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Costume Drama Thursday: North & South (Jakes)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

In 1985, ABC premiered a “novel for television” based on North and South, John Jakes’s novel about the rising tensions between the Northern and Southern American states and bought us, in full costumed and accented splendor, Patrick Swayze. This was a year after his breaking role in Red Dawn and two years before what is arguably his most famous role of Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing.

What will surprise people unfamiliar with the miniseries or the books is that North and South actually covers a span of about twenty years . . . from 1842 when Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) and George Hazard (James Read—oh, man, was I in love with him back then!) are on their way to matriculate at West Point as cadets at about seventeen or eighteen years old, to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.

In the decade of Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Knots Landing, and Dallas, of course the miniseries had to be very soapy—and North and South delivered in spades, with sexy leading men and tons of daytime and evening soap opera regulars to appeal to female viewers, and gorgeous women in cleavage-creating corsets and battle scenes to appeal to men (though I doubt many men actually watched willingly—and the battle scenes in this series were from the Mexican-American war of 1845).

Because a saga like this must include at least one epic love story, in the first episode, we get the introduction of one of the relationships that would drive much of the emotional drama of the series—the meeting of Orry Main and Madeline Fabray (Lesley-Anne Down, using her best Scarlett O’Hara imitation to cover her British accent). But Madeline is on her way to marry Orry’s much older, dastardly neighbor, Justin LaMotte (David Carradine), leading to Orry’s pining for her and trying to figure out how they can be together throughout the entire first miniseries, which does get annoying after awhile—especially in one of the areas in which the miniseries diverges from the book, when they start an illicit affair.

Better than the Orry/Madeline/Justin story, though is when, in the second episode, George meets and instantly falls in love with the lovely Irish lass, Constance Flynn (Wendy Kilbourne), at a dance after the end of the fighting in Mexico. Oh, how I wanted to be her! (And her father was played by Robert Mitchum—back in the early to mid-1980s, it was amazing the caliber of guest stars they were able to get for these miniseries!)

But beyond even these two epic romances—one unconsummated for more than twenty years, the other deliriously happy—was the “bromance” between Orry and George, which is truly the epic relationship that these novels/the miniseries were based on. (How many times, especially in the second series, does Constance say to George, “Ya’re thinkin’ ’bout Orry, aren’t ya?”)

Running a very close second to George and Constance, my other favorite couple in the series is Brett and Billy—whose relationship follows the typical Civil War–era romance novel scenario: she’s from the South, he’s from the North, and the tensions brought on by the divisions in the country threaten their happiness. But even with as much as I loved them in the first series, I was never overly thrilled with the actor who played Billy, George Hazard’s younger brother—he seemed oddly miscast with his straight, sandy hair, compared to James Read, Jonathan Frakes, and Kirstie Alley as his siblings.

A little trivia from this series: Several real-life romances came out of North & South—most notably, James Read and Wendy Kilbourne, though they did not actually marry until 1988. Also meeting on these sets (and still married) were Jonathan Frakes and Genie Francis, who also married in 1988. Lesley-Anne Down fell in love with a lighting technician, Don FauntLeRoy, whom she married in 1985—and, according to IMDb, they’re still married, too! (Unfortunately, the series wasn’t golden for everyone’s relationships—Kirstie Alley and Parker Stevenson, who had been married a couple of years by the time Stevenson joined the cast for the second series in 1986, divorced in 1987.)

Now, speaking of the second series . . .

ABC managed to turn out even more stellar guest stars for North and South: Book 2, based on the second book in Jakes’s trilogy, Love and War—LLoyd Bridges (CSA President Jefferson Davis), Linda Evans, Morgan Fairchild, Hal Holbrook (US President Abraham Lincoln), Lee Horsley, Wayne Newton, David Ogden Stiers, Olivia de Havilland, and Jimmy Stewart. This series opens up with Orry, George, Billy, Charles (Orry’s cousin), and everyone else riding off to war—a war that no one expected to last longer than ninety days. And, as we all know, that estimate was a little bit off. Though the filmmakers took some pretty big liberties with history here, I have to say that this, more than anything else, is what made me fall in love with Civil War history and led to my minoring in it in college.

With the re-casting of Billy Hazard—with former Hardy Boy Parker Stevenson—I fell even more in love with the characters of Brett and Billy, and the second series, focusing on the four years of the Civil War, for me is all about their relationship.

Now, I can’t talk about a costume drama without mentioning the costumes. In both Book 1 and Book 2, costumes were used not only to contrast the different levels of society (the wealthy Northern industrialists vs. the working class abolitionists; the plantation owners vs. the slaves), but also the effect of the war, especially on those in the South. Of course, I believe everyone’s favorite costume from the series was Constance’s “Charles Worth original” (the green and gold gown). And, whether blue or gray, there’s just something about a man in uniform . . .

There was a third miniseries made in 1994, based on the third novel in the series, Heaven and Hell, but my advice is to skip it. They recast many of the main roles, and took characters into places/relationships they never should have been in.

About five years after the first series aired, my sister and I had the opportunity to visit Greenwood Plantation in Louisiana, the antebellum home they used for Resolute, Justin LaMotte’s home. This past summer, I had the opportunity to bring my North & South experience full circle, when I got to visit Boone Hall Plantation just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, which they used for the exterior shots of Mount Royal (discovered when we got there that they hadn’t actually shot inside the house, as they had at Greenwood). My pictures of Boone Hall are here.

