Back in 1997, I was the writer and co-producer of a FOX television series called Roar. After discovering that the series was now available on DVD, I ordered it last winter but had forgotten all about it. I came across the package the other night and watched the 13 episodes we’d produced. Part of the joy in watching was that I had never seen the final cuts from 5 of the episodes, as the network cancelled us after only 8 airings, so I got to see material I had never seen before.

The other joy was watching Heath Ledger, the star of our show.

Roar was created by Ron Koslow and Shaun Cassidy, and they had managed to sell the series during the pitch, right in the conference room with Fox network executives. I, along with a few other writer-producers, were hired shortly thereafter.

I remember viewing the audition tapes when we were casting for the lead. Ron and Shaun had narrowed it down to three actors, and we were all asked for our opinion after watching each young man deliver a monologue from the pilot. The choice felt difficult. All three were clearly good actors. Yet we all felt the same way when Heath was on screen. Heath had “it” – that indefinable quality that all great stars share. He just took you in. He had a presence. He felt young but also like an old soul.

He was our lead.

The series concept was simple. Long ago, as the age of magic was coming to an end, Ireland had been invaded by the Romans. The Celtic tribes had to find a way to unite if they were going to survive. In the pilot, one of the ruling tribes is besieged by Romans and their King and Queen murdered. Conor, played by Heath, is chosen to lead the tribes to freedom. The Roar of the title is pretty much akin to The Force from the Star Wars saga.

Any time a new show is being produced, everyone involved is incredibly nervous. We wonder about every choice that we’ve made. Did we hire good directors? Is our cinematographer going to deliver? Will the production design capture the era? Will our actors fulfill our expectations?

The fact that the show was being shot in Australia made things even more nerve-wracking. Back in those days, dailies were sent via FedEx, which meant by the time we’d seen them, the crew was already two days further down the road. It would be difficult to make alterations or give notes in time for them to matter.

But once the footage started coming in, we realized that we had nothing to worry about. Every department delivered above and beyond our expectations. Our cast was stellar. They played off each other wonderfully. Most of all, however, Heath continually knocked it out of the park. He was compelling. He had range. He had a gift for light banter, as well as more dramatic scenes, and performed well in the fights. In short, “the kid” — as we referred to him — was amazing. I couldn’t believe he was only 17. None of us could. He offered us what all series writers covet — an opportunity to concoct greater story ideas than what we’d anticipated, because we knew he could handle whatever we came up with.

As the weeks went by, creative differences erupted between our showrunners, the studio and the network (as they often do). As writers, we felt pulled in every direction. The mandates changed each week. The scripts suffered as their tone had to repeatedly be altered to fit the whims of our multiple masters. One week the show was very grounded in reality. The next it had special effects. One week it had magic. The week after magic was outlawed. It drove us nuts.

The only consistency seemed to come from Australia. No matter what we threw at our actors, they delivered, time and time again. During my first episode, our female lead, Vera Farmiga (who has since moved on to a noteworthy feature film career) had an emergency appendectomy. That didn’t stop her. She was back three days later. Then there was John St. Ryan, a 6′ 3″ Sean Connery clone and horse expert, another survivor of the Roman attack. John was attacked outside a bar one night by two Aussie thugs. After smashing him on the head with a bottle, they were promptly dispatched – unaware that their prey was also a martial arts expert. You can see the cuts right above his nose in my first episode, a detail the makeup team decided to leave alone, so as to grizzle his appearance that much more. Melissa George joined the group halfway through the series as John’s long-lost daughter, impressing us enough during a guest spot to be hired as series regular. And of course, there was Heath.

Somehow rumor had gotten back to us that Heath had been behaving like a primadonna. Right about that time, our co-executive producer and in-house director Michael Nankin (who did stellar work on Battlestar Galactica, among other things) was sent to Australia to direct an episode and check up on things for us. His report was simple. “I don’t know how that rumor got started. Everyone loves Heath. He’s laid-back, quiet, respectful, and a total pro”. We chalked it up to Hollywood-style gossip – the kind that appears when others become threatened by extraordinary talent in their midst.

After watching the shows again, I am struck by many things. Vera Farmiga, John St. Ryan, Lisa Zane, Sebastian Roche (now a mega-regular on General Hospital) and Melissa George showcased their outstanding acting. And despite the conflicting creative mandates we received, the show really had no peer at the time in terms of production value. The Australian dollar went far in those days. We had beautiful cinematography courtesy of Levie Issaks (pilot) and John Stokes (series). The score by John Ehrlich (who has scored about 15 other series) utterly captures the period, as does the production design (Bernard Hides). Every department soared for us.

Even our stories stand well on their own. Despite the variance in tone and style, the series actually hangs together after all this time. I’m convinced, though, that at least a part of that is because Heath really became the anchor for it all. He was the center of the show, the character the audience had to most care about, and was totally convincing as a young boy thrust into a role that Destiny chose for him to fill. None of us, of course, realized just how far his talent would take him.

FOX tried an experiment in 1997. It decided to produce a show that was not quite Braveheart and not quite Xena. It decided to produce a show with total unknowns in the cast. It decided to air it in the summer, hoping to keep audiences tuned in when experts said they wouldn’t. And although we were cancelled halfway through, the show drew ratings that FOX would be envious of today.

The good news is the show is locked up somewhere in FOX’s vaults. They should pull it out, promote it, and air it. A generation of audiences who came to know and love Heath Ledger in his extraordinary film career deserve to see the work they never saw, and be awed by the unique talent we still mourn today.

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