Magazine article The New Yorker

Prime-Time Scripture

Magazine article The New Yorker

Prime-Time Scripture

Article excerpt

Filming the Crucifixion presents some predictable problems. You've got to get a man on a cross and keep him safely up there, despite the extreme weather conditions on most Golgotha-like hilltops. But one of the difficulties that the actress Roma Downey and her husband, Mark Burnett, the reality television producer, encountered while shooting their new miniseries, "The Bible," came as a surprise.

"We had an issue on the set with snakes," Downey said recently, in the atrium of the headquarters of the American Bible Society, near Columbus Circle. "In the region"--the Atlas Mountains, in Morocco--"there are many poisonous snakes. So we hired a snake wrangler." She paused dramatically. "On the day that we filmed the Crucifixion, he cleared forty-eight snakes from the foot of the cross."

Downey, a slight woman from Northern Ireland, is best known for her role as the angel Monica, on the show "Touched by an Angel," and plays Mary, Jesus' mother, in "The Bible." She and Burnett, who are both fifty-two, had just come from a "Fox & Friends" taping. She wore a clingy black dress and heart-shaped diamonds. As she spoke, Burnett, whose shows include "Survivor," "The Apprentice," "The Voice," and "Sarah Palin's Alaska," rubbed her shoulder, revealing an Army Strong bracelet beneath his cuff. Burnett served in the British Army during the Falklands War, one chapter in a creation myth that also includes stints in Los Angeles as a nanny, an insurance salesman, and a T-shirt vender. (Some of this was rehashed in his failed sitcom "Commando Nanny.") Burnett's mother was Scots Presbyterian; his father is Scots Catholic. Downey was educated by the Sisters of Mercy, and has a brother who is a priest. When they're not travelling, the couple attend Mass at Our Lady of Malibu.

Downey said that she proposed the idea for the miniseries to her husband over a cup of tea. "It felt like a calling," she said. Burnett took a more logic-based approach. "A number of networks were concerned about whether their viewers would watch 'The Bible,' " he said. "Clearly, that was a mistake, because most Americans go to church, and most people who go to church watch television." More than thirteen million people watched the premiere, on the History Channel. "Now the word around L.A. is that everyone is trying to figure out Biblical projects," he added. …

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