And, in closing, my absolute favorite scene out of the entire two miniseries:

  1. Thursday, October 14, 2010 5:17 am

    Here’s one I haven’t seen since the original airings. I remember thinking how hard it would do any civil war series and not stand in the shadow of GWTW. (That continued until I saw Somersby and read Cold Mountain.) North and South fell a little flat for me the first time because of that, but I’ll be putting them on my netflix queue today!

    Has Jean Simmons ever played a light hearted character? I loved her in the Thornbirds but surely she played some cheery or flirty socialite in something earlier in her career!
    Thanks for all your work on these Thursday posts, Kaye, as well as the rest of your weekly offerings. Have a great weekend!


    • Thursday, October 14, 2010 12:12 pm

      Some of my favorite early Jean Simmons roles include The Big Country, Until They Sail, Guys and Dolls, Desiree, The Robe, and Adam and Evalyn.


    • Thursday, October 14, 2010 1:27 pm

      And as someone who cannot stand Gone with the Wind, my fear with stuff set during the Civil War era is that it’s going to try to be like GWTW.

      Out of Ruth’s list of Jean Simmons’s early roles, the only one I’ve seen is The Big Country—in which she stars opposite another one of my favorite classic actors, Gregory Peck.


      • Thursday, October 14, 2010 1:44 pm

        Oh, I love The Big Country! Such a good movie!


  2. Kirsten permalink
    Thursday, October 14, 2010 7:49 am

    Thanks for posting this, Kaye. I’ve loved the North and South books and miniseries since I heard the first notes of the theme song.
    When I first saw this miniseries I loved Brett and Billy’s story and Constance was my favorite character. But when I got it on video I discovered Cousin Charles. And with the scene where he’s standing on the top step with a shotgun pointed at Justin, I migrated to his camp. His love story with Augusta became my favorite.


    • Thursday, October 14, 2010 1:28 pm

      I like Charles, but he’s just a little too much of a bad boy for me, even after he falls in love with Augusta. I like the transformation his character makes, though. He has a good story arc.


  3. Thursday, October 14, 2010 8:32 am

    Ok, now this is getting really freaky Kaye! I went to Charleston this summer too! I have tons of pictures of which can be seen on my FB page ( ) I love history and historical fiction, especially intertwined, so this was a huge thrill for me. The Patriot was also filmed there by the way. We took a tour in the Calhoun Mansion located in downtown Charleston where in N & S, George Hazard’s family home was filmed. I can still remember Virgilia (Kirstie Alley) sneaking down the steps with a load of loot she stole from the family and being ‘busted’ by her sister in-law Constance (Wendy Kilbourne), who ended up letting her go with it. Oh, there are so many stories to tell from Charleston, one could get lost in them.


    • Thursday, October 14, 2010 1:31 pm

      I didn’t realize that the Hazard house was in Charleston, or I would have made an effort to at least get by and take pictures of the outside!


      • Thursday, October 14, 2010 1:48 pm

        FYI, you can see picuters of the house online at

        The stories the guides told were hilarious! The history was incredible. It is a must see when you go back. Take the horse and buggy tour if you can.


        • Thursday, October 14, 2010 2:12 pm

          Wow–they really UNdressed that house inside for the movies!


  4. Thursday, October 14, 2010 12:14 pm

    I’ve yet to read the books or watch this miniseries…shocking, I know! 🙂


    • Thursday, October 14, 2010 1:39 pm

      Skip the books. If you really, really like the Civil War era, then these are worth spending the time to watch them (you’re looking at about 19 hours of viewing time for the two series). I haven’t watched the series all the way through in at least fifteen or so years—even after getting the DVDs three or so years ago, I skipped my way through to watch the scenes/characters I love.


  5. Thursday, October 14, 2010 6:33 pm

    This brings back memories. I was glued to this mini series when it originally aired. I must have been a junior in high school.


  6. Susan Motley permalink
    Saturday, July 7, 2012 1:37 pm

    This series is what put Charleston on the forefront of the flim business. I am a native Charlestonian and still live in surrounding Charleston and I can tell you that Charleston’s Fort Sumter is the birthplace of the Civil War. FYI, Boone Hall Plantation was the setting for the Main household. There was dirt laid upon some of the downtown streets. Charleston is the 2nd oldest city in the US behind St. Augustine. I had a brief encounter with John Jakes the author of the book that inspired the series. I think that the Dock Street Theater was used for some of the scenes and the Footlight Players for otherstuff. I took a pic of George Hazard. James was a real gentleman. I attended the College of Charleston hence their mascot is the Cougar and finished up in 1984.
    That is the rundown by me regarding the series. Right in the middle of it. Thanks Kaye.
    Yours, Susan


  7. Caroline Marsh permalink
    Tuesday, December 4, 2012 1:34 pm

    Do you have any idea why they recast Billy Hazard? Also, I agree with the ‘skip Book 3’ advice. I was very disappointed.


    • Tuesday, December 4, 2012 1:44 pm

      I have no idea—but possibly because he was totally miscast in the first miniseries and they hadn’t realized how much larger of a role he’d have in the second one? I’m glad they did, though. I love Parker Stevenson in that role.


  8. Saturday, February 16, 2013 4:30 pm


    I could not agree with you more about Parker Stevenson. I adored him as Billy Hazard. The first guy was sweet, but when Parker showed up, I was like, “okay, now I’m paying attention.” He was incredibly sexy, charming and sincere and much more suited to the role (let’s not forget Kirstie Alley famously thanking him for giving her “The Big One,” when she won the Emmy in 1991!).

    Parker’s chemistry with Genie Francis was insane. I too love the scene where he comes to Mont Royal after the war, though him going AWOL to see Brett is tops for me.

    Glad I’m not the only one feeling the Parker Stevenson love!


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