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Angels in America (TV Mini Series 2003) Poster

Trivia

The painting displayed during Joe (Patrick Wilson) and Harper's (Mary-Louise Parker's) living room talk about his childhood dreams is titled "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel", and was painted in 1865 by Alexander-Louis Leloir.
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Shortly before his death in 2014, executive producer and director Mike Nichols revealed that out of all of the movies he had directed in his lifetime, he considered this to be his magnum opus.
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When Louis (Ben Shenkman) speaks to the Rabbi (Meryl Streep) after his grandmother's funeral, two of the rabbis also sitting on the cemetery bench are played by Tony Kushner (who wrote the play and screenplay) and children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, who collaborated on the book "Brundibar" with Kushner.
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The first episode drew 4.2 million viewers, making it the most-watched cable show of the year.
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Jeffrey Wright was the only member of the original Broadway cast to appear in the screen version.
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The Central Park fountain that is prominently featured in Kushner's play and its film adaptation is officially titled "The Angel of the Waters" and familiarly known as "The Bethesda Fountain". It was installed in 1873 and sculpted by artist Emma Stebbins (1815-1882), who was the first woman to be commissioned to create a sculpture for New York City. Stebbins was also the sister of the President of the Central Park Board of Commissioners, and the longtime romantic partner of world-famous actress Charlotte Saunders Cushman. In 2011, Lapham's Quarterly Magazine reported that while sculpting the statue, Stebbins used Cushman as the model for the angel's body.
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When Nurse Emily (Dame Emma Thompson) starts babbling in Hebrew to Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), she's actually reciting El Malei Rachamim, the prayer for the dead, asking for the repose of Prior's soul.
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Robert Altman and Neil LaBute were considered to direct. It was Altman who first attracted Al Pacino to the role of Roy Cohn.
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When Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) and Harper Pitt (Mary-Louise Parker) share a dream, the set was based on a dream in Jean Cocteau's movie Beauty and the Beast (1946). When Prior Walter ascends to heaven, portions of heaven are based on Cocteau's view of the afterlife in Orpheus (1950).
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During the funeral speech at the start of the movie, the rabbi is reading the names of the children and grandchildren of the deceased woman, and he stops on the name "Eric", asking "Eric? This is a Jewish name?" The playwright of "Angels in America," Tony Kushner, has a real-life younger brother named "Eric". The Kushners are Jewish.
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Sir Michael Gambon reportedly threatened violence on anyone on-set who addressed him by his full proper title.
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During his first scene with Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) takes a call from the elderly wife of a Republican ("Nixon appointee") client who is coming to New York City as a tourist and wants tickets to a Broadway musical. Roy tells her that she will not like "La Cage aux Folles", even though he parenthetically tells Joe that "La Cage" is the "best thing on Broadway, maybe ever." Roy suspects that his conservative client will likely not enjoy "La Cage" because its plot presents a positive portrayal of gay men in a devoted long-term relationship.
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When Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) asks Hannah Pitt (Meryl Streep) for advice on how to reject his calling to prophecy, she tells him that he should wrestle the angel and tell her, "l will not let thee go except thou bless me." Hannah is referring to Genesis 32:25-33, the story from the Torah in which an angel wrestled Jacob, who likewise refused to release the angel until he got a blessing from him. This is the same Bible story to which Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson) refers earlier in this mini-series when he tells Harper (Mary-Louise Parker) about the picture of a beautiful man that he often looked at as a child, and about which he still dreams.
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The opening credit sequence features an "angel's-eye view" of the continental United States; the camera moves though the clouds from the west coast to the east showing prominent landmarks in several major U.S. cities. These include: the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah; the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri; the John Hancock Center (soon to be renamed) in Chicago, Illinois; and finally the skyline of New York City, ending at the Angel of the Waters sculpture on top of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.
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At the end of this mini-series, when Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) talks about the Bethesda Fountain, he points across the Central Park Lake and mentions some trees that turn yellow in autumn. Those trees are part of a section of the park called "The Ramble", which was the setting for Louis' aborted sexual encounter with a stranger (also played by Kirk) earlier in this mini-series. "The Ramble" is also where Joe goes to watch other men before he knows Louis (Ben Shenkman), and it is included in the list of popular 1970s and early 1980s-era New York City-area locations for public gay sex that Louis recounts to Joe while they are walking on the beach.
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In a 2008 interview, Tony Kushner said that the idea to entwine Mormonism into the plot of "Angels in America" started when he saw some young, ignored Mormon missionaries near his house in Brooklyn: "There were these Mormon missionaries that I used to see at my subway stop, in Carroll Gardens, around 1983. One of them was, I thought, kind of hot. They were always there in the morning, in front of a bunch of people who could have cared less about the Book of Mormon. And I was kind of touched by that."
