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A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 3, 2014, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
They say never to talk about politics or religion in mixed company, but prolific TV producer Mark Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, are breaking at least half of that rule — and winning big. The reality producer behind Survivor and The Voice made his foray into scripted fare with The Bible, a 10-hour miniseries that aired on History. While most TV executives shy away from the subject of religion, Downey and Burnett, both 53, had been developing stories from the Good Book to bring to the small screen for more than a year and a half before the series debut in March.
“I’m known for my politeness,” says Downey, who played the Virgin Mary in the series. “I think if it were up to me, I might still be out there in town, knocking on doors politely, hoping that someone would make The Bible series with us. My husband is less polite than I am, so he came up next to me and kicked those doors down.”
The series, which was greenlighted by A+E president and CEO Nancy Dubuc and developed with History executive producers Dirk Hoogstra and Julian P. Hobbs, highlights stories from Genesis through Revelation, including the Ten Commandments, David and Goliath and the Last Supper. It raked in a record 13.1 million viewers for its debut and averaged nearly 11 million viewers for its second and third installments.
“There really aren’t any rules,” says Burnett, who can boast six series on air in the U.S., including The Apprentice, Shark Tank, The Sing-Off and Trust Me, I’m a Game Show Host. “Someone once said, ‘Nobody knows anything,’ and I think that’s so true. People said to us, ‘Nobody’s going to watch the Bible on primetime television,’ and those same people were so shocked when millions of people tuned in. But we weren’t surprised.”
The series received three Emmy nominations and became the top-selling miniseries of all time on DVD and Blu-ray. It was so successful that Downey and Burnett are prepping a sequel titled A.D.: Beyond the Bible for NBC. That’s not all: They’re producing a feature film, Son of God, that will center on Jesus’ story, using content from the miniseries plus deleted scenes. Fox will release the movie Feb. 28. “It’s been great for us to be able to do this together. Most people can’t even work on the yard together and still be best friends,” says Downey. “It’s been quite a journey.”
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