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It would have been foolish to bet against Mike Nichols’ six-hour adaptation of Angels in America at the 2004 Emmys. The $60 million production had everything going for it: Nichols at the helm; Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson in the cast; and Tony Kushner’s landmark 1991 play, set in AIDS-ravaged 1980s New York City, as its source material.
Sure enough, Angels broke a miniseries record held by Roots that night, winning 11 of its 21 nominations. (That record held until 2008, when HBO’s John Adams won 13 of its 23 nominations.)
It was a long road to that moment. Auditions were held in late 2001 for what would be a 12-month shoot. Jeffrey Wright was the only actor from the original Broadway cast to reprise his role, playing Belize, an ex-drag queen and nurse who cares for his friend Prior (Justin Kirk) as he is dying of AIDS. Patrick Wilson, then an upcoming stage actor who’d never worked in film or TV, was cast as Joe, a closeted Mormon married to a Valium addict (Mary-Louise Parker). The marathon schedule and material — some monologues were pages long — pushed everyone to the limit.
Production shut down after Thompson got sinusitis from “playing an angel having an orgasm while hanging 80 feet up on a wire,” the actress recalled in the 2021 biography Mike Nichols: A Life. “The wind machines were blowing all the studio dust up my nose. It was one of the highlights of my life, but it stretched us all as far as we could go.”
The Emmy night triumph was a sort of homecoming for Angels, which was first staged as a workshop in 1990 at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum. Its two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, premiered on Broadway in 1993 in a production directed by George C. Wolfe. HBO aired its version both as two three-hour-long segments and in one-hour segments that corresponded roughly to the play’s acts.
“We’re all bound together forever now,” Nichols said in accepting the Emmy for outstanding miniseries. “As you know, the fight against AIDS isn’t over yet. We must do what we can for Africa.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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