The world may never know the horrible secrets of 722 N. Elm Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif., where Lyle and Erik Menendez gunned down their parents on Aug. 20, 1989. But from the moment those gruesome killings hit the police blotter, one thing was certain: Somewhere, someday, someone would make a TV movie about them.
In fact, there are two. By season’s end, CBS will have weighed in with its four-hour miniseries about the murders, Deadly Games, starring Edward James Olmos and Beverly D’Angelo as José and Kitty Menendez. But rushing to beat Games onto the air is the Fox network’s scrappy underdog production Honor Thy Father and Mother: The True Story of the Menendez Murders, starring James Farentino and Jill Clayburgh. Financed at a fraction of CBS’ budget, Fox’s quick-and-dirty production was shot in a speedy 20 days and is now hurling toward a spring broadcast. ”I wanted to do a responsible movie,” says Fox executive Gary Hoffman. ”I wanted to do an emotional movie. And I wanted to do it faster than anybody else.”
Fox’s dash began last October, about two months into the Menendez sons’ trials, when the network joined forces with Saban Entertainment, which is also developing two scripts about Tonya Harding. As the trials slowly unfolded, screenwriter Michael J. Murray fashioned a teleplay from the reporting of Ron Soble and John Johnson, who covered the trials for The Los Angeles Times and recently published a paperback account of the murders entitled Blood Brothers.
With testimony growing murkier every day, Fox’s script never took a side — a good thing, because at about the time Fox completed casting in February, the trials of both siblings ended in hung juries. ”We’re saying to the audience, you can make up your own mind,” explains director Paul Schneider. Thus, a creepy flashback in which José confronts Erik in the bedroom is followed immediately by a courtroom scene in which the prosecution blows holes in Erik’s allegations of abuse. (By contrast, CBS’ production is based partly on articles for Vanity Fair by Dominick Dunne, who condemns the boys.)
Casting was less problematic: In Los Angeles, where last Halloween Lyle and Erik impersonators with guns and bloody T-shirts filled the streets, Fox didn’t have to look far for young actors who could pass for the Menendez brothers. Baywatch alum Billy Warlock, a baby-faced 33-year-old, signed on as Lyle; the role of his younger brother, Erik, went to David Beron, who’s in his early twenties and had recently moved from New York City with a resume full of TV commercials.
On a warm February day, Warlock and Beron are on location in the blue-carpeted office of an orthopedic surgeon in Van Nuys, Calif., preparing to shoot the scene in which Erik confesses the crime to his psychiatrist and Lyle blows up at them. Waiting in his trailer, Warlock shows off a snapshot of himself in a bloody skullcap, which he wears for a scene in which Kitty rips off Lyle’s toupee. ”I wanted to shave my head bald,” says Warlock, but then he thought better of it. And how did he get inside Lyle’s head? ”I don’t really know for sure how (Lyle and Erik) are as people,” he says. ”I’m just kinda winging that. It’s hard to emulate something you don’t know anything about.” While Warlock had only two days to ready himself for the role, he had heard a rumor that the CBS actors got to meet with the real brothers. ”That isn’t fair,” gripes Warlock, his ears propped out just a bit, Lyle-style, with small wedges. ”That’s cheating.” (CBS denies that the Deadly Games actors had any coaching from the Menendez brothers.)
To prep for the part of Erik, Beron studied his mannerisms on Court TV. ”I use the frown a lot,” he says. ”An acting teacher of mine calls them psychological gestures.”
Later, Beron scrunches up next to a wall, getting into the proper mind-set for the shrink’s-office confrontation with Lyle, while Warlock discusses with the director how to say the line, ”I miss having my dog around, too” — a cold response to the psychiatrist’s question about whether Lyle misses his parents. Between takes the actors and crew grumble about the pressure of the accelerated airdate, but vow to give the bigger network hell. Before Fox hired him, Warlock had asked to audition for the miniseries, but CBS wasn’t interested. The slight still bugs him. ”I think a two-hour movie of the week is plenty, man,” he says defiantly. ”A miniseries is kicking a dead dog.”