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This TV movie from the 1980s helped change the course of the Cold War. Here’s how ‘The Day After’ got made

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By Scottie Andrew, CNN

(CNN) — In November 1983, the US, Soviet Union and the rest of the world were teetering closer than ever on the edge of nuclear war. A NATO military exercise had spooked the Soviets, who thought the exercise was merely a cover for a real nuclear strike on the USSR, prompting them to ready their own nuclear forces.

Who knew, then, that an ABC movie-of-the-week would play a significant role in potentially preventing nuclear war?

“The Day After,” a two-hour epic following a few weeks in the lives of small-town Midwesterners before and after a nuclear strike, was one of the most controversial and most-watched TV movies when it aired on November 20, 1983.

In its first hour, the people of Lawrence, Kansas, go about their lives as the threat of nuclear war looms. But when the nuke finally comes to Kansas, the devastation is immediate: Acres of crops are singed and poisoned, homes are leveled, a fifth-grade class is vaporized at school.

Characters we come to know in the film’s first half are obliterated in an instant or barely clinging to life as they succumb to radiation poisoning. Even those who survive the attack by the film’s end will soon die, viewers know.

It’s an uneasy watch now, but “The Day After” was even more affecting when nuclear war was on the table and top of mind. It’s still one of the most-watched TV events in US history –– more than 100 million viewers tuned into its original broadcast, more half of the country’s adult population at the time. What’s more, it’s credited with changing then-President Ronald Reagan’s mind against nuclear war.

Getting “The Day After” to air, though, was fraught. Even Reagan, who praised the film in his private writings, didn’t agree with its bleak and upsetting depiction of nuclear aftermath.

But the team who created it knew it could be important, so, after rejecting requests for edits, dodging complaints from conservative groups and acquiescing to the occasional network demand, “The Day After” finally made it to TV and changed the history of the medium –– and potentially the world.

“There were all these behind the scenes (challenges) going on, which we working on the film never really knew at the time,” said Jack Wright, an emeritus professor of theater at the University of Kansas and head of local casting on “The Day After,” in an interview with CNN. “It’s amazing that the film came out as strong as it did.”

Censors thought the film was too graphic

“The Day After” ends with a written warning to the audience: “The catastrophic events you have just witnessed are, in all likelihood, less severe than the destruction that would actually occur in the event of a full nuclear strike against the United States.”

As a made-for-TV movie airing in a primetime Sunday night slot, “The Day After” couldn’t depict true nuclear horror, though there were still shocking scenes of mass death and the aftermath of a crumbling society.

That was the goal, director Nicholas Meyer said.

“I wanted to make it like a public service announcement,” Meyer said in the 2022 documentary “Television Event,” about the tumultuous production of the film.

The script was sparse and plain. Early scenes include a meeting at an art museum between a doctor and his daughter with plans to leave Kansas and a romantic tryst between a young couple days from getting married. We meet husbands, wives, their children and friends so that when they’re ripped away from each other in the second half, their loss will feel almost as sudden as it would if a real nuclear event had separated them.

Wright was tasked with casting thousands of extras from Lawrence. In one pivotal scene, more than 1,000 Lawrence locals were made to lie on cots in the University of Kansas’ basketball arena, wearing tattered clothes and bearing bloody facial injuries as though they’d barely survived the nuclear attack. The intensity of the scenes inspired the cast to discuss what they’d do in the event of nuclear war, he said.

“Whenever you’re dealing with that kind of subject matter, it sticks in your craw,” Wright said.

After seeing rough cuts of the film, though, the network thought it was a bit too devastating. Executives had notes: No blood, no scarring, no burning, said “The Day After” producer Bob Papazian in the documentary “Television Event.”

Many scenes were altered as a result: A long shot of a family burning to death as the nuclear bombs fell, as seen in “Television Event,” was scrapped, as were shots that focused on survivors’ melting skin or victims’ charred corpses.

“You had to walk a fine line with this movie,” Meyer told the Outline in 2017. “People have a remote control in their hands. So we had to make a movie that conveyed the awfulness of nuclear war without making it so awful that you changed the channel.”

Stephanie Austin, an associate producer on the film, conducted extensive research on the devastation in places where nuclear bombs have been dropped, like Hiroshima. After the bombing there, much of the land was leveled. The network asked that “The Day After” avoid showing the extreme destruction that was closer to reality.