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The bearded, older gentleman who guides Prior around heaven was played by Oskar Eustis, who was the director of the play when it played in Los Angeles on its way to New York City.
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Some of the actors and actresses play multiple parts, just as was done in the play.
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Mary-Louise Parker (Harper Pitt) and Justin Kirk (Prior Walter), who appear in just one scene together in the television adaptation, went on to co-star as Nancy and Andy Botwin in Showtime's hit series Weeds (2005), which began filming shortly after production for this mini-series had wrapped.
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The Yiddish song that Ethel Rosenberg (Meryl Streep) sings is "Tumbalalaika", an Eastern European/Russian folk song often used as a children's lullaby.
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The prayer that Belize (Jeffrey Wright) asks Louis (Ben Shenkman) to recite (and which Louis completes with Ethel Rosenberg's (Meryl Streep's) help) is the Mourner's Kaddish, one of the central prayers of Judaism. It is recited in memory of the recently deceased, at funerals, on the anniversary of a deceased loved one's death, and as a part of the standard Jewish religious service. The word "Kaddish" means "sanctification", and the prayer is entirely made up of praises for God; there is no mention of death anywhere in it. Parts of the prayer are inspired by passages from the books of Ezekiel and Daniel. Though most prayers in Jewish liturgy are in Hebrew, the Kaddish is actually in Aramaic.
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The telephone number Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) calls in the hospital, 202-244-3116 is the telephone number of a D.C. area movie theatre.
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In the scene in the bar with Joe Pitt and Roy Cohn, the piano in the background is playing a slow-tempo jazz version of the Angels in America main theme.
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When Prior tells Louis about their cat running away, he says in French: "Le chat, elle ne reviendra jamais, jamais," which means: "The cat, she will never, never return."
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The original London production of the play "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (Part 1: Millennium Approaches)" opened at the Royal National Theatre in January 1992 and was directed by Declan Donnellan. The London cast included: David Schofield (Roy Cohn); Jason Isaacs (Louis Ironson); Clare Holman (Harper Pitt); Susan Engel (Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg); Daniel Craig (Joe Pitt); Stephen Dillane (Prior Walter/Man in the Park); Joseph Mydell (Belize/Mr. Lies); and Nancy Crane (The Angel of America/others).
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Jodie Foster was considered for the role of Nurse Emily/The Angel America.
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Two of the three lead actresses in this movie are named "Mary Louise": Mary-Louise Parker and Meryl Streep ("Meryl" is actually a nickname contraction of Streep's given first and middle names, Mary Louise).
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The play's original subtitle, "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes", was based on the rarely used subtitle for George Bernard Shaw's play "Heartbreak House", which is "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes".
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In February 2016, London's National Theatre announced that they were planning to stage a revival of Tony Kushner's source play. The announcement was made over a year before the planned opening of the show (slated to begin in April 2017 at the Lyttelton Theatre). The only cast member announced at that time was Andrew Garfield, who was scheduled to play Prior Walter.
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Kevin "Flotilla DeBarge" Joseph, the drag queen who performs at the funeral that Belize and Prior attend, lip-syncs in that scene to Zella Jackson Price singing the song "I'm His Child" from the gospel music documentary Say Amen, Somebody (1982).
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The title of the book that Belize calls his "favorite bestselling paperback novel, 'In Love with the Night Mysterious,'" is a line from the song "So in Love" from Cole Porter's stage musical "Kiss Me Kate" (produced on film as Kiss Me Kate (1953)). Porter was gay, and, like the Joe Pitt character, married to a woman (although unlike Joe, Porter informed his wife of his sexual orientation before they married).
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Though most of the casting called for in the stage play, with actors and actresses playing multiple parts across genders, is preserved, some changes were made. The stage script calls for Henry, Roy's doctor, to be played by the same actor or actress playing Hannah Pitt, Martin Heller is played by the same actor or actress as Harper, and Prior's deceased ancestors are usually played by the actors who play Joe and Roy.
