Hollywood Flashback: One in Three TV Sets Tuned In to 'Shogun' in 1980

NBC/Photofest
Yoko Shimada and Richard Chamberlain in NBC’s 'Shogun.'

At the time, the miniseries about a British navigator marooned in 17th century Japan gave NBC the highest weekly ratings in the network’s history.

Three years after ABC's Roots proved in 1977 what a ratings bonanza the multi-night format could deliver, Shogun ruled the realm of miniseries.

When its 12 hours aired over five nights in 1980, Shogun gave NBC the highest weekly ratings in the network's history. The $22 million production ($69 million today) was then TV's most successful miniseries after Roots. (One in three televisions was tuned to at least part of the show.)

The Hollywood Reporter said it offered "lofty romance, bloody battles, lovely ladies, ambitious men, wary friendships, betrayals, suicides and even time for some gently humorous, irrelevant incidents."

The series was based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Australian author James Clavell, who in his Hollywood screenwriting days had written 1958's The Fly. (A far better novel by Clavell is King Rat, based on his experiences as a Japanese POW in World War II; in 1965 it was made into a film starring George Segal.)

Shogun told the story of a British navigator (Richard Chamberlain) who, marooned in 17th century Japan, aligns himself with an ambitious warlord (Rashomon's Toshiro Mifune) and becomes a political power himself. Orson Welles was hired to provide the narration.

Producers' first choice for the navigator was Sean Connery. Chamberlain, a star since 1961 with NBC's Dr. Kildare, once said he was "grudgingly" chosen for the role. "Once the network realized they weren't going to get a movie star, they were happy to get a top TV star like Richard," says director Jerry London.

"What Clavell was trying to get across was the adventure of a Caucasian entering the mysterious Japanese culture. The audience was able to relate to Richard and experience this through him."

Shogun went on to earn a total of 14 Emmy nominations and three wins, including for best limited series. Since 2018, there have been reports that FX has been developing a new, limited-series version of Clavell's novel.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.