Hollywood Flashback: In 1983, 'The Day After' Terrified 100 Million Viewers

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The Day After aired in November 1983.

The Emmy-nominated TV film, which depicted the after effects of a full-scale nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, became the highest-rated in history and had an influence on President Ronald Reagan's decision to co-sign a peace treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev.

This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes," Hillary Clinton warned in San Diego on June 2. "It's not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin." Indeed, not since the Cold War 1980s has the specter of a nuclear attack on the U.S. been so frequently raised on the campaign trail.

Back then, ABC sought to turn that angst into eyeballs with 1983's The Day After, a two-hour telepic depicting a full-scale nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It was the idea of late ABC exec Brandon Stoddard, who was inspired by the 1979 Jane Fonda film The China Syndrome, about a meltdown at a nuclear power plant.

TV vet Edward Hume — whom the network hired to pen the script — immersed himself in research and devised a plot in which NATO forces invade East Germany, resulting in an exchange of missiles. One lands on Kansas City, Mo., where most of the action takes place. Jason Robards plays a doctor, who, while driving to teach a class at the University of Kansas, witnesses a mushroom cloud; John Lithgow plays a professor who survives the blast; and Steve Guttenberg is a student who gets radiation sickness and, presumably, dies.

Because the project was so challenging in terms of scope and subject matter, it changed hands several times, eventually landing with Nicholas Meyer, who'd had recent success directing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It shot in Lawrence, Kan., using a hospital demolition site as a key location. On Nov. 20, 1983, 100 million tuned in to watch the world end, making it the highest-rated TV film in history. The Day After was nominated for 12 Emmys, picking up two for sound editing and visual effects. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan sent a telegram to Meyer after co-signing a nuclear treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev. "Don't think your movie didn't have any part of this," wrote Reagan, "because it did."

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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