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In episode five, "Perestroika: Beyond Nelly", a nurse in the hospital is telling Belize about a movie she saw on television the night before. The movie was She (1935), in which the main character, known as "She Who Must Be Obeyed", was played by stage actress and future California Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas, in her only movie role. Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas later made an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in a race against Richard Nixon in 1950. Nixon, as a representative and senator, was a major figure in the anti-Communist Second Red Scare of 1947 to 1957, as was Roy Cohn. Nixon was able to successfully defeat Douglas, at least in part, by portraying her on the campaign trail as a Hollywood "pinko" (implying, falsely, that she was a communist, he nicknamed her "The Pink Lady," and she in return was the first to call him "Tricky Dick") so historians often point to the Nixon/Douglas campaign as the first time Nixon learned how to leverage anti-Communist panic into political capitol. The Nixon campaign also stooped to anti-Semitic tactics against Helen Gahagan Douglas when it had its volunteers place telephone calls to tell potential voters, "did you know that Helen Gahagan Douglas is married to a Jew?" (Douglas's husband was the Hollywood star Melvyn Douglas.)
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The play "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" on which the first three episodes are based won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1993.
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Stephen Spinella won the 1994 Tony Award (New York City) for Actor in a Drama for "Angels in America: Perestroika" as Prior Walter.
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Ben Shenkman played the role of Roy Cohn during a workshop production of "Perestroika" when the play was still undergoing re-writes. Debra Messing played the role of Harper.
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Dustin Hoffman was considered for the role of Roy Cohn.
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The script for the stage version specifies that The Angel has a distinctive cough. This is omitted from the film version.
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In 2014, GQ magazine listed Mary-Louise Parker's full-frontal scene as the 2nd most underrated nude moment in TV history. They especially admired her "unenhanced breasts and '70s-style bush ."
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The mini-series script was based on two Broadway plays, "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" and "Angels in America: Perestroika" and both won the Tony Award for the Best Plays of 1993 and 1994, respectively. "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on May 4, 1993 and ran for three hundred sixty-seven performances. "Angels in America: Perestroika," opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on November 23, 1993 and ran for two hundred seventeen performances. Both plays were written by Tony Kushner who also wrote the scripts for the mini-series. Jeffrey Wright won the 1994 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for "Angels in America: Perestroika" and re-created his roles in this mini-series.
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The original Broadway production of the play "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (Part 1: Millennium Approaches)" opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on May 4, 1993 and was directed by George C. Wolfe. The original Broadway cast was Ron Leibman (Roy Cohn); Joe Mantello (Louis Ironson); Marcia Gay Harden (Harper Pitt/Martin Heller); Kathleen Chalfant (Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg/others); David Marshall Grant (Joe Pitt/others); Stephen Spinella (Prior Walter/Man in the Park); Jeffrey Wright (Belize/Mr. Lies); and Ellen McLaughlin (The Angel of America/others).
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The Off-Broadway Signature Theatre Company announced that it would stage the first New York City revival of the play in September 2010. The cast included Billy Porter as Belize, Christian Borle as Prior, Robin Bartlett as Hannah Pitt, Robin Weigert (who had the much-smaller role of the Mormon mother in this mini-series) as the Angel of America, and Zachary Quinto as Louis.
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In Part II, the movie Prior is watching on TV in his hospital room is "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1952). While it could be said that the choice of film is a veiled reference to Prior's sickbed state (paralleling that of the protagonist of that movie), and the specific clip to that of "exotic" Belize's imminent arrival in the story (as the "Snows" couple warily eye the performance of a flamenco dancer, then a bullfight), the reality is that "Snows" has no copyright, so it wouldn't have needed clearance to be used.
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Co-executive producer Cary Brokaw brought Tony Kushner's script to Mike Nichols' attention when they were working on the television movie Wit (2001).
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Angels in America was the most-watched made-for-cable film in 2003, and earned much critical acclaim and numerous accolades: at The 56th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards (2004), it became the first of only three programs in Emmy history (along with Schitt's Creek (2015) in 2020, and The Crown (2016) in 2021) to sweep every major eligible category, and won all four acting categories.
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Mark Harris's nearly 700-page biography of Mike Nichols, including a substantial section on the making of Angels in America, was published in 2021. Harris first met Nichols when Nichols started to direct Angels, because Harris is the husband of its playwright and screenwriter, Tony Kushner.
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In Mark Harris's 2021 biography of director Mike Nichols, Harris reports that Adrien Brody was seriously considered for the role of Louis, but Brody finally removed himself from consideration because of his discomfort with the fact that he would have to perform sexual scenes with another male actor.
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In Mark Harris's 2021 biography of director Mike Nichols, Harris reports that Billy Crudup was first offered the role of Joe Pitt, and Patrick Wilson was only cast after Crudup declined the role. Harris doesn't specify why Crudup passed on the role, but he does say that no actress other than Mary-Louise Parker was ever seriously considered to play Harper Pitt (Joe's wife). At the time this miniseries was filmed, Crudup and Parker had been in a relationship for seven years; they would break up less than a year after filming was complete.
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P.J. Hogan was another director under consideration.
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