How ABC won rights to the trapped miners' story -- ''Last Don'' exec producer Larry Sanitsky explains how relating to his subjects eventually won them over

By Lynette Rice
August 27, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
Miner: Guy Wathen/Pool/AP/Wide World

Television execs know a good moment-of-truth movie when they see one. No fewer than six telefilm producers flew to Pennsylvania to woo those nine coal miners who were trapped 240 feet underground in a shaft. While all gave enthusiastic pitches about how they’d tell the harrowing story on ABC this winter, ”The Last Don” exec producer Larry Sanitsky won the right to make the flick.

What’s Sanitsky’s secret? Well, it didn’t hurt that he helped to develop ”Touched by an Angel” — a favorite of the deeply religious group of miners. But Sanitsky’s casual style of dress is what really sealed the deal. ”After they picked me, I called each miner the next day to thank them for putting their trust in me. One said, ‘You know why we picked you? You were wearing a T-shirt [and jeans].”’ (The miners are receiving $150,000 each for their story.)

Production is set to begin next month near the Quecreek, Pa., site where the miners were trapped (no casting has been set, but Sanitsky is picturing a ”Band of Brothers”-type ensemble, with relatively unknown actors playing the miners). Sanitsky is already anticipating it’ll blow the roof off Nielsen. ”The reason the country felt so strongly about this story is because it has a happy ending,” he says. ”We’ve been bombarded with stories of devastation and unimaginable death. Finally, we have something that harkens back to who we really are.”

(Additional reporting by William Keck and Ken Tucker)

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