What if an outbreak of an avian flu actually mutated into a virus transmittable from human to human? That is the very scary proposition explored in the ABC TV-movie Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America (premiering tonight at 8 pm/ET). Among the brave hearts attempting to impede the pandemic are Stacy Keach as Collin Reed, Secretary of Health of Human Services. Here, the veteran actor reveals how Fatal Contact came together in such a timely manner, ponders the uncertain fate of his Prison Break warden, and serves up a choice Orson Welles anecdote or two.
TVGuide.com: Did this Bird Flu movie set some sort of speed record in being pulled together? It's like it appeared out of nowhere.
Stacy Keach: Everybody was very anxious to make sure that all of the data would still be intact by the time it hit the air. That was great motivation to finish this thing and get it out before too long, and certainly before anything were to actually happen. Everything in the news right now is about the bird flu. Free advertising!
TVGuide.com: What cinched your own involvement in the project?
Keach: It was a nice part. I also have very strong feelings about the subject matter. I have two teenagers, we live in Poland part of the time, and my wife and I are concerned because over in Europe we see this bird flu beginning to creep northward from Turkey and Indonesia. The movie is a "what if" that raises the question of how prepared we are. In the film, the suggestion is that in the event of a vaccine, we'd only have enough for 25 percent of the population. Who gets it those with the most money or the most need?
TVGuide.com: Some have said the movie could be alarmist as it takes some liberties with the current facts.
Keach: It's a melodrama, yeah. But it does reference the Spanish flu of 1918. The world was in the throes of World War I at the time, so few people were aware that 50 million people died from an avian flu. I didn't know that.
TVGuide.com: Turning now to Prison Break, Michael pulled a shiv on you last week....
Keach: Yeah, isn't that nasty? Such betrayal!
TVGuide.com: Does Warden Pope show one iota of sympathy for Michael's situation?
Keach: Not one iota. Not an iota. He turns into an avenging angel, Pope does. He's really pissed.
TVGuide.com: Does Michael attempt to plead his case?
Keach: Well, he apologizes. He bashes the Pope on the head, ties him up and throws him in the closet but he apologizes before he does it. [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: Wade Williams (Bellick) told me that once the boys escape, the show will adopt a Fugitive flavor. How will the Pope fit in?
Keach: I don't know that he does. I'm not sure. When I signed on to this thing, it was originally for four shows, so I don't know what they have in mind. Now, I'm going to be in Chicago anyway in the fall, doing King Lear at the Goodwin Theater, so I said, "Look, I'll be there anyway. You don't have to fly me in and out! Keep the Pope alive!" Make him a weekend warrior and put him on a Harley looking for those guys. Prison Break will resume production in June, and I am going to be in the first couple episodes [of Season 2], I know that. The truth of the matter is, the Pope has more reason to go after Michael than anyone else. He took this kid under his wing and trusted him. He feels so betrayed by this. You'll see that in the season finale. He's like, "Do whatever you can to get this kid!"
TVGuide.com: You served a six-month prison stint yourself in 1984. Did that harden you, or were you already a bit hardened?
Keach: It neither hardened or softened me. It just made me more aware of priorities, I think. The governor of the prison was kind of a role model for the Pope. He was a very compassionate man who was very trusting of the inmates. I was the librarian when I was there, so I would read letters to illiterate prisoners and write letters on their behalf to their families.
TVGuide.com: How does Fox River compare to the prison you stayed at?
Keach: They're very dissimilar in a lot of ways except that the walls were the same height. The cells in Redding Jail were closed cells. There were no open bars; they had steel doors with slits. Pretty harsh.
TVGuide.com: One of Orson Welles' last on-screen roles was in Butterfly. What was it like working with him?
Keach: Oh, it was the best. I had the great privilege of going to dinner with him one night at the MGM Grand dining room. He ordered two sides of roast beef and four mashed potatoes because he was on a diet. Also, this lady came up to him and said, "Mr. Welles, I've loved you so long. Can I have your autograph?" [In a deep, Wellesian voice] "Not while I'm eating, dear." But she waited, and he signed for her.
TVGuide.com: Do you think you might ever revisit the Mike Hammer character?
Keach: Before [veteran Hollywood manager] Jay Bernstein passed away [on April 30], we were talking about the possibility of doing it as a feature movie with someone like Dennis Quaid as Mike Hammer. I was going to help produce it. My days of playing Mike Hammer are over. It's hard to revisit those roles when you're 12 years older.
TVGuide.com: If someone wanted to check out three definitive Stacy Keach films, which DVDs should they go out and get?
Keach: [Instantly] Hemingway [a miniseries], The Ninth Configuration and Fat City.
TVGuide.com: Wow, that was quick.
Keach: [Laughs] Those are the ones that come to mind. I like [the TV series] Titus, too.
TVGuide.com: You have a Hallmark movie coming up about Blackbeard. That must have been fun.
Keach: That was, man. For a ham actor like myself, playing a pirate gives you license to chew down the yardarm!