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The Staircase: ‘High-minded’ Movie Makes it to Network TV

BY Mark Pattison

March 15-21, 1998 Issue | Posted 3/15/98 at 2:00 PM

 

It took eight years for television producer Craig Anderson to get The Staircase made.

The Staircase, a fictional treatment about an amazing staircase in a convent chapel in New Mexico, will air 9:00-11:00 p.m. EDT Easter Sunday, April 12, on CBS.

In the movie, Barbara Hershey plays Mother Madalyn, a dying Loretto sister whose last wish is to see the chapel completed. But the contractor and the builder goof up by not putting in a staircase to the choir loft, and the chapel's dimensions make a conventional stairway impossible.

Mother Madalyn and the sisters pray a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the novena's last day, a mysterious but disarming stranger named Joad (William Petersen) appears, offering to install a staircase.

Without using nails or a center support and using wood that defies classification, Joad builds a circular staircase.

The actual staircase still astounds people even today, including screen-writer Chris Lofton, himself a carpenter with a degree in civil engineering.

Since the chapel housing the staircase couldn't be used for filming, a replica had to be made.

He Lofton speculated on who Joad might have been.

“He was a carpenter who, for whatever reasons in his life—some terrible losses, personal losses—took another step along the evolutionary ladder and became someone who dedicated himself to helping people,” Lofton said.

“I regard him mostly as a selfless person, committed to helping people, wherever he can, whenever he can.”

In writing the script in 1977, Lofton found it a tough sell. One network—he won't say which—turned it down, telling him it was “too high-minded.”

“That climate has changed a little bit,” Lofton said. “The networks realize that television has a hunger for this kind of material,” and that high ratings for such programs as the TV debut of the motion picture Chariots of Fire are more than “a fluke,” something else he said a TV executive told him.

He considers his script “timeless” in the sense that he “can put it in a drawer and take it out in five years” without needing revisions to make it contemporary.

Anderson said his eight-year wait to make The Staircase was not his longest. The TV movie Return of the Native took 20 years, and another TV film, Spoils of War, also took eight years.

The Piano Lesson, which earned Anderson a Christopher Award, took a mere four-and-a-half years, he said.

He noted that last Easter, showings of the theatrical movies The Ten Commandments and A Few Good Men plus a Waltons Easter special drew a combined 51% of viewers, “a large audience for TV on Easter Sunday.”

This makes Anderson think The Staircase will do well.

“TV was getting tired of the crime of the week, disease of the week, rape of the week movie,” he said.

His own take on who Joad was?

“He's a man on a donkey, a carpenter. He performs miracles. We don't say any more than that. You can read between the lines. You can make up your own mind who you think he is- Jesus, Joseph, an evolved man.”

Mark Pattison writes for Catholic News Service.

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