Soviet Year 1987: The Making of Amerika by ABC Pictures

The year was 1987 and Lincoln, Nebraska was still fresh off its Oscar-winning buzz for “Terms of Endearment” in 1984.  The new high was a 14.5 hour, seven-nights-in-a-row, mega-miniseries called “Amerika” to be shot on location around the outskirts of Lincoln and aired on the ABC Television network.

What was especially special about Amerika — other than its Soviet-style renaming of our country — was that the miniseries was actually produced by the network. “ABC Pictures” was the producer of origin and the broadcast network of final airing.  That meant the miniseries had a lot of money and support from the network that outside production companies rarely enjoy.

The hook of Amerika was that our country had been taken over by the Soviets in 1997 and Kris Kristofferson and Christine Lahti were going to lead the subversive take back of the good ole US of A!

Here’s how the miniseries was publicized:

America has been bloodlessly taken over by the Soviet Union, leading to slave-labor camps for some, collaboration for others and rebellion for yet others.

And the memorable taglines:

1997. The world is different. The dream is the same. Let freedom ring.

Unfortunately, the show wasn’t very good, but a lot of money was spent in the Lincoln area, so that was excellent for the region.  Kris Kristofferson was just as famous and important then as he is now — which means quite not a lot.  The show was his to carry and he did not carry the drama very far.

I have two memories of being on location with the Amerika miniseries.  Lots of local talent was gainfully employed at will to work as extras and stand-ins and, for fun, I accepted a one day, $40 cash payment, to work as a stand-in.

A stand-in does just that — stands around for hours in place of the actual actor in a scene while the crew sets the camera and lighting angles. You say nothing. You are never on-screen.  You stand there like a live dummy not speaking and doing nothing.

As you can imagine, for a high energy person, standing around all day waiting to be called — or not! — to stand around to do nothing more, is an achingly tiresome job.  We were out in the woods and fields, so there was really nothing to do except daydream.  There were no cellphones or smartphones back in that day.

When it was time for lunch, and the extras lined up at the chuckwagon to eat some sort of cream-stewed pasta scallop thing, one of the production assistants came up to us and yelled, “Extras and stand-ins eat last! Get out of line!”

One of the other stand-ins said, “But we’re the only ones here.”

The production assistant screamed back, “You wait! The cast and crew eat first! When they’re done, you eat! Now, go sit back down!”

Like the hired cattle we were, the five of us in line went back and sat down at a picnic table.  The chuckwagon crew stared at us through the wispy heat of their steam tables, and we stared back at them, all of us bored and starving, and totally put in our place.

We waited 30 minutes for the first crew member to show up to eat.  We were able to finally get some leftovers an hour after that.

The final memory is one of complete terror riding back to town at 2:00am in an SUV on  rural backroads loosely paved in pebble gravel.  The driver — allegedly a union trucker flown in from Los Angeles — was an older woman who drove 110 mph while the rest of us passengers looked at each other in sheer horror because we all knew what she appeared not to know: One false tire spin and we’re all dead in puff of dust in the ravine.

Someone made a vague comment about the speed limit as we skidded and swerved in the moonlit night, but that only made the driver push the gas pedal down harder. We were clearly considered backwoods rubes and the urban dweller was going to determine our fate. Those were the days when nobody worse a seatbelt, so we were all direly at risk.

We all held our breath as we screamed back to Lincoln, and the Villager Motel, in 15 minutes — a trip that should have taken a moderately safer driver least 45 minutes at speed.

Most of the Los Angeles location crew stayed at the Villager Motel — home of the famous Aku Tiki Lounge — where all the newly divorced went to dance and get drunk and lucky:

When we stumbled out of the SUV, we were grateful to be alive.  We’d been starved all day and nearly driven into a young grave.  None of us who worked that day ever returned, even though we were invited.

$40 a day was not enough to risk life and stomach.  In our case, once was plenty enough in the unmaking of Amerika.

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