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The Waco tragedy on the small screen

The Waco tragedy on the small screen — Tim Daly stars in NBC’s ”In the Line of Duty,” the story of David Koresh and his cult

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It was so eerie,” recalls actress Marlee Shelton, shivering at the memory. ”We were filming a shoot-out, carrying these fake machine guns around the compound. But between takes we were watching the real compound burning up on CNN. The character I’m playing in the movie — one of Koresh’s women — was dying in real life. It was a totally creepy experience.”

On May 23, from 9 to 11 p.m., TV viewers may be feeling a tad creepy too, as NBC unleashes the shockudrama In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco, starring Wings‘ Tim Daly as Branch Davidian leader David Koresh. Filmed outside Tulsa last month and airing 34 days after the inferno at the cult’s Texas ranch incinerated its 86 inhabitants, the two-hour TV movie sets a chilling new speed record for turning true-life tragedy into the stuff high ratings are made of. It’s a video-age transformation so dizzyingly — and disturbingly — instantaneous it could raise even Amy Fisher’s eyebrows.

”Sure, some people might accuse us of exploitation or bad taste,” allows Ambush‘s Emmy-winning executive producer, Kenneth Kaufman (In the Line of Duty: Siege at Marion and A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story). ”But this isn’t one of those quick, piece-of-crap movies that someone just slips on the air to capitalize on the headlines. This is a very complex, very rich, very interesting film.”

But even if Ambush turns out to be as nonexploitive as an episode of This Old House, NBC still hopes to cash in on what the network sees as its awesome Nielsen potential by running the movie during the all-important May ratings sweeps. Opening in 1991 with Koresh recruiting cult members and ending with the government starting its siege on Feb. 28 (the fatal fire will likely be mentioned only in a postscript), Ambush purports to offer a tantalizingly gruesome first peek at what life was like inside ”Ranch Apocalypse”: how Koresh seduced his followers with his Bible thumping and rock music (he had a recording studio inside the compound); how he amassed an armory with more than a million rounds of ammunition; how he kept a harem of concubines, some as young as 12. The film also traces the path government agents took that eventually led to their botched February raid.

”Since the Amy Fisher movies, people have been debating the ethics of jumping on stories of human misery and blowing them into media events,” says Ambush screenwriter Phil Penningroth, who jumped on the Fisher tale by penning NBC’s Amy Fisher — My Story. ”The way I live with myself is that I try to be as accurate as possible. I piled through newspapers, court records, interviews with former cult members, so what you’re seeing on screen is basically what happened in real life.”

The set certainly looks spookily real. It’s a near-perfect replica of the Waco compound, built at a boys’ center about 18 miles outside Tulsa and filled with such authentic flourishes as chamber pots and Davidian postcards tacked onto the walls of the communal dining room. ”We even have the same flag flying over our compound,” beams Kaufman, nodding at the six-pointed-star insignia waving over the set. ”We had it made by the same guy in Texas who made it for Koresh.”

Because NBC wanted the film ready for the sweeps, the cast and crew (the movie has nearly 50 speaking parts and about 125 extras) had to put in 13-hour days, six days a week. Even on April 19, as the real compound exploded in flames, the cameras never stopped rolling.

”Monday morning I was playing a guy who was alive, and Monday after lunch I was playing a guy who was dead,” muses Tim Daly, sucking on a cigarette in the film’s clone of Koresh’s bedroom, a dumpy second-story chamber cluttered with Guns & Ammo magazines and heavy-metal posters. ”That day I filmed a scene where I’m giving one of Koresh’s sermons — they called them lessons — and I was asking my congregation if they’d be willing to die for me.” He puffs pensively. ”Movie sets are strange places.”

Since the film ends almost two months before the compound was destroyed, no last-minute alterations were needed in the script. Of course, the final, infernal chapter of the real Waco story could still have a major effect on Ambush. Morbid curiosity may make it the most-watched TV movie of the month, even beating out the other NBC docudramas scheduled for May — Hurricane Andrew and the World Trade Center bombing movie, Without Warning.

Is third-place NBC concerned that this spate of instant disaster movies might further sully its besieged reputation? Hard to say, since NBC execs didn’t return phone calls. But here’s a hint: There have been reports that the network is considering a Waco sequel, this one complete with an explosive finish.

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