Life After 'Christy'

LOS ANGELES -- Wherever he goes, veteran movie producer Ken Wales hears the same question: "What now?"

Letters keep arriving asking what happened to Christy Huddleston, the heroine of Catherine Marshall's famous novel about a missionary teacher in the Great Smoky Mountains. In the last episode of the CBS series "Christy," Wales and crew left her facing a romantic cliffhanger. Did she choose the preacher or the doctor?

"Truth is, we hadn't really made up our minds," said Wales. "In the book, she chooses the doctor. ... In real life, the real Christy married the minister."

But there's the rub. Viewers may never know, because the network canceled the series. During a year of CBS ratings disasters, "Christy" maintained solid second-place numbers in various time slots, while generating record numbers of fan letters and calls. That wasn't enough.

"Obviously, the CBS people never quite understood what `Christy' was about. I don't think they wanted to understand," said Wales, who invested nearly 20 years of his time and money in the project. "They gave us five different time slots and never left us in one place more than a few weeks. Anybody who has worked in this town knows that the way you kill a show is to keep moving it."

So there's that question again: "What now?"

The short answer is that 20-plus hours of "Christy" material are moving into the world of cable and video. Sales of the 1994 Easter pilot episode have passed the 250,000 mark, said Wales, while the typical video product based on a television production is considered a bestseller if it sells 50,000 copies. Other "Christy" videos will hit the market in the months ahead.

Also, "Christy" reruns recently entered the Family Channel's Saturday-night lineup. While this channel is part of Pat Robertson's empire, it remains to be seen if Wales' brand of family drama will fare as well there as laugh-track sitcoms. Even religious broadcasters have been known to focus on the bottom line.

Other "Christy" supporters have an even more ambitious question in mind, as they ask, "What now?" Many have asked if Wales could go back into production, with new episodes filmed for cable. After all, the sets back in Townsend, Tenn., remain camera-ready and much of Marshall's novel remains untouched. Wales still has notebooks packed with plot twists and personal details from his late 1970s interviews with Marshall and her mother Leonora Wood, whose life was the inspiration for "Christy."

"I'm willing to let go, but not just yet," said Wales. "I still believe `Christy' can live again -- somehow, somewhere. ... Right now, the question is whether the Family Channel will rise to this challenge. The jury's out."

One major problem is that actress Kellie Martin, who played Christy, is now under contract to NBC and her schedule is full for at least two years. However, this could help the show grow and change. While everyone involved was pleased with Martin's work, said Wales, "you could make a case for finding another actress who would allow the character to be older and more mature -- to portray the real Christy at a different stage of her life."

Nevertheless, it's ironic to hear the producer talk about needing support from Christian entrepreneurs and media leaders. Years ago, numerous Christian groups passed up chances to help "Christy" reach movie screens. Wales searched in vain for culturally conservative people who were willing to invest in a secular-market project, even if it was led by one of Hollywood's most outspoken Christians. Now he is back to square one.

So many religious leaders want to complain about the media, said Wales. Few are willing to work in the marketplace.

"People keep posturing. ... Everybody's anti, anti, anti all the time," he said. "We have to have some concept, some realistic ideas, about what we want to see the entertainment industry to offer instead of what its giving us now. We have to support what's good, not just moan about what's bad."