Halmi is a busy birthday boy

Veteran producer celebrates milestones with new miniseries

Producer Robert Halmi Sr., who celebrates his 85th birthday today, is getting a belated gift. On Sunday, his latest big-budget miniseries, "The Last Templar," premieres on NBC, marking his return to the Big Three broadcast networks after a three-year absence.

The year 2009 is special in another way: It's been 30 years since his first TV movie, "My Old Man," premiered on CBS. But instead of planning a celebration, Halmi -- the Hungarian-born former photographer who emigrated to the U.S. in 1950 with $5 in his pocket and a still camera around his neck -- is busy ramping up a slate of miniseries.

It includes three projects for Sci Fi Channel that have been greenlighted for production: "The Phantom," "Riverworld" and "Alice," a contemporary retelling of "Alice in Wonderland."

Halmi also has a couple of minis in development at ABC, including "Planet Earth Conspiracy," a globe-spanning drama tackling climate change, and a possible adaptation of "The Grapes of Wrath."

As for "Templar," if it does well, NBC is mulling a potential sequel or primetime series. Halmi already has a script ready for a sequel set in India, something that could fulfill his dream of filming in that country.

"I'm very proud of 'Last Templar' -- it's entertaining, it combines faith, religion, adventure and love," Halmi said.

At the same time, he is concerned about the state of the broadcast networks, which in their 1990s heyday splurged on big-event, effects-heavy movies and minis like his "Gulliver's Travels," "The Odyssey" and "Merlin" on NBC.

"The networks cannot afford to make good things anymore as they have become the bottom line of giant parent companies," he said.

But with creative dealmaking, even in today's environment, there's a way to make larger-scope minis, he added.

On "Templar," Halmi and his producing partner, son Robert Halmi Jr., agreed to a low license fee in exchange for retaining international rights and getting an early DVD release and a second window for the mini on the Ion network, where the Halmis' publicly traded RHI Entertainment has an exclusive programming deal.

At Sci Fi, "The Phantom" is based on Lee Falk's adventure comic strip about a costumed crimefighter operating from the African jungle. "Templar" helmer Paolo Barzman is set to direct the mini, slated to begin filming in Montreal in late winter/early spring.

"Riverworld" is based on the futuristic books by Philip Jose Farmer that are set on an Earthlike planet, where the human race is resurrected as illness-free immortal beings. Directed by Stuart Gillard, it will begin filming in Vancouver in March.

"Alice" marks Halmi's return to Lewis Carroll's novel 10 years after he did the four-hour adaptation "Alice in Wonderland" for NBC that starred Miranda Richardson, Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Kingsley, Gene Wilder and Martin Short. It also marks Halmi's follow-up to his contemporary adaptation of another classic tale, "The Wizard of Oz," for Sci Fi with the 2007 mini "Tin Men." Nick Willing, who directed both, is back to helm "Alice," which will begin filming in Vancouver in May.

For "Planet Earth Conspiracy," Halmi was inspired by the BBC documentary series "Planet Earth." The mini for ABC is a thriller set against the backdrop of our planet in peril because of climate change.

"Conspiracy" centers on Toni, a female corporate lawyer defending an oil company sued for a devastating spill whose environmentalist sister is murdered in a remote corner of Africa. Teaming with her sister's grieving lover, Toni launches an investigation into a secret war waged against the planet.

"I felt that it had to be done," Halmi said. "It's one of the last ones I'm going to do."

"Grapes of Wrath" is also on the to-do list. For 10 years, Halmi has been trying to acquire the rights to John Steinbeck's novel, famously adapted to the big screen in 1940 by John Ford. Now he is close to taking a stab at the story of the Joads.

And with the economy as it is, the timing for a new take on "Wrath" couldn't be more appropriate, Halmi said.

A couple of years ago, the producer said he would retire at his 85th birthday. Now those plans are on hold.

"I cannot retire, I would go nuts," said Halmi, who still jets around the world to the sets of his movies, with that still camera still around his neck. "The networks are in such a bad shape. If I can raise the level of entertainment for two nights, it's worth doing it."