and regional theatre in addition to ownership of minor league baseball teams and horseracing. The world was his to conquer. His excitement was contagious.

Many great western writers would have killed to adapt Connell's book, but Thom Mount had another idea. As a Universal Pictures chief he had worked with writer Melissa Mathison (at right), mentored by Francis Coppola, who had run off and married the young actor Harrison Ford while beginning her writing career. She shared with Mount her childhood fascination with Custer and he remembered.

Her first screen credit was "The Black Stallion" for Carroll Ballard. She followed with the life changing "E.T." for Spielberg and "The Escape Artist" for Caleb Deschanel.

What she had confided in Thom Mount was that, as a child, she and her siblings grew up seeing a massive poster of Custer's devastating defeat every morning of their lives. It had been printed and distributed by a beer company and her dad had posted it on the wall where they passed it every day. It had entered her consciousness and she was always curious about "the why." Against her agent's advice (television?) she accepted the assignment. She wrote a masterful four hours. 

Mathison and Mount both shared the vision of Custer warrior-as-"rock star" of his era.

NBC's executives didn't get it, were not fans of the West and vetoed its production. We took it to CBS where they sat on it, then hired at least two western writers to rewrite (when there was no need) and then passed. Next stop ABC where excitement was triggered by the master selling of Mount. If they could bring in a writer-director they believed in, they would greenlight this four hour. Mike Robe (from "Murder Ordained"; pictured left) was hired and production was ordered.

Viacom, reviewed the shooting script and considered it too rich for their current economic downsizing. They passed. A firm four hour ABC commitment, once again, without a production company. The late Hal Ross called his friend Russell Goldsmith, Chairman and CEO of City National Bank who also served as CEO of Republic Pictures. He happily took over the ABC deal.

Gary Cole starred as "Custer" with Rodney Grant as "Crazy Horse." Rosanna Arquette was Custer's devoted companion. 

Thom Mount was shooting a feature and turned over the miniseries production to wife Nicolette Bret. While Goldsmith's Republic Pictures was the official prodcution "umbrella," the network compelled Bret to bring on a third producing partner as well in addition to an experienced line producer.

There are devoted fans of the resulting four hours, and it is a popular success worldwide in video.


A former senior vice president at William Morris for two decades, Axelman founded the movie for television packaging division, responsible for putting together the elements for more than 150 TV movies, features and series while representing winners of the Tony, Emmy, Oscar and Pulitzer Prize.

Since 2004, he has taught Entertainment Business and Law at UCLA.

He currently has written two half-hour pilots and co-created three reality shows with Diane Raymond.

He is at work on an agency-inspired tell-all novel.