Americans had a lot of choices about what to watch on TV the night of Nov. 20, 1983.
On CBS, they could enjoy an evening of sitcoms, beginning with Alice, then moving onto The Jeffersons and Goodnight, Beantown, finally wrapping up their prime time viewing with an episode of Trapper John, M.D.
Across the dial on NBC, there was part one of Kennedy, a five-hour mini-series in which Martin Sheen put on a thick-as-chowder Bahston accent to portray, for a change, a president not named Bartlet.
But most people — a staggering 100 million — chose to tune into ABC, where they watched the end of the world.
Next to the moon landing, it’s hard to think of a TV moment that had a bigger impact on the collective psyche than The Day After, ABC’s white-knuckle drama depicting the aftermath of a nuclear strike on the United States. Its airing 40 years ago — which is being commemorated on Dec. 4 with a new PBS documentary, Television Event, as well as a just-published book about the film, Apocalypse Television — didn’t just terrify the nation. It may have also altered the course of human destiny, which at that time, the red-hot height of the Cold War, seemed to be barreling towards an inevitable atomic showdown.
That’s an historical pivot point worth lingering over for a moment: The network that cooked up The Love Boat and Three’s Company, that introduced the world to Donny & Marie and Love, American Style, may very well have saved the planet from nuclear annihilation.
“I’ve come to believe that’s true,” says Nicholas Meyer, 77, who directed the three-hour film. “The movie may have indeed helped prevent a nuclear war. It certainly changed one person’s mind on the subject, and that person just happened to be the President of the United States. Ronald Reagan wrote about watching the movie in his memoir. His biographer, who spent three years in the White House, said the only time he ever saw Reagan flip out was after seeing the movie. Ultimately, it sent Reagan into such a tailspin, he signed the Intermediate Missile Range Treaty, the only treaty that ever resulted in the physical dismantling of nuclear weapons.”
The brains behind The Day After, the one who deserves most of the credit not only for conceiving the concept but also strong-arming a reluctant ABC into putting it on the air, was the late Brandon Stoddard, then the network exec in charge of ABC’s made-for-TV movies. Stoddard, who died at 77 in 2014, had already made a name for himself as the producer of 1976’s Roots, one of TV’s first mini-series and a seminal cultural event of its own. He supposedly got the idea for The Day After while watching The China Syndrome, the 1979 Michael Douglas movie about a near-meltdown at a nuclear reactor, which, in a harrowing example of life imitating art, happened to be released just before the actual Three Mile Island disaster.
“Brandon was stunned by Three Mile Island,” recalls Meyer. “And that’s how he came up with The Day After. ‘What if we showed a nuclear exchange and what would happen to regular people if they got nuked?’”
Unsurprisingly, ABC’s top executives were not entirely onboard with Stoddard’s vision. At the time, the network’s biggest hits were shows like Happy Days and Kung Fu. The idea of making a TV movie in which regular people got blown to bits by a nuclear blast seemed decidedly off brand.
But Stoddard was nothing if not persistent; he hired veteran TV scribe Edward Hume, who’d written for shows like Barnaby Jones and The Streets of San Francisco, to cobble together a script; Hume, who died earlier this year, at 87, tapped out a story set in Lawrence, Kansas — the geographical center of the continental United States — that focused on how survivors of a nuclear exchange would cope with the aftermath of Armageddon.
Somehow, after much compromising — Stoddard originally wanted a two-night event but settled for a one-night movie — the picture was put into production, with a cast including Jason Robards, John Lithgow, JoBeth Williams and Steve Guttenberg. But even after filming wrapped, it was an uphill battle getting ABC to put the film on the air.
For one thing, there was considerable political pushback. Conservative groups went on the warpath against the network, claiming the movie was Soviet propaganda designed to undermine America’s nuclear deterrent (even though Hume’s script never identified who launched the strike against the U.S. or why). For another, the subject matter of atomic war was, predictably, radioactive to advertisers. They began pulling out in droves.
“General Foods, General Motors, General Mills — all the generals headed for the hills,” Meyer remembers.
Still, Stoddard kept pushing and ABC’s top brass relented, clearing a Sunday night in November for The Day After, resigning themselves to what they were certain would be a ratings disaster. After all, who in their right minds would want to watch a movie about the end of the world?
Turned out, of course, pretty much everyone.
“I was only five years old when it came on TV,” remembers Jeff Daniels, the now-45-year-old director of Television Event, the PBS documentary about The Day After. “My whole family watched in our basement in Queens. They were smart enough to put me to bed before the bombs started dropping, but I was terrified anyway. That’s when my lifelong nightmares about nuclear war began.”
And not just his. The entire nation — or at least the 100 million who tuned into the film, making it still the most-watched TV movie of all time — was traumatized. The White House switchboard lit up with calls from terrified citizens, while anti-nuke activists launched a “Let Lawrence Live” movement. Ted Koppel devoted an entire news special to The Day After, lining up an all-star bench of panelists — William F. Buckley, Carl Sagan, Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, Elie Wiesel — to debate America’s nuclear policy.
“There is some good news, and you probably need it about now,” Koppel began the broadcast. “If you can, take a quick look out the window. It’s all still there…”
Ronald Reagan watched the film at Camp David and later that day jotted down his impressions in his diaries. “It has Lawrence Kansas wiped out in a nuclear war,” he wrote. “It is powerfully done. It’s very effective and left me greatly depressed.” Four years later, in 1987, Reagan would fly to Reykjavik, Iceland to iron out that ICM treaty with Soviet premiere Mikhail Gorbachev that resulted in the dismantlement of thousands of nuclear missiles.
And yet, for all that, 40 years later some things have not changed one bit. Recently, Meyer pitched a reboot of the film to a slew of streamers, updating the premise by showing the impact of a nuclear exchange worldwide, with plotlines set in various cities around the globe.
“Nobody wanted to touch it,” he says. “It was the same reaction Brandon got. ‘Who wants to watch a movie about nuclear war?’”