It’s a little before noon and a pixie-wigged Bernadette Peters, wearing high heels and a clingy turquoise knit ensemble, is lying low in an empty bathtub, lustily singing ”Row, row, row your boat.” She is not alone. Kevin Spacey, sporting outsize specs and a hairpiece, is kneeling by her side, a microphone is looming above and the cyclopic eye of a TV camera is steadily watching her every move.
This is Hollywood, of course — actually, chichi Chatsworth, 45 minutes north — and it’s day 14 on the set of Fall from Grace, NBC’s $3-million-plus take on the deposed king and queen of the religious airwaves, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The network TV drama (drama, mind you) airs Sunday, April 29, at 9 p.m., and stars Spacey (Dad) and acclaimed Broadway and film actress Peters (Pink Cadillac).
Fall essentially tells the tale of a roller-coaster romance derailed by Jim, a man who would be kinky (according to some well-publicized accusations) and crooked (as his 45-year prison term seems to attest). It opens with the 1980 tryst between Bakker and Jessica Hahn (”We thought we’d start with a bang,” producer Dick O’Connor says, ”so to speak”), which took place during a hiatus in Jim and Tammy’s marriage, and follows their reunion and the astonishing growth of the media ministry that brought in $129 million a year at its peak and ultimately devoured their personal lives. Fall closes right after Jerry Falwell’s friendly (yeah, you betcha) takeover of the Praise The Lord (PTL) organization in 1987.
Two and a half years in the making, Fall from Grace was a TV inevitability. The Bakkers’ saga is saturated with sell appeal: It has money, power, greed, sex, and financial scandal. It has an air-conditioned doghouse, an expensive cinnamon-bun habit, and — mmmm, lap it up — the ruin of the rich and famous. When the Bakkers told their tales on ABC’s Nightline in May 1987, Ted Koppel got his highest ratings ever. Using top-of-the-line talent — atypical for this sort of project — NBC hopes to take the story, and the ratings, even further.
”We’re not just showing the public Jim and Tammy,” says Emmy-winning director Karen Arthur (Cagney & Lacey episodes, Victims for Victims: The Theresa Saldana Story). ”They’ve paraded that in front of our eyes ad nauseam. We’re showing their relationships — to each other, their coworkers, their friends. We’re showing what went on in the kitchen, in the bedroom.” And, at the moment, in the bathroom.
Working in the extremely petite powder room of their leased location (the home of Hulk Hogan’s in-laws, if you must know), Fall‘s camera crew is getting as tangled in its cable wires as Peters is getting in her dialogue. Testing out the tub of a prospective new house, Tammy is telling Jim, again, about growing up in a family of 10 with no indoor plumbing, and the trauma of using hand-me-down bathwater. The words aren’t flowing, and by the third flubbed take, Peters is laughing so hard her mascara looks the way Tammy Faye’s did during her tearful pleas for pledges.
By the time Fall is shown, Peters’ patter will be perfect, of course — the scene is not being played for laughs. In fact, the movie’s best punch line just may be that it’s not a joke. Scriptwriter Ken Trevey (LBJ: The Early Years) gives a depth to the lampooned couple that Spacey and Peters plumb with a sophistication exceeding that of their subjects. When Peters’ Tammy, filled with toxic levels of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, tries to open the door of a plane and take a midair walk, it’s actually tragic, not funny. Spacey’s Jim is smoothly despicable, not quite bright enough to control his burgeoning empire but charismatic enough to make his gigantic PTL following plausible.
”People who tune in to see Jim-and-Tammy sketches with her mascara running and my head under a couch talking about animals are going to be disappointed,” Spacey says. ”But that’s not to say it won’t be funny at all.” Realizing that people ”are destined to want to laugh,” he says, ”we give them what they want in the first two scenes: Jessica Hahn and the fetal position.” (When things get tough — as in this scene where he begs forgiveness for his fling — Jim curls up.) Then Spacey says viewers ”might see something they don’t expect.”
Trevey, who is also the movie’s supervising producer, was in for a few surprises himself. In 1987, after the Hahn scandal broke but long before Jim Bakker’s indictment on 24 charges of fraud and conspiracy, the Bakkers’ story rights were sold to NBC Productions. After the idea for the movie had been developed, Trevey was hired to write it. ”From the very beginning,” he says, ”NBC wanted a fair account of the Bakkers, as opposed to a satirical take.” To that end, his research associate, Susan Freedman, went straight to the source for their facts.
By February 1988, they had about 20 hours of Jim and Tammy on tape. (After that, the Bakkers were out of the picture.) ”Jim and Tammy were real people,” Trevey says, ”not the caricatures the media made them into.” But, Freedman says, ”to this day we don’t know what they didn’t tell us, or what they did ( tell us that could have been told a different way.”
The PTL’s bankruptcy trial later that year suggested alternative scenarios. It seems Bakker had employed a creative cash-flow scheme that filled his pockets with pilfered funds while his ministry was deluged with debt. At his federal trial in August 1989, he was accused of, among other things, diverting $3.7 million of PTL profits for personal use.
While the bankruptcy trial gave Trevey new information, it also meant he had to rewrite the script. ”Clearly it hadn’t been in Jim’s interest to get down and dirty with me about things that hadn’t become public,” he says. ”And Tammy probably didn’t know about them.”