Question: I was only a kid when The Day After was filmed in my town, but I remember it being a big deal with my brother and my dad. Was it a big hit?
Answer: Well, "hit" sort of implies that everyone had a ball taking in the depiction of nuclear annihilation as seen through the lens of your hometown, Maria, but I can tell you that a heck of a lot of people watched.
In fact, when ABC broadcast the groundbreaking (no pun intended), graphic movie in November 1983, it was the highest-rated made-for-TV movie shown to date, racking up a whopping 46 share, which means 46 percent of all TV sets in use at the time. (For all you detail lovers, it topped 1977's Little Ladies of the Night, which had a 36.9 share, and was the second-highest-rated movie of any kind to that point, beaten only by a 47.6 earned by Gone with the Wind in 1976. Trust me: Such numbers will never be seen again in the modern multichannel universe.) Overseas, where The Day After was released as a feature film, it did very well, too. For example, in less than three weeks it pulled in the kind of money grossed by Return of the Jedi in that market, and was seen on TV by more than a third of the population in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Big numbers, for sure, but according to director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), ABC didn't do it for the ratings. And while I'm normally skeptical about such claims, I have to admit they may well not have, since it was no safe bet anyone would tune in to see such a disturbing depiction of horrible death in the heartland. I mean, when's the last time you saw a reviewer write something like this? TV Guide's Robert MacKenzie reacted to shots of nuclear missiles rising slowly above a placid Kansas landscape thusly: "If we ever see that sight in real life, we will know it's all over all our dreams, our plans, our children's futures, all of it. We will have a few minutes, then, to huddle with our loved ones, if we can find them, in a cellar or a creek bed and wait for the enemy missiles to arrive and end our lives or render them not worth living."
Meyer knew what he was getting into when ABC execs sent him the script, too. Nearly two decades earlier the BBC had commissioned a similar story and then refused to broadcast it after seeing what they had paid for. Once he was convinced the network would go through with its plans, he convinced them to pare the two-night event down to one and let him hire then-mostly unknown actors so audience members' familiarity with famous faces wouldn't distract them from the horror of the event. "No TV stars," Meyer said he wrote to those in charge. "What we don't want is another Hollywood disaster movie with viewers waiting to see Shelley Winters succumb to radiation poisoning." To his surprise, they agreed, requiring only one big name so the film would attract an international theatrical audience. (Jason Robards, approached on a plane, agreed to be that name. "It beats signing petitions," he said.)
In order for the film to reach as wide an audience as possible, Meyer put his own antinuke politics aside and concentrated on the human impact. He tried to make it as accurate as possible, showing all of the nightmarish details of a nuclear attack and its aftermath, including the survivors slowly dying from radiation poisoning. Then he waited for problems with the censors. But to his surprise, most of the problems he foresaw turned out not to be problems at all. "Interestingly, they don't care that much about the bombs or the nuclear war, but they are adamant that a young woman, about to be married in our tale, cannot have purchased a diaphragm," he wrote. "I am nonplused and feel myself aging pointlessly during this meeting. (Later I film the scene as written; the censor screams; the network turns out to like the scenes they are funny, the only humor in the film and the stuff stays.)"
During the actual shooting, gallows humor reigned, though the cast, understandably, had problems with sleeping and what they termed "nukemares." This was followed by a long, difficult period with Meyer fighting the network for final cut, but what he ended up with was, all agreed, one of the hardest-hitting pieces of drama aired to that point. "Will The Day After do any good?" Meyer asked. "The question plagues me. I can honestly say I guess I doubt it; unless people stand up and take charge of their lives, politicians will fill the vacuum and do it for them.... If we can just not be passive about the nuclear age; if the film provokes people to read, to think then maybe it will have been worth it. For myself, I know that making The Day After was the most valuable thing I ever did with my life."