“I thought we stopped short of telling the real truth,” Austin said in “Television Event.”

Lawrence locals were largely unaware of the drama brewing behind the scenes and were more excited about the prospect of making a movie, Wright said.

“Something like this had never been done before,” Wright told CNN of the film. “We were all just playing it by ear. It was amazing to all of us.”

Political interference threatened the final cut

Before “The Day After” aired, Reagan’s policy involved investing even more in US defenses, including a missile shield proposed to protect the US from a Soviet attack. But scaling up defenses only heightened tensions with the Soviets, who viewed Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative as a threat to their own security.

On October 10, while at Camp David, Reagan watched “The Day After,” weeks before it would air on TV. The film, he wrote in his diary, “left (him) greatly depressed.”

“Whether it will be of help to the ‘anti nukes’ or not, I cant (sic) say,” Reagan wrote of the film’s potential impact on disarmament supporters. “My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent & to see there is never a nuclear war.”

Even though “The Day After” resonated deeply with Reagan, his administration asked ABC to make several edits to the film to make it less upsetting for viewers, former ABC Motion Pictures president Brandon Stoddard said in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation.

Conservative groups, too, had viewed the film as a potential threat to support for nuclear deterrence, or the policy of letting the nukes do the talking: Their very existence and the potential to use them was meant to prevent the USSR and other countries from launching their own nuclear weapons.

The conservative outlet Human Events declared “The Day After” to be a “propaganda spectacular” over a month before it even aired, and others conducted letter-writing campaigns to persuade advertisers not to buy ad time during the film, the New York Times reported in October 1983.

ABC refused to acknowledge desired cuts and complaints from the Reagan administration or conservative watchdogs, and the film aired its original two-hour cut just days before Thanksgiving in November 1983.

In Reagan’s 1984 State of the Union address, which came two months after “The Day After” aired, Reagan finally committed to preventing nuclear war rather than tease scenarios of survivability: “To preserve our civilization in this modern age, a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Three years later, Reagan would sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which saw the US commit to reducing its arsenal of nuclear arms.

Advertisers hesitated to buy in

Before “The Day After” had even been completed, there were concerns about its graphic content. Stoddard, who died in 2014, was resolute that ABC would air the film anyway. He said in the Television Academy interview that he was the one who wanted to pursue a film about nuclear war in the first place –– but advertisers were getting cold feet.

A few weeks before “The Day After” aired, the New York Times published a story about psychologists warning families that the film could potentially devastate young viewers and that children under 12 shouldn’t watch it.

”I fear children will have nightmares about the show and worry about it for weeks or even months,” one psychologist told the Times. “Older children and adults may have a sense of hopelessness.”

Fearing that “The Day After” could isolate large swaths of viewers who didn’t want to witness its bleak depiction of nuclear horror, companies largely resisted buying ad space. Companies also worried that their products would be associated with scenes of the destroyed Heartland or vaporized classrooms.

To assuage advertisers, ABC allowed most companies to air their commercials during the first half of the film, before nuclear war came to Kansas, UPI reported after “The Day After” aired in 1983. That way, Orville Redenbacher could hawk popcorn before any graphic deaths occurred.

It was a good deal for the companies, Stoddard said: Since ABC had such trouble finding advertisers, it sold spots for as little as $11,000 –– ads that were eventually seen by an audience of 100 million.

The film has had a lasting impact

“The Day After” was upsetting, as psychologists warned, but also galvanizing.

“I vastly underestimated the importance of ‘The Day After,’” said Kenneth Adelman, the former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under Reagan, in “Television Event.”

“The Day After” brought discussion of nuclear war and the potential for disarmament to millions of people who viewed it, and became the rare film that “actually became historical text rather than vice versa,” wrote William Palmer, a Purdue University professor who discussed its impact in “Films of the Eighties: A Social History.”

“From its earliest frames, ‘The Day After’ sets out to remove the blinders from an uninvolved American populace,” Palmer wrote.

“The Day After” endures today as an artifact of a tense time and a powerful piece of art that changed minds and even influenced policy changes. By making it, the Los Angeles Times’ Tim Grierson wrote last year, Meyer and his team helped “save the world.